In these *adopts serious voice* unprecedented times, if you’re like me you’ll have been watching a LOT more TV than usual and, often, by default, a lot of ads. Of course, nearly every ad at the moment is filmed on Zoom and is about how we should stay at home and help each other. But if you venture into some other corners of TV world – you know your Alibis, your Quest +7 – you may find some others. Like the Wowcher advert which has taken the lyrics to the classic Pointer Sisters song ‘I’m so excited’, and changed them to “I’m so excited and I just can’t hide, I’ve just seen a Wowcher deal and I think I like it… And if you price real low, I can’t say no.”

Then there’s the Bold advert, which at first listen, sounds like it’s Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ before you listen to the words and you realise it’s an empowering message about wearing clean clothes to get a job – “Clean soft and fresh it does it all” – with the chorus of course changed: “You’re so employable, you are Bold.”

Of course, Aldi aren’t the only ones doing this and the relationship between commerce and music has always been a strange one. Did this happen to you over Christmas? The TV was playing in the background. You’re doing something else on your phone, absentmindedly listening. Then the familiar melody of ‘Let Me Entertain You’ kicks in and Robbie’s overblown 70s rock opera comes to life. Your ears suddenly twitch as you think you hear him singing “Sprouts have gone and Kevin’s here, shower me with festive cheer, bring those mince pies over here… with cream!” What was that? You look at the TV. A carrot in a top hat and tuxedo is telling you to “decorate your Christmas tree, smother me in cranberry”. But you are not living through a drug-fuelled fever dream. This is the Aldi Christmas advert.

Aldi have form with this. For Halloween they took the Backstreet Boys’ classic and made it into a song about discount treats.  “Everyboddddyy, get to Aldi…”.

Of course, Popular music has always been ubiquitous in ads. But the act of actually rewriting the song’s lyrics to crow-bar in the product name has always felt slightly surreal. Remember that one song you loved in high school? The one that has all that emotional meaning attached to it. Well, now the lyrics have been changed to talk about toilet cleaner and you’ll never be able to listen to it again. Unlucky pal.

And yet there’s a long history of very famous song’s lyrics being changed to sell a product. The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ was used for a Sunkist commercial in the late 1970’s. “We’re drinkin up good vibrations…” anyone? In fact Sunkist really seemed to love ruining classic songs back in the day. In the mid ‘80s they paid New Order $200,000 to rewrite ‘Blue Monday’ as an ode to their orange soda. Bernard Sumner actually sang this: “How does it feel / When a new day has begun / When you’re drinking in the sunshine / Sunkist is the one.” He couldn’t stop laughing as he tried to sing it.

In an industry where one wrong move can see you labelled a sellout what makes musicians take the risk? The short answer as Sumner says above seems very obvious: money. And even the long answer basically is just “lots and lots of money”. For brands it makes more sense. What better way to make your product stand out than using a well-known song that will catch people’s attention and extols the virtues of the product?

Of course, there’s always the risk of a backlash if people feel the original song is now ruined – which means this tactic is often reserved for older music. Nearly every Queen hit now seems to have been changed to sell something. ‘Flash’ was an open goal for the bleach brand – “Flash – Cleans up the impossible”; but a dog singing “Dave, that grease is going nowhere”? What would Freddie think? There’s also ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ being changed to sell Dacia cars: “Another One Drives a Duster” basically writes itself too. Elvis has fallen foul of it as well. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was changed to “Heartburn Hotel” for a Prevacid antacid commercial and Viagra reworked “Viva Las Vegas” into “Viva Viagra”.

My personal favourite? This bizarre ad for Fibre One who sell 90 calorie treats. They took ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’s famous line and changed it to “Turn around, Barbara/ Forever I’ve been praying for a snack in my life, and now I have a brownie ending all of my strife…” It’s like a Vic and Bob sketch but for healthy brownies.  

Other notable mentions must go to ‘Unbelievable’ by EMF, being unbelievably changed to ‘Crumbelievable’  to sell for Kraft Cheese’s synthetic yellow slices. And the Halifax trying to shift ISAs by changing Vanilla Ice’s song to “ISA, ISA baby”. OK, that’s actually quite funny.

When art-rockers Devo decided to make an ad for cleaning brand Swiffer with their hit ‘Whip It!’ given new lyrics climaxing with, “With Swiffer—place looks great! It’s not too late! Swiffer’s good!”. The reason, lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh explained, was simple: “It was so absurd. We like messing with the boundaries between art and commerce.” Asked about ‘indie’ music and selling out he explained “The lines are just getting blurred, that’s all. You’re not being honest if you’ve signed with a record company and you’re pretending you’re not a commercial product”.

Yet other acts react in the polar opposite way. The staunchly anti-commercial Tom Waits was furious when an ad agency completely rewrote the lyrics to his song “Step Right Up” to sell a new brand of spicy Doritos. “There’s a new tortilla chip called SalsaRio Doritos / It’s buffo, boffo, bravo, gung-ho, tallyho but never mellow.” But the company brazenly carried on anyway, hiring a sound-a-like and never telling Waits. Much to his surprise, he heard the jingle on the radio and he was, naturally, furious. He joked in a 2002 interview that he thought maybe he’d recorded the ad when drunk and forgotten about it. “I mean, there’s a lot of things I can’t remember, but I think I’d have remembered doing that.” The case went to court and Waits was awarded $2.6 million.

Most of us are probably on Waits’ side. Even as we sit there covered in Dorito crumbs or eating our Aldi Christmas dinner, we remember the songs from the time we were young and idealistic, and now the songs have been ruined by brands selling us burgers and sweets. In a world of extreme ideas and fake news and a lack of trust we need to believe in music. As Burt Bacharach famously sang “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”. Wait, what? Not that one too. Yep. It was used in an ad for Honeybaked Hams in 2007. “What the World Needs Now is glazed… sweet glazed.” What a beautiful sentiment, and I think one that, in these unprecedented times, we can all take solace in.

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