Cover of Iron Butterfly’s June 1968 Atco album which included the famous ''In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida'' track.
Iron Butterfly. That’s the name of a rock group – a rock group from 1968. The name made eminent sense then, of course. It was the time of psychedelic music – music associated with mind-altering, hallucinogenic drugs. Butterfly imagery was cool at the time, part of the “counter-cultural” fare and quite acceptable. As for the “iron” part, well yes, that was psychedelically appropriate, too. But perhaps you had to be doing drugs to grasp the full meaning and context of how “heavy” it all was….
In any case, Iron Butterfly was a group that made the music of its day. Four California musicians established the group in 1966. Vocalist, organist, and bandleader, Doug Ingle, formed the first version of the group in San Diego with drummer Ron Bushy and two others.
The Iron Butterfly sound was long and heavy. The group’s style was similar to that of acts such as Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf. Iron Butterfly’s music helped provide a bridge of sorts from the “psychedelia sound” to the heavy metal music that followed, influencing groups from Deep Purple to Led Zeppelin. “Now remembered as a passing fancy of the acid-rock era,” observes one writer describing the group in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, “at its peak Iron Butterfly was considered a leading hard rock band.”
Record sleeve for single version of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,”1968.
The most famous of Iron Butterfly’s songs that emerged in June-July 1968 was “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” a 17-minute, mostly instrumental feast of organ and electric guitar that typified the psychedelic sound that summer. The song also used some repeating, mostly unintelligible lyrics. The song’s title was derived – sort of – from “in the garden of Eden.” The track was written by vocalist, organist, and bandleader, Doug Ingle.
Legend has it that Ingle wrote the song when he was in his cups, or worse, spending the day drinking red wine, as former band mate Ron Bushy recounted in a 2006 interview. But when Ingle was asked about the song’s title, he couldn’t pronounce it correctly, so Bushy wrote it down as he heard it, phonetically. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was the translation, and the name stuck. As for the music, in its day, the song hit the mark – especially in extended play. And that was important in the event its listeners were in an “altered state,” as some might have called back then, also known as “stoned.” In such condition, devotees of the band could listen to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for hours. But that was 1968.
Called a one-hit wonder by some, and worse by others, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is a tune that can’t be dismissed or laughed off, however. For in its day, this song and its album by the same name, sold millions and millions of copies. The album was released by Iron Butterfly in mid-June 1968, with the song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” comprising the entire first side of the vinyl edition. It sold more than 4 million copies right out of the gate – and millions more later that year.“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is no joke; it is ranked among the 50 best-selling albums in the world, and by some counts has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. According to one Wikipedia list, the album version of In-A-Gadda -Da-Vida, is ranked among the 50 best-selling albums in the world. Iron Butterfly’s website reports that the album has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. In July 1968, a shortened version of the song, adapted for radio play, was released by ATCO records in a 2:53 minute format. The single also climbed into the Top 30. The album stayed on the Billboard albums chart for 140 weeks, 81 of them in the Top 10. Part of Iron Butterfly’s initial national exposure was attributed to being an opening act for The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, two major and more popular groups of that era. Iron Butterfly’s album, meanwhile, broke sales records and far exceeded the music industry’s then “gold album” standard, selling eight million copies in its first year. In fact, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida received the industry’s first “platinum album” award for exceeding one million in sales. The award was created and presented by then-president of ATCO Records, Ahmet Ertegun, a famous record executive who helped advance the careers of many artists.
The Fidelity Ad
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” left enough of a psychic imprint on the boomer generation that Fidelity Investments found it worthy of use as a musical hook in one of its 2006 retirement planning TV ads. The song would be one of several in the Fidelity pantheon of rock-driven commercials the firm would use around that time to pitch its financial products to baby boomers. Known by some as the “Flower Power” ad, the Fidelity commercial uses an animated scene of 1960s-style psychedelic flowers and butterflies as a brief, 30-second selection from the song plays.
As the flowers grow in the scene and the music plays, Fidelity begins its pitch in print with a question: “Is your IRA blooming?” The ad then continues to another scene with more flowers branching out. “It can help to plant the right fund,” appears next on the screen. The music continues. “Consider the Fidelity Strategic Income Fund,” says the next scene, followed by a frame which shows that fund as a plant branching out with various numeric rates of income yield. Then comes the narrator with the final punchline: “Need a little flower power?” His answer: “Our retirement specialists can help. Call 1-800-Fidelity. Smart move.” As the animation continues, the words “No Loads. No IRA Fees” appear in a hedgerow. Then on the final screen, “Fidelity Investments, Smart Move” appears amid the flowers as the ad ends.
