Cover art for 2006 single, “Life is Beautiful,” by Vega 4.
In May-June 2012, a PBS television station in the Washington, D.C. area was using snippets from pop songs in a series of short TV promos to hype its programming. Whoever was doing the song mixing at the station during that time had a pretty good ear for evocative music. One selection for the PBS spots used a couple of lines from the 2006 song, “Life is Beautiful,” a song by a U.K. pop group named Vega 4. More on the group in a moment.
The snippet used in the PBS spot — which ran behind a series of emotionally-charged video clips from various PBS shows – was offered by a male tenor, singing in part: “We let all these moments pass us by”– followed by a pause, then thunderous, driving, heart-in-your-throat power guitar. The music clip used was out of its whole-song context, but the short segment was still quite effective in the PBS spot, conveying the intellectual curiosity and life-affirming upside of PBS programs. What follows here is some fuller exploration of that song, sampled below, and its musicians. Full lyrics for the song also appear later below.
Music Player “Life is Beautiful”-Vega 4
The group which made this song, Vega 4, apparently was short lived, and is no more, as they reportedly disbanded in 2008. Originally, the members of Vega 4 came together in 1999 as a four-piece band in London, each coming from a different part of the world, giving the group something of an international flavor. Johnny McDaid of Northern Ireland was the band’s lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. He was joined by guitarist Bruce Gainsford of New Zealand; Bryan McLellan of Canada on drums; and Simon Walker of England on bass. Gavin Fox later joined Vega 4 as the bassist when Walker left the group in December 2006. Vega 4 signed with Columbia Records in the U.K. and Epic Records in the U.S. Their first album, Satellites, was released in 2001 followed by several singles during 2002-2006. Their second album, You and Others of October 2006, which includes “Life is Beautiful,” was produced by Jacknife Lee who had also worked with U2, Snow Patrol, and other groups. The sound and style of Vega 4 has been described by All Music as “part of the relentlessly polite school of dad rock that flowered in Great Britain after Coldplay,” and also similar to groups such as Snow Patrol, Muse and Travis. In 2011, Johnny McDaid joined Snow Patrol.
The Vega 4 U.K. rock group as of 2006-2007.
Vega 4 premiered in the U. S. when “Life is Beautiful” was featured as background music on a November 2006 episode of ABC TV’s popular show, Grey’s Anatomy. The song was also used in an episode of the TV program One Tree Hill, and has since been used in connection with several other TV shows, including Ghost Whisperer,Raising the Bar, and Pushing Daisies. “Life is Beautiful” was also used in some films and trailers, including: the 2008 teen comedy Sex Drive, the 2010 hit British film Streetdance, and in trailers during 2011 for My Sister’s Keeper and Disney’s African Cats. Vega 4 received U.S. media attention while “Life Is Beautiful” was getting radio air play and also when rumors appeared that the group’s guitarist, Bruce Gainsford, was involved in on-again, off-again romance with movie star, Scarlett Johansson. During 2007, “Life Is Beautiful” had a 12-week run in the Top 40 of the U.S. Adult Contemporary radio charts. That year, the group also played at the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) festival and completed a U.S. tour that ended in San Diego.
“Life is Beautiful” Vega 4 – 2006
Life is beautiful
We live until we die
When you run into my arms
we steal a perfect moment
Let the monsters see you smile
let them see you smiling
Do I hold you too tightly?
When will the hurt kick in?
Life is beautiful, but it’s complicated
We barely make it
We don’t need to understand
There are miracles, miracles
Yeah, life is beautiful
Our hearts, they beat and break
When you run away from harm
Will you run back into my arms
Like you did when you were young?
Will you come back to me?
I will hold you tightly
When the hurting kicks in
Life is beautiful, but it’s complicated
We barely make it
We don’t need to understand
There are miracles, miracles
Stand where you are
We let all these moments pass us by
It’s amazing where I’m standing
There’s a lot that we can give
This is ours just for the moment
There’s a lot that we can give
It’s amazing where I’m standing
There’s a lot that we can give
This is ours just for the moment
There’s a lot that we can give
Vega 4’s album of 2006, You and Others, includes the “Life is Beautiful” track and several others done in a similar vein.
