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Songs and Ads: Ten Infamous Examples

Here's 10 examples of songs turned into ads, all influential, some successful.

Related interview: Bethany Klein on pop music and Madison Avenue

1. In January 1984, during the sixth take of an ad that would become infamous, pop superstar Michael Jackson's hair caught fire when a fireworks display malfunctioned, showering him in sparks. Jackson was rushed to a hospital, where he was treated for second degree burns to his head. "He is in discomfort," his plastic surgeon told the press. "It will take a few weeks to determine the hair loss." The ad itself would be remembered for