1968 French record sleeve for Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” single.
Other versions of the ad for different Fidelity funds used somewhat different visuals. But the lyrics heard in the commercials – certainly not “investment grade,” some might say – typically used the following lines:
Don’t you know that I love you?
Don’t you know that I’ll always be true?
In September 2005, Fidelity had begun using rock music to reach boomers, beginning with former Beatle Paul McCartney, who launched the Fidelity ad series using some Wings music on ABC-TV’s widely-watched Monday Night Football program. In March and April 2006, as Fidelity continued to air its campaign, Fidelity spokeswoman Jenny Engle explained that her company chose “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for use in the campaign specifically to target boomers, calling the song “a classic anthem for a lot of people” in that age group. “The key is to catch people’s attention,” Engle said at the time. The spot was created by Arnold Worldwide in Boston, MA. The Fidelity “Flower Power” TV ad also appeared during the February 2007 Grammy Awards show.
After the ad’s initial run in 2006, San Diego Union Tribune reporter Michael Stetz tracked down some of the band’s founders, by then in their mid-60s. “I guess the method to their madness,” said former Iron Butterfly drummer Ron Bushy, …Fidelity must have thought that “all the baby boomers who got stoned listening to that song are now all grown up and have money.” referring to Fidelity’s use of the music, “is that all the baby boomers who got stoned listening to that song are now all grown up and have money.” Bushy, 64, was then living in the Los Angeles area. Bushy’s investments, however, were not with Fidelity. Bushy and Lee Dorman, another band member, didn’t know that “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was going to be used to sell mutual funds and IRAs until they saw the ad on TV. Meanwhile, Iron Butterfly the band – although in somewhat different form as of 2006 – was still touring occasionally, and Bushy and Dorman figured the ad could only spread their music around to their benefit. More royalties would come in for band members, and as Bushy pondered the possibilities: “Maybe we’ll get a lot more gigs,” he offered. No word on how many new accounts came to Fidelity as a result of its boomer campaign.
Poster for March 1968 “St. Paddy's Medicine Show,” Pasadena Exhibition Hall, featuring Iron Butterfly, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Steppenwolf, Jackson Browne & others.
Over the years, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” has also found its way into a number of other commercial uses, including as background music in various TV series — from The Simpsons to Seinfeld. In House M.D., the song is heard in Episode 23 of Season 3, after a patient ingests some magic mushrooms as part of a treatment for cluster headaches. In the TV series Supernatural, it is used in episode 6, “Skin,” of season 1. The song was also used in television’s Criminal Minds series, season 1, episode 16, titled “The Tribe” in the opening scene. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” has also been used in Hollywood films such as Manhunter in 1986 and Resident Evil: Extinction in 2007. And in video games, the song was scheduled to appear in 2009’s Band Hero, an expansion game in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series of music video games. In 2011, the song was among those used on ESPN’s Monday Night Football program.
In 1995, Mercedes-Benz, the German luxury car maker, used a song by ‘60s rocker and blues singer Janis Joplin in one of its TV ads. The Joplin tune — which includes the famous refrain, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” — was used by Mercedes to push a new line of sedans. At first, the use of the song — which Joplin intended as a sarcastic piece on the pursuit of material happiness — seemed a risky if not an odd marketing strategy for the conservative German automaker. Yet there was a method to Mercedes’ madness, and it involved the “maturing” Baby Boomer market. First, consider Ms. Joplin and the times that helped produce the music.
Janis Lyn Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas on January 19, 1943. By most accounts, she loved her home and family, but Joplin was an unhappy soul in Port Arthur, especially as a high school teenager. By then she had been singing folk music and blues locally. She later made her way to California and into the 1960s’ music and Hippie scene in San Francisco. In 1966, she teamed up with a band named Big Brother & The Holding Company, and at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival she captured national attention with a stunning blues performance of “Ball and Chain.” A first album by Joplin and her group, titled Big Brother & The Holding Company, was re-released following the Monterey Pop Festival. The next album, Cheap Thrills, topped the charts in 1968. Joplin then moved on to a solo act, producing another album in 1969 with the Kozmic Blues Band which included one of her famous tunes, “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”.
Janis Joplin – “Mercedes Benz”
Joplin’s personal life, meanwhile, was troubled, with drug addiction, alcoholism, and unhappy personal relationships. Still, by 1970, her musical stars seemed to be aligning with a new group of musicians backing here — the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She had also made a new attempt at beating her drug habit. In 1970, Joplin and her group produced the album, Pearl, which included the songs “Mercedes Benz,” “Get It While You Can,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” But tragically, Joplin relapsed into drug use and died of an overdosed in October 1970. Her newly-made album had yet to go to market. But four months after her death, Pearl topped the album charts for nine weeks, and “Me and Bobby McGee” became a No.1 single in 1971 and one of her biggest hits.