“We didn’t feel the need to hide behind technology or the urge to create songs that ‘please’ or follow fashion,” explained frontman Johnny McDaid of the album in one interview. “The most important thing is that the songs connect with people. That’s something that can’t be worked at. It just is…” And in the case of “Life is Beautiful,” the song does connect with people.
Part all-purpose “life celebration” song, “Life is Beautiful” is also a love song – of parents to children, young lovers in relationships, love of nature – and whatever listeners bring to it. The song also hints of life’s trials and difficulties, in lines such as: “Life is beautiful, but it’s comp- li- ca-ted.” The song also speaks to the beauty of life’s details and everyday occurrences, whether simple hand holding, a sunset, an embrace of a loved one, a child’s innocence, and more. On this score, it’s in the same league, generally, with Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.”
The lyrics in “Life is Beautiful” are simple but full of meaning, as in “our hearts, they beat and break,” or of the struggle amidst the beauty, as in “…we barely make it.” Yet there is a respect and awe in other lines, such as: “We don’t need to understand,” also expressed in musical emphasis with the drawn-out words in: “There are mir-a-cles, mir-a-cles.”
The song also appears to suggest just standing still and looking around, as this life really is quite amazing. Yet “we let all these moments pass us by.” Somehow, that shouldn’t be, and a remedy is offered at the end the song that appears to be saying that even though all of life’s beauty is “ours just for the moment,” we can and should give back, presumably by sharing the beauty, acknowledging it, teaching it to the next generation.
All in all, “Life is Beautiful” is quite a profound little piece of music. Too bad the group that made it is no longer together. On YouTube, meanwhile, a number of enterprising videographers have put together their favorite images to run with the song – those of family, lovers, children, nature and more.
Note: This video shows a March 1989 TV ad for Pepsi entitled “Make a Wish,”
featuring pop music star Madonna singing & dancing. This ad was subsequently
pulled after it generated controversy. See more on this story at link below.
Ad story: This Pepsi ad uses a flash-back storyline opening with Madonna
seated in a parlor watching an old black-and-white home movie of herself as
a young girl at a birthday party. The spot cuts back and forth between the
young Madonna and adult versions in sync with the music set to various dance
scenes — to the young girl in school, to more dancing in a street scene, back to
the girl a little older, another with Madonna dancing among joyful gospel singers,
and then finally to Madonna in the opening parlor scene watching the home
movie seated with a can of Pepsi. There she watches the 8 year-old Madonna
in the black-and-white film at her party, holding a 1950s Pepsi bottle and straw,
about to blow out the candles on her cake. Across the ages, the two Madonnas
toast each other with their respective Pepsis. Then Madonna says to the birth-
day girl, “Go ahead, make a wish.” With that, the little girl blows out the candles
and the film ends. Cut to Pepsi logo and slogan, “A Generation Ahead.”
Poster for the 1983 film, with subhead above that reads: 'The story of eight old friends searching for something they lost, and finding that all they needed was each other.' For many Baby Boomers who saw this film, the soundtrack was especially memorable, a fact not lost on Madison Avenue.
In September 1983, a movie named TheBig Chill was released — a story about eight former 1960s’ college friends who gather for an unscheduled reunion after a friend’s untimely suicide. The Columbia film was nominated for, but did not win, three academy awards, including Best Picture.
The Big Chill did reasonably well at the box office and also in its DVD afterlife, and today still has fans online and elsewhere.
But for many who first saw the film in 1983, it was the soundtrack — an evocative collection of original 1960s rock ‘n roll tunes — that was especially memorable and enduring. In fact, the movie’s music became something of a key landmark in the history of advertising, as it would help to spur the use of original rock music in a myriad of advertising applications in the years that followed.
