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4/22/99 - Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Add two more brands to the ranks of those singing the same tune in their media communications.  

About a year ago, the Jackson Hewett Tax Service launched a TV campaign that featured scenes of hard working people set to the Donna Summer oldie, "She Works Hard For The Money."

Apparently the campaign was successful, because Jackson Hewett brought it back for another run this year. Problem is, now they have to contend with a $100 million local brand-building campaign from McDonald's that uses the same song.

What makes McDonald's executional choice all the more questionable is the fact that Burger King, their biggest competitor, has been running spots featuring product shots and golden oldies for the past several years.  

In an earlier installment, The Observation Post examined a similar situation involving Mobil Oil and MCI "Five Cent Sundays" campaigns that simultaneously used the R. Kelly song "I Believe I Can Fly." While this kind of demand is great for composers and their publishing houses, it does little to create a unique aural identity for the licensees.

Of course, the generic nature of some pop songs makes one wonder whether they're deliberately written with a lucrative advertising afterlife in mind. Now that James Brown's "I Feel Good" has been exhaustively used in the healthcare industry and OTC drugs (Senokot laxative), Siebel Systems (an electronics firm) is wringing more use out of it in their generic corporate campaign.  

Some artists just get caught up in the frenzy of "me-tune-ism" that has multiple advertisers pouncing on a hot sound and stomping it to death. Such is the case of Fatboy Slim. According the April 1st issue of Rolling Stone, songs from his album "You've Come A Long Way, Baby" can currently be heard in over a half dozen TV ads and promos.  

The way this usually happens is that some hip brand (often Nike, as is the case here) discovers and uses an unknown artist. Afterwards, this hot new flavor of the month oozes down to the risk-adverse brands whose agencies can confidently point out that the once edgy artist has already been successfully used by another national advertiser. That would explain how a trying-to-be-trendy brand like Oldsmobile winds up using a Fatboy Slim song a month or so after his commercial debut in a Nike Air Jordan spot.  

The sad final phase of this process is when commercial music houses descend upon a fresh new sound and suck it dry of originality for dozens of other clonemercials. Within a short time, Fatboy's commercial prospects are sure to be slim to nothing.  

In the interest of building brand equity, if a song is deemed to be crucial to a campaign, why not just buy it out for exclusive commercial use? That seems to have happened in the past. Marlboro never had to compete with another product category using "The Theme From The Magnificent Seven" (which would have been a logical song for 7Up to go after).  

If you can't get an exclusive, why not just forget about licensing songs entirely? Even a few notes can effectively create an identity, as demonstrated by the longevity of the NBC chimes and the Maxwell House coffee pot perk.  

While not begrudging Summer her licensing heatwave, the lack of sound judgment when picking brand-identifying music invariably produces campaigns that should be working a lot harder for the money.