Joplin: “I’d like to do a song of great social
and political import. It goes like this:”
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV ?
Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV ?
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?
I’m counting on you, Lord, please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
(giggle) That’s it!
The “Mercedes Benz” song in that album was something of a playful throw-away at the time. It was written by Joplin with Kansas-born Beatnick poet Michael McClue and recorded in a style that was pure Joplinesque, complete with giggle at the end. Joplin can be heard on the version above tallking in the studio, saying she could do the song in “one take,” which she did. The point of her tune — befitting the 1960s’ values around her — was to mock the notion that happiness could be found through material things. Joplin recorded the song a capella, with lyrics that made her message pretty transparent, along with her sarcastic on-air introduction (see sidebar).
25 Years Later
Nearly 25 years later, with Joplin safely in a better place, Mercedes-Benz struck a deal to use the song with Janis’ step-sister. Mercedes then had a marketing problem. It’s line of upscale vehicles were perceived as stuffy — cars that only rich “suits” would buy. The average age of its buyers was getting older, a problem for the future. And the competition was tougher too. The Japanese, with their own new lines of luxury cars, were eating into Mercedes’ turf. So Mercedes decided to work on its image, seeking to dispel the reputation that its cars were only for rich older guys. The New York-based ad agency Lowe & Partners/SMS, known for work on brands such as Grey Poupon mustard, was brought in to help overhaul Mercedes’ sedate image. “The median age of Mercedes buyers is 51,” said veteran adman Marvin Sloves, then chairman of Lowe & Partners/SMS, who explained that Mercedes needed to begin talking to a whole new generation. “I don’t know the generational names,” he said. “Whatever every-one calls people 35 to 45 who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s is the generation we are targeting.” That’s when they made the TV ad using the Joplin tune.
Janis Joplin on a 1976 Rolling Stone cover.
The TV spot became known in the industry as the “Janis ad,” and was designed to soften Boomers’ perception of the Mercedes brand by making it seem less stuffy and more approachable. Mercedes and their admen wanted to show that Mercedes cars could be accessible and fun for younger, successful professionals.
“Mercedes is making a concerted effort to attract nontraditional buyers,” observed Ray Serafin, in February 1995 for Advertising Age. “They’re looking to the future when they’re going to be bringing some different vehicles to the market. They’ve got a sport utility vehicle, to be made in Alabama, coming out in a couple of years, and also a smaller urban type vehicle. So they’re looking at freshening up their image.” Mercedes was also trying to convince Boomers that despite its luxury image, its new line of C-Class and E-Class vehicles in the $32,000 to $40,000 range, were really good, economical buys. So the Janis TV spot ran with those models.
“The campaign revolves around establishing relevancy,” explained Donna Boland, director of public relations for Mercedes-Benz of North America.”The Janis ad fits within that nostalgia mode. It evokes the memories of the ’60s and brings back a good feeling…” Time magazine ranked the Janis ad as the 8th best in 1995. “Sure, sure, it prostitutes the spirit of the 1960s,” said Time in a year-end review of ads, “but the finest car ad of late achieves perfect-pitch simplicity.“The Janis ad fits within that nostalgia mode. It evokes the memories of the ’60s and brings back a good feeling . . .” - Donna Boland, Mercedes-Benz A new model E-class coasts toward us on the TV screen. The only sound we hear is Joplin belting her classic Mercedes Benz.”
“We’ve been asked why we didn’t use it before, because it seems so natural,” said Boland of the song. “The reason is that the people who really appreciated that music are only now in the right income bracket for our product.” Lee Garfinkel, Lowe & Partners/SMS chief creative officer, explained, “We couldn’t have used this song 25 years ago. Our target audience knows that, and that’s one of the reasons it works so well in the strategy.” A few years after the ad had run, in 1998, Mercedes’ Michael Jackson, then about to become CEO, looked back on the Janis ad and the intent of the campaign in an interview with Brandweek:
. . .Certainly, ‘Janis’ spurred a great deal of conversation internally, as well as through the dealer organization and even customers. But you have to go back to the original plan. The purpose of the brand campaign was to, yes, launch the C-Class and a value story [ i.e., a good buy], but it was a first step in defining Mercedes-Benz in a new way. And the single goal of ‘Janis’ was to communicate that something is changing at Mercedes. Open your mind. We didn’t say how we were changing, or what the meaning was. It was simply a signal that change was taking place. And it was absolutely the most effective TV commercial that we could have run at that time. It achieved the objective of [getting people thinking], “Hey, something changed at Mercedes while I wasn’t looking.”