Prior to The Big Chill, for the most part, popular rock musicians sang company jingles, or advertisers used copied versions of their songs, performed by imitators and studio groups. But after The Big Chill, there was a decided turn by Madison Avenue to use original rock ‘n roll songs, or portions of them, in all kinds of advertising.
“…[T]he movie probably gave far too many ad agencies the notion to buy up the rights to 60s’ songs for use in pushing the nostalgia buttons of key-demographic consumers,” later wrote Ken Tucker in The New York Times.
Indeed, by the mid-1980s oldies rock ‘n roll had reached vintage nostalgic value among middling Baby Boomers, who were then arriving by the millions in their full, prime-time spending years. And while it wasn’t the only factor, The Big Chill certainly helped persuade Madison Avenue to begin using original-track rock ‘n roll more prominently in their advertising. In fact, a few industry wags would call the practice “Big Chill advertising.”
Big Chill Music 1983 Soundtrack
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” Marvin Gaye (1968, #1) “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” The Rolling Stones (1973, #42) “A Whiter Shade of Pale” Procol Harum (1967, #5) “Tracks of My Tears”(1965, #16)
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”(1966, #8)
The Beach Boys “Tell Him” (1963, #4)
The Exciters “The Weight”(1968, #63)
The Band “Good Lovin'”(1966, #1)
The Rascals “Strangers in the Night” Instrumental “Gimme Some Lovin'”(1967, #7)
Spencer Davis Group “Bad Moon Rising” (1969, #2)
Creedence Clearwater Revival “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”(1966, #13)
The Temptations “When a Man Loves a Woman”(‘66,#1)
Percy Sledge “A Natural Woman”(1967, #8)
Aretha Franklin “In the Midnight Hour” The Rascals “I Second That Emotion”(1967, #4)
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Joy to the World”(1971, #1)
Three Dog Night “Quicksilver Girl”(1968)
The Steve Miller Band “My Girl”(1965, #1)
The Temptations ___________________ Songs listed by approximate appearance in the film.
What follows below is some history on Madison Avenue’s use of rock music in advertising; but first, a few words on The Big Chill’s storyline and its musical packaging.
The Big Chill is an introspective film featuring a weekend of soul searching by the group of college friends who have lost one of their former inner circle to suicide, Alex (Kevin Costner played the corpse). The film’s star-studded cast included Glenn Close, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, and Jeff Goldblum, among others.
The story opens at the funeral of Alex, as his death is the first unpleasant bit of reality to hit the group. They soon become immersed in a “ten-years-later” reality check on what they each have become since their college days.
Included among this group of friends are: a medical doctor; an owner of athletic shoe company; a TV actor; a public-defender-turned-corporate-lawyer; an aimless and somewhat traumatized Vietnam veteran; a bored-to-tears housewife; a People magazine writer; and an attractive, somewhat younger woman who was living with the departed Alex at the time of his suicide.
Big Chill Sampler
“A Whiter Shade of Pale”-Procol Harum
This assorted mix of characters retires from the funeral to the South Carolina home of one of the group, where they each work through their various feelings, concerns and hopes during the weekend. They eat, drink, cavort, reminisce, dance, smoke dope, and bare their souls. They fondly recall their college days and their causes, but also confront their disappointments and the waning of their idealism.
Though never stated per se, “the big chill” has hit them; the reality that their undergraduate dreams and intentions are not being realized. Their lives and careers have not turned out exactly as they envisioned them in college. Turns out, life is more difficult and less inspiring than what they thought it would be.
In the end, after the weekend of soul-searching, some find new direction, some not. Others pick up where they left off. The film’s viewers, meanwhile, are fully engaged with the message, and also with the excellent soundtrack, as music becomes a big part of the film’s take-away connection.
