Don’t forget to check out Part 1 here.
So why use an acoustic cover like Lily Allen’s take on Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know? Firstly, as is to be expected with advertising, there are the monetary benefits. It costs a lot of money to use an existing song, particularly a famous one, in any sort of licensed capacity; by using a cover, particularly by a little-known or up-and-coming artist, the cost diminishes somewhat.
The response to that, surely, is ‘why not compose your own song to avoid such costs’? Herein lies the second reason to choose a cover: familiarity, and all that comes with it. Whilst Ann’s Mad World might be somewhat sterilised without its lyrics, it is undoubtedly recognisable through its melody – and an effective, mesmerising one at that. One reason for doing this is quite obvious: if it were simple to write and produce a song with a similarly pronounced musical appeal to listeners, composers would be better off contributing their works to artists rather than adverts. The second reason to use existing songs is to make these adverts, particularly at Christmas, places of comfort. Just as advertisers employ famous actors’ voices in adverts, using famous songs creates a sense of familiarity – a key sensory element in conjuring sympathy for these micro-fictional films.
Perhaps the most maddening part of this practice, for music fans, is the manner in which songs are distorted in this process of ‘acoustification’ – the act of stripping back a song, a trait these sentimental covers share. One of the more egregious examples is The Jam’s That’s Entertainment used by Renault in 2014. Having created a floaty, whispered version utterly devoid of the tone or social commentary integral to the original, it’s a damning testament to how canonical works of ‘pop’ music are being reframed in order to sell aspirational material possessions. Aside from being musically vacant, Paul Weller’s disempowered and sardonic lyrics are twisted by the advert’s storyline to suggest that the despair of working class British life has an antidote; the first solution is to not be working class at all, but generically middle class instead; the second is to find refuge from the noise and congestion in a dazzlingly white car on confusingly empty inner-city roads; finally, the dirt and strife can be dispelled once and for all as you pull into your suspiciously pristine white-walled garage and plug your electric car into charge for the night. Football fans, construction works, market stalls; all those maddeningly inconvenient elements of society are gone for good – and all because you bought a new car!
To take The Jam’s song and make it the insipid soundtrack to such an advert is completely tone-deaf; to consider its descriptions of purposelessness and poverty akin to a mundane commute home is reaching Alan Partridge-levels of deeming U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday to be a commentary on the ennui of the weekend. Except, of course, Partridge is fictional: intentionally and comedically atrocious where this misjudgement is very real.
Can you criticise Weller for allowing his song to be licensed in such a way considering that the twentieth-century economic model of the music business has completely collapsed in the digital age? Quite possibly: this isn’t John Lydon performing a buttery caricature to fund another PiL album; nor is it John Cooper Clarke advertising breakfast cereal to fund a drug habit that, presumably, would have been fairly costly. This isn’t about the artists selling their image or endorsement, it is the art itself that is being adapted, redeployed and, arguably, devalued – at least in the ears and hearts of its most dedicated fans.
Marketing companies are evidently content to continue this trend, partly because using music in this way has been so successful. The true genius of this form of advertising is to make a declining medium – the television advert – somehow a cornerstone of the holiday season, a bellwether for festive cheer. Where adverts are typically consumed begrudgingly and passively between programmes, here the advert is anything but: it is actively sought after, longed for, and shared online, a marker of taste and consumer-capitalist choice; having an opinion on the different Christmas adverts becomes an exercise in performing one’s preferred place of ideological consumption. Or, which story makes you more inclined to choose one public limited company over another.
Some of us may wish to believe that, musically, we’re above such tactics. We may wish to believe we are totally immune from the likes of Birdy’s Skinny Love, or soon-to-be-forgotten, vibrato-vocalled talent show contestants. We may even engage in the subtle mockery surrounding another guy-with-a-guitar playing a cover of Wonderwall at an open-mic session. It’s an easy form to mock for its apparent laziness, reliant on reductive sentimentality and parodying the rich tradition of folk music, rather than offering a complex, or interesting, reworking of existing music written by someone else.
But it would be naïve to think this accepted cynicism isn’t an attempt to, at least in part, hide a wider truth that, ultimately, we are all susceptible to sentiment, and that sentimental music’s effect has a legitimate personal and cultural place. Listening to White Stripes’ We’re Going To Be Friends when in the halcyon early period of a platonic or romantic infatuation; to Johnny Cash’s Hurt when thinking of loss, death, or regret; to Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land when one’s emotions are conjured thinking on a wider social and cultural level. The point is – acoustic songs’ simplicity works, whether a cover or an original. As such, producing covers by using a template to hijack the emotions through high-pitched, reverb-drenched chords on a piano or guitar can affect all of us at times, irrespective of the wider meaning or cultural context at play. It is the disarming simplification of the music that makes it so appealing – and, by extension, the company being mythologised through the use of this so-called ‘emotional branding’.
“You still haven’t said what the problem is, Scrooge!” For fans of the Christmas advert who aren’t convinced by the tarnished status classic songs suffer through this emotional branding, the idea that there is anything problematic with these adverts’ existence is surely anathema. There’s no place for snobbery towards those who are fond of the adverts – after all, we’re all prone to sentiment in both music and film; instead, by simply looking at the logic of the feelings stirred by emotional branding we can see how hollow it really is. The fiction of these worlds is the very thing being sold by the companies; that thing is not a cuddly toy, or a trampoline, or a telescope – these are the surrogate items that take its place.
What these adverts really peddle is what we all strive to give and receive – comfort, connection, and compassion. Whether tapping into generational distance, social isolation, or simply a more general sense of pervasive alienation, these stories pick at an anxiety and need for many in society before promising to solve it. The problem isn’t solely that these adverts produce affect and feeling, aided by dreary musical covers; it is the fantastical notion that an adequate solution to these feelings of deficiency can be sated at the tills of a department store.
If you’re still not convinced, then don’t worry – sanitising existing records for advertising does not come but once a year. There’ll be another crafted acoustic cover drifting your way soon enough. After all, capitalism is for life, not just for Christmas.