But what about the fact that Joplin intended the song as a critique of the very thing the ad was now being used for? “These lyrics are certainly among the best known in the rock world,” said Mercedes’ Donna Boland, acknowledging when the ad first came out that there were people upset with it. “. . . There’s always going to be people who are going to dissect something like this . . . “[W]hat’s most annoying about the use of Joplin’s song is the fact that she is dead, and the integrity of her art is all that she has left. Joplin didn’t really want to help sell a damn Mercedes.” – Dean Bakopoulos, 1996[B]ut I think most of our buyers will understand that we’re harkening back to the ’60s as a whole.” Janis’ fans, however, weren’t so understanding.
While using the Janis ad may well have proved a clever re-casting of a calcifying corporate image — and Mercedes’ sales did increase in the first few years following the Janis ad –it also provoked outrage among music fans and others who felt it a transgression on the emotional connection to the music and the artist’s intent. Among the critics was Dean Bakopoulos writing for the Michigan Daily after he saw the ad in 1996. “What’s most annoying about the use of Joplin’s song,” wrote Bakopoulos, “is the fact that she is dead, and the integrity of her art is all that she has left. Joplin didn’t really want to help sell a damn Mercedes.” But the use of ad, he explained, underscored a bigger issue. “There’s a business culture and an artist culture at work in America,” Bakopoulos wrote, “. . . and they don’t fit together. When their paths cross it comes off as vulgar, disrespectful,” Bakopoulos also offered this:
…What the folks who designed the ad want you to believe is the antithesis to Joplin’s song. They want you to believe that a Mercedes Benz is a reward for all your hard work. But what they really mean is the following: Mercedes Benz is a sign that says, “Look at you. Look at me. Look at my car. Look at your car. Look at my car, again. Ha, ha, sucker! That’s what you get for getting a stupid liberal arts degree.” Mercedes Benz is a sign that you’ve kissed enough ass, lost enough friends and stabbed enough backs to make six figures a year. Well, congratulations….
Early 1970s’ single cover.
Another critic, Lael Ewy, writing in EastWesterly Review, offered the view that the Mercedes ad actually “makes fun of the song, saying, in essence, ‘Remember back when we were idealistic and thought materialism was bad? How foolish we were!'” Continues Ewy: “In other words, this is advertising critiquing art, advertising embracing, and indeed celebrating, superficiality and dumbness. It is, in other words, meant to make the viewer more comfortable in having sold out. . . The ad says it’s o.k. to be a capitalist pig since the Mercedes Benz company gave you permission to do so. It makes palatable a difficult problem in social ethics at the personal level.”
Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile — at least in the afterglow of their corporate makeover using Janis Joplin and other strategies — did well in the sales department. By late 1996, the launch of their new E-Class sedan targeting 40-plus Baby Boomers with Janis’s help seemed to be paying off. In fact, during the first eight months of 1996, the entire Mercedes-Benz line — C-Class, E-Class, S-Class, SL-Class and 600 Series — saw a U.S. sales jump of 19.3% to 58,486 vehicles. And the growth continued in following years, with the targeted baby boomers also helping to seed the launch of other new lines such as Mercedes-Benz’ new “cute ute,” as it was called, its M-Class SUV. The Janis message, in fact, rubbed off on other car dealers.
In 1999, a print ad for one of Ford’s new Lincoln LS luxury sports sedans used a headline next to a photograph of one of the Lincolns that read: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a . . . My, my, my, what have we here?” The familiar verse from the Joplin song was seen as helpful attention getter. Using the verse this way, explained Dave Allen, a senior VP at Young & Rubicam in Irvine, Calif., “allows us to competitively position the Lincoln LS in a smart, surprising way.” Defending the song’s continuing ironic use to sell cars, Allen explained:
“‘The satire and the little bit of irony are part of a strategy to make ourselves more relevant to consumers today by ‘de-starching’ ourselves.” Executives at Lowe, the ad agency that originally did the Janis ad, took Ford’s copy-cat behavior as a complement. “Obviously, they’ve noticed something that was effective in the past and are attempting to recycle it,” said Gary Goldsmith, vice chairman and executive creative director at Lowe. Mercedes, for its part, also returned to the Joplin song a decade after its first use. In 2006-07, another version of the Mercedes-Benz TV ad, using the same Joplin tune, began appearing on the web. In this version, the viewer is positioned inside the car as a back-seat passenger looking out at the world through the front windshield. As the car rides silently along through daytime and night-time scenes in rural and urban settings, Joplin is heard crooning her a capella tune with no other sound apparent. As the music plays, the camera fixes on the scenes rolling by, centered over the hoodline and the familiar Mercedes-Benz logo hood-ornament, giving the feel of a gunsight viewfinder.