The Big Chill soundtrack, in fact, is top shelf; some of the best music of the 1960s, placed nicely in the film’s storyline, hitting its intended viewers in their deepest memory banks and remaining in their heads for days after seeing the film. During the church scene at the funeral of the departed Alex, for example, one of the group begins to play a few riffs of one of his favorite songs on the church organ — the Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — as the camera pans the knowing smiles of his friends’ faces. The organ riff segues into the original tune which plays throughout the funeral scene.
Big Chill Sampler
“Tell Him” -The Exciters
In another scene in the kitchen where the group is cleaning up after a pasta and wine fest, The Temptations’ “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” is played, leading to impromptu dancing among friends. “The scene encapsulates the spirit of the film,” one reviewer would later write, “friendship forged in the footloose optimism of the 60’s; camaraderie instantly regained through the nostalgic power of good pop music.” (see film promo clip).
Other tunes in the film — such as “A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin; “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” by the Beach Boys; “The Weight” by The Band; “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival; “Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson; “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye; and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum — all fit nicely into their scenes, serving as a kind of “comfort food” for Boomers. The Big Chill soundtrack, in fact, quickly became a popular best-seller for Motown, climbing to #17 on the Billboard albums chart in 1983, selling 1 million copies by late March 1984. All of this, of course, was not lost on Madison Avenue.
The Big Chill wasn’t the first movie to use original rock ‘n roll music in a soundtrack. Other films dating to the 1950s had already done so — such as 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, which used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” over the opening and closing credits. The Beatles were among the first to integrate film and original rock music in their mid-1964 A Hard Day’s Night, which used about a dozen of their songs. Easy Rider of 1969 used rock music effectively in its score, and so did American Graffiti in 1973, the latter in a purposeful nostalgic vein. Madison Avenue, meanwhile, had a long history of using all kinds of music in advertising. However, rock ‘n roll music in advertising — especially original-version rock ‘n roll — was still new territory for advertisers in the early 1980s.
Pre Big Chill: 1960s-1985
In fact, prior to the mid-1980s, original rock ‘n roll music had pretty limited and spotty use in advertising. Rock and popular recording artists were commissioned to sing company jingles or musical spots for various products using company-provided lyrics or compositions. In 1963, the folk music group The Limeliters helped inaugurate a series of radio ads for the Coca-Cola company. They also did a few early TV ads. The Shirelles, one of the popular “girl groups” of the early 1960s, were among the first pop acts chosen by Coke to record radio commercials, doing a series of those ads for the company over several years. Among others who did Coke ads in 1965, and whose names appeared on vinyl promo recordings produced by Coke’s ad agency McCann-Erickson, were: the Four Seasons, Roy Orbison, Jay & the Americans, Jan & Dean, and others. In the 1965-69 period, for example, one Coca-Cola historian found 63 Coke radio spots by popular artists, including one by Freddie and the Dreamers singing one Coke lyric to their tune “I’m Telling You Now.”
Sample label from 1965 advertising recording of Coca-Cola jingles produced by ad agency McCann-Erickson featuring artists Roy Orbison and Jan & Dean
Among other Coke artists doing radio and/or TV spots during this era and later years were: the Bee Gees, Neil Diamond, the Moody Blues, the Tremeloes, the Troggs, Los Bravos, the Everly Brothers, Otis Redding, the Box Tops, Leslie Gore, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, and Ray Charles. Pepsi, 7-Up, and a number of other companies were then recording jingles with pop groups as well. In the U.K., the young Rolling Stones recorded a rock jingle in the 1960s for Rice Krispies cereal that appeared on a European TV spot. Still, most of this music was commissioned specifically for the product, and did not use original, pre-existing rock songs. The nostalgic and “associative” value of these original rock songs, aimed at specific target groups, had yet to be linked to advertising pitches.
By the late 1970s, rock music was surfacing in a few other TV formats, as the 1976 Orleans hit, “Still the One” started to be used as the ABC-TV network theme song and also by the Nine Network in Australia for the same purpose. In 1981, there were musicians hooking up with beer and liquor companies in a variety of relationships, some of which involved TV and radio spots, doing company jingles, appearing in print ads, or becoming involved in sponsorship arrangements. These included Dave Mason of Traffic and later Fleetwood Mac, and Charlie Daniels of the Charlie Daniels Band doing beer commercials — Mason for Miller and Daniels for Busch. The Commodores became involved with Schlitz beer; Kool & The Gang with Schlitz Malt Liquor, Journey joined Budweiser, and The Marshall Tucker Band with Ronrico Rum. In the 1960s and 1970s, the nostalgic and “associa- tive” value of original rock `n roll music had yet to be linked to specific advertis- ing pitches. Ad agencies in the early and mid-1980s were also using some popular song melodies, but inserted their own product-specific lyrics usually performed by cover groups. As writer Carrie McLaren noted in research she’d done on this history: the Platters’ “Only You” became “Only Wendy’s”; the Diamonds’ “Little Darlin'” became KFC’s “Chicken Little”; Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” became “Oh Buick!”; Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” became Burger King’s “Whole Lotta Breakfast Goin’ On”; Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” becomes “Let’s Go Take a [Granola] Dip”; and Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” became “It’s Mac Tonight.” In mid-1982, a version of the Beach Boys’ ”Good Vibrations” was being used in a Sunkist ad. By this time too, MTV, “music television,” was becoming a force. Launched in August 1981, the whole point of MTV was to use music videos to sell music. But it also had a major impact on advertising. By early 1984, for example, super pop sensation and MTV star Michael Jackson, then of “Thriller” and “moon walk” fame, had made two TV spots for Pepsi — ads that used Pepsi lyrics to the beat and sound of Jackson’s popular “Billie Jean” song in Pepsi’s “new generation” campaign.
Meanwhile, on another level, The Big Chill of 1983-84 helped show advertisers the way to a new kind of advertising to Baby Boomers through the rich connection to original rock songs. “It became prevalent in the mid-’80s after The Big Chill came out,” according to Ray Serafin, an automotive writer for Advertising Age. Many of the spots that followed The Big Chill, he explained, were trying “to evoke an emotional connection.” By the time of The Big Chill , the evocative con- nection between the ’60s music and its Boomer audience had become especially ripe. By the time of The Big Chill in 1983-84, the evocative connection between the music and its Boomer audience had become especially ripe. More years had elapsed between the music’s initial popularity and Boomers’ middling years. The music had, for this group, reached its “prime-time nostalgic vintage,” and so, had a more powerful appeal and connection.
In both film and advertising psychology, the music-emotion tie is a well-studied phenomenon, and has become a valued strategy. Movie producers know that the right music in a movie scene can make the scene more powerful, more memorable. Hollywood producers would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the legal rights to use the right song in the right spot. Advertisers by the mid-1980s were willing to do the same.
Ford’s Yuppie Ads
In 1985, Ford Motor Company’s advertising agency, Young & Rubicam (Y&R), became an early developer of this approach, producing a series of 19 television commercials using 1960s and 1970s music. These ads were used to pitch Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury cars. Ford and Y&R called their advertising “The Yuppie Campaign” — meaning “Young Urban Professional” or “Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals,” describing a desirable Boomer market segment. The aim of the Ford/Y&R campaign was to make an emotional connection with Yuppies, bringing back memories of when they were in college. Different popular songs were used on each commercial, some in the original, some by imitators.
Bette Midler Case 1986-1988
Back in 1985, when the Ford Motor Co. and its ad agency, Young & Rubicam, Inc., launched a series of 19 television ads with rock ‘n roll music in their “The Yuppie Campaign,” one of the songs used was a 1973 Bette Midler tune, “Do You Want to Dance.” With some of the songs Young & Rubicam chose for this campaign, they tried to obtain the original song versions. However, in ten cases the ad agency employed “sound-alikes” and not the original artists or original versions. One of the “sound-alikes” imitated Bette Midler in her song “Do You Want to Dance.” Midler by then was a nationally known actress and singer who had won a 1973 Grammy as Best New Artist, and also had recordings that had gone Gold and Platinum. She was also nominated in 1979 for an Academy award for Best Female Actress in The Rose, in which she portrayed a pop singer Janis Joplin. Midler had a long history of avoiding commercial endorsements, and in fact had refused Ford’s offer to do the ad herself. When the backup singer produced a very Midler-like version of the song for Ford — a version that even fooled Midler’s friends — Midler took legal action.