It is not known, of course, what Janis Joplin might have thought about all of this. But in one sense, some of the airing of her name and her song in the “Mercedes” ads may have brought more people to her music and also to learn about her life. And there is a fair amount of material in print and other media about her. In 1973, she was the subject of a feature documentary film, Janis, and there have also been several TV documentaries made about her, including one in VH-1’s “Legends” series.
Greatest Hits album, 1996 version.
The 1979 film, The Rose, starring Bette Midler, was allegedly based on Joplin’s life. There is also Janis, With Janis Joplin, released by MCA Home Video in June 1987. Other films on Joplin are also being planned. In the summer of 2001, the musical play Love, Janis won acclaim and played to packed houses Off Broadway in New York, but only for a brief run.
Joplin’s music, meanwhile, has also had a steady following. A number of her albums have gone gold, platinum, and triple-platinum. Her Greatest Hits album, first released in 1973, and is still popular in the Billboard catalog. The boxed set, Janis, was received with wide acclaim when it was released in 1993. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Joplin at #46 on their 50 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2005 she was awarded posthumously a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
Also at this website is “Joplin’s Shooting Star, 1966-1970,” which covers more of her career with three song samples and a number of photos. Other story choices can be found at the Annals of Music category page or the Home Page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. - Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle, “Selling Janis Joplin, 1995,” PopHistoryDig.com, March 10,2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Richie Unterberger, “Janis Joplin,” All Music Guide.
Bill Sizemore, “Advertisers Put ‘ Big Chill’ on Boomers,” The Virginian-Pilot, Friday, February 24, 1995, p. D-
Associated Press, “Please, Don’t Tell Bobby McGee Advertising: a Janis Joplin Tune Is Reborn in a Mercedes Commercial,”San Jose Mercury News (CA), March 11, 1995, p. D-1.
Marli Murphy, “Is Janis Joplin Laughing From Her Grave or Rolling in It? Who knows? But It is Strange to Hear Her Shilling for Mercedes,” The Kansas City Star, May 29, 1995, p. D-2.
Stuart Elliott, “Middle Age Catches Up With the Me Generation; Getting the Message To Aging Consumers,” New York Times, January 2, 1996.
“Best of 1995,” Time, Monday, December 25, 1995.
David Kiley, “Benz in the Road,” Brandweek, October 26, 1998.
“Mercedes Benz” (song), Wikipedia.org.
Dean Bakopoulos, The Michigan Daily, 1996.
Lael Ewy, “Moulin Rouge, the Erasure of History, and the Disneyfication of the Avant Garde,” East Westerly Review, Issue 7, PostModernVillage.com, Fall 2001.
Lowe & Partners/SMS, “Mercedes Facts”.
Patricia Winters Lauro, “Joplin’s Song In Use Again,” The Media Business: Advertising, New York Times, August 20, 1999.
Jim Burt, “On Chrysler’s Daimler Gambit: You Can’t Please Everyone with Every Ad – and You Shouldn’t Try,” TheCarConnection.com, July 29, 2002.
“Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin in video/commercial with a Mercedes driving through rural and urban parts of America, produced by the DNA Production Co., Director – Keir McFarlane, Adcode: benz.drive.68.
Robert Shelton, “Janis Joplin Is Climbing Fast In the Heady Rock Firmament; Singer Makes Her New York Debut With Big Brother & the Holding Company,” New York Times, Monday, February 19, 1968, p. 51.
Mike Jahn, “Janis Joplin Gives A Rousing Display Of Blues and Rock,” New York Times, Saturday, December 20, 1969, p. 36.
Reuters, “Janis Joplin Dies; Rock Star Was 27,” New York Times, Monday, October 5, 1970, p. 1.
Don Heckman, “Janis: She Was Reaching for Musical Maturity,” New York Times, Sunday, May 21, 1972, Arts & Liesure, p. D-30.
Janis, MCA Home Video, Directed and edited by Howard Alk and Seaton Findlay, 1987, 96 minutes.
Janet Maslin, “A Prim Little Girl,” (Review of film, Janis), New York Times, June 7, 1987.