In 1986-87, Midler sued Lincoln-Mercury and Young & Rubicam, alleging that the use of a sound-alike in their ad constituted “an unlawful misappropriation of her persona.” She lost her first attempt when her case was dismissed at the trial court level. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals came to her aide in a 1988 decision, noting that, “… when a distinctive voice of a professional singer is widely known and is deliberately imitated in order to sell a product, the sellers have appropriated what is not theirs and have committed a tort in California.” She was also awarded $400,000 by the jury. Midler’s success — which came to be known as the “Midler tort” in California — put a damper on the use of sound-alikes. But soon, outright licensing of original songs became the preferred way to go for commercial interests, although many artists would not go down that path.
In early March 1985, for example, Lincoln-Mercury used the music from the Beatles song “Help”in one of their ads — though the tune in this case was sung by other artists, not the Beatles. Still, it was the first time that a Beatles song was used in an American TV spot, and Lincoln-Mercury paid $100,000 at the time to use it. After that, The Beatles refused to allow their music to be used in commercials, though that would change after a later battle with Nike. Other artists whose music was used in the Lincoln-Mercury ads — either in the original or by imitators — included Bette Midler, the Coasters, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Tina Turner, and Martha & the Vandellas.
Among artists and fans, meanwhile, there was resistance to using rock ‘n roll songs in advertising and other commercial applications. Some artists refused to allow their songs to be used for advertising. Among artists in the mid-1980s then resisting the practice were, for example, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde, Billy Idol, and John Mellencamp. Some music fans would object to the practice in more fundamental way.
Carrie McLaren, writing some years later about music and advertising, described how she associated a car commercial with the song “Everyday People” by Sly and Family Stone. After casually hearing the song on a radio at a bagel shop, she caught herself in thought, angered by the car-ad association. Rather than remembering the artist per se, or “the everybody-can-get-along” message of the song, or even her college days when she first heard the music, her reaction took a different turn.
“When I reacted to “Everyday People,'” she explained, “it wasn’t about [the artist] selling out or some ’60s multicultural love-in; it was as if the song in my head had been swiped.”
And that for many fans — the appropriation and/or distortion of musical memory — would continue to be an issue as more and more original music was used in advertising.
Still, the genie was out of the bottle by this time. Advertisers had discovered the power in original rock music and there would be little turning back. By 1986 Rolling Stone magazine had launched a separate newsletter, Marketing Through Music, aimed at promoting the use of rock music to sell consumer goods, especially to the young adult audience.
The “Big Chill advertising” that began in the mid- and late-1980s was just the beginning. Some important legal fights were yet to come, including the Beatles’ fight with Nike in the late 1980s over the use of one of their songs. But increasingly, through the 1990s (see “Selling Janis Joplin”, for example ), the use of original rock music in advertising would escalate and become more common.
15th anniversary DVD edition, 1998.
As for The Big Chill, the movie and music continued to have a good run for years after its initial opening. In the year after the movie’s debut, a second album of music was released: The Big Chill: More Songs from the Original Soundtrack.
The original soundtrack meanwhile sold 2 million copies by late September 1985. It would eventually sell more than six million copies, becoming one of Motown’s best-selling albums.
In 1998, at the film’s 15 anniversary year, there was a theatrical reissue of the film in November and a DVD version by Sony the following January. The DVD includes a retrospective documentary, deleted scenes, the movie’s trailer, and a six-page insert.
“The Big Chill reasserts itself effortlessly… as an irresistibly satisfying cultural artifact,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum at the film’s 1998 reissue. In 1998 as well, both the original and supplemental Big Chill music albums were remastered and released anew.
In 2004, a deluxe edition of the soundtrack was released containing all but two of the eighteen songs from the film, plus three additional instrumentals from the film. A second “music-of-a-generation” disc of nineteen additional tracks was also included in the deluxe edition, some of which had appeared on the original albums. In 2008, some twenty-five years after its release, The Big Chill still had an online following.
The Big Chill cast in front of the home in South Carolina where the film was shot, from left: Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Meg Tilly, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Jeff Goldblum, and JoBeth Williams.
One of GE’s ‘model miners’ featured in its 2005 TV ad touting the company’s ‘clean coal’ technology.
In 2005, General Electric, the giant American conglomerate began an advertising campaign to tout its new-found concern for the environment and global warming. The advertising series, and its affiliated campaign, were part of a company-wide, GE initiative then titled “Ecomagination” — GE’s word for environmental innovation. The company had allocated some $90 million to launch the campaign, of which the TV ads were part.
One of the first ads to be featured used a coal mining theme and was titled “Model Miners.” The music backing the ad was from the 1950s hit song “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. GE used the spot to push “clean coal,” a phrase which given coal’s carbon content, is regarded as something of an oxymoron by those concerned with global warming. Still, GE’s “Model Miners” TV ad was part of the company’s message that the nation could use its coal reserves in an environmentally friendly way to help solve its energy problem.
Scene from GE's coal mining ad.
Cue ‘Model Miners’
The ad opens at a coal mining site, with processing buildings in the background, as a group of male and female “model miners” descend a slight grade on their way into a coal mine. The camera then pans to various work scenes in the mine — the gals clad in tank tops and a few of the guys shirtless.
All of the “model miners,” of course, have very good looking bodies and are sweating appropriately, yet not too much. At the ad’s opening and throughout its first scenes, Tennessee Ernie Ford sings his legendary song, “Sixteen Tons,” in the background:
Well, I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mines.
I loaded sixteen tons of Number Nine coal,
And the straw-boss said, “Well, bless my soul.”
Scene from GE's coal mine ad.
You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.
As the song fades off lightly into the background, the narrator delivers GE’s intended message:
“Imagine if a 250-year supply of energy were right here at home… Now, thanks to emissions-reducing technology from GE Energy, harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day…..Another product of pure Eco-imagination. GE, imagination at work.”
As the narrator is making the pitch, the scene cuts to frame after frame of attractive workers flashing their muscles, the ladies in particular, wielding shovels and at least one with a jackhammer, most smiling and a few in near-flirting poses. The final screen shot, as the announcer finishes, shows the GE logo with “GE Imagination” printed below it, remaining on screen until close.
“The commercial we see,” offered Josh Ozersky in a July 2005 review of the ad in The New York Times, is visually indistinguishable from a Victoria’s Secret ad, right down to the blue filters and hubba-hubba slow motion.” Others thought the ad resembled a Madonna MTV video. In fact, at the unveiling of the “ecomagination” campaign in Washington D.C. where the TV ads were played and introduced at a VIP reception, CEO Jeffrey Immelt described the “Model Miners” ad as “a play on how to make coal sexy again.” Applauding heartily for the ad when it was played, according to one attendee, was James Connaughton, President Bush’s senior environmental advisor.
Scene from GE's coal mine ad.
No OSHA Regs
GE’s coal mine, of course, is a highly stylized, Hollywood coal mine. There are no OSHA regs here; no breathing masks required. And there’s plenty of room to stand up and strut one’s stuff. No low ceilings or cramped quarters. In fact, GE’s ad agency, BBDO, did not actually use a real coal mine to make the ad. Rather, they built a replica of the coal mining scenes on a soundstage to make the ad — at no small cost, to be sure. BBDO and GE would later win praise for their efforts. Some of the avant garde on Madison Avenue gave the piece high marks for its artistry, and BBDO won an award or two for the production. Yet others saw the piece as all wrong. “It strikes me as disingenuous to call for a massive resurgence in coal mining and then portray the job as a stylish sex party,” wrote Seth Stevenson of Slate magazine. Real miners, he said, still get black lung and still die in cave-ins.
'Model miners' at work in GE ad.
GE’s use of the song “Sixteen Tons” also brought objection, especially among those who cited the heritage of the song and what it was really saying about the brutish world of coal mining and company-ruled mining towns. True, the song was written about the struggles in the 1930s and 1940s, and things have improved since then. Still, as many who work in the mines today will point out, things are still far from peachy-keen in the coalfields.
BBDO’s Executive Creative Director Don Schneider told Slate’s Seth Stevenson that “Sixteen Tons” was used in the ad because it “instantly feels like a coal-mining song.” He also told Stevenson, “you can picture coal miners singing it without any negative feelings.” Really? Coal miners happily singing “another day older and deeper in debt”? Perhaps Mr. Schneider might have looked a bit deeper into the song’s history before he made that assertion. “Sixteen Tons” is certainly not “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go.” Merle Travis, the song’s author, had another world in mind when he penned the tune in the 1940s. (See “Sixteen Tons” for that background). “No one expects G.E. to preach a Marxist sermon,” wrote Josh Ozersky the New York Times, referring the deeper message in the song, “but the use of “Sixteen Tons” as a jokey soundtrack is an odd public relations move.”
More GE 'model miners'.
Jonathan Klein, a GE spokesman had explained the ad’s purpose to the New York Times. “In ‘Model Miners,'” he said, “the goal is to communicate that G.E.’s emission-reducing technology can make coal a more appealing energy source.” More appealing, that is, to GE’s coal and electric utility clients, perhaps. Building coal gasification facilities, coal-fired power plants, and sequestering carbon are all potentially huge capital goods businesses for GE. That may account for the company’s keen interest in projecting coal as a clean and happy “MTV generation” enterprise. BBDO and GE are not pitching coal miners or coal communities here, or even the general public necessarily. They’re message is really aimed at bigger corporate and government clients, saying in effect, “we can reduce your costs and increase your profits by reducing your future environmental liabilities, your pollution.” That’s not a bad thing, certainly, but running roughshod over coal mining’s labor heritage and short changing its dangers with misplaced imagery is.
Another GE 'model miner' from its TV ad.
It appears, however, that GE did get the message that its “Model Miners” ad was not striking the right chord with many of its viewers. TreeHugger.com, a Discovery Company website, reported that “GE was eventually pressured into dropping the ad campaign after it received numerous complaints from coal mining families.” Also, on January 2, 2006, the dangers of coal mining in the U.S. had become quite apparent once again, as the Sago Mine explosion in Sago, West Virginia became the dominant national news story, with days of continuous CNN and other coverage. Twelve miners died in the Sago mine tragedy. Not a good time, in any case, for “Model Miners” type advertising.
Group shot, 'model miners'.
Today, GE continues its Ecomagination campaign in various forms and venues, using television and print advertising, among other outlets. A sampling of some of these ads and other GE information on the project can be found at YouTube.com and the company’s website.
Additional stories at this website on coal-related topics include, for example: “Sixteen Tons, 1950s,” which explores the song used in the G.E. ad and some coal-related history; “Mountain Warrior: Harry Caudill, 1950s-1980s,” about a famous Kentucky author and strip-mine activist; and “Paradise,” a story that uses a John Prine song as introduction to the coal-related demise of a small Kentucky town named Paradise. See also at this website, the “Business & Society” page for more story choices in that category. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
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 ?
That’s it! (giggle)
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 McClure and recorded in a style that was pure Joplinesque, complete with giggle at the end. Joplin can be heard on the version above talking 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.
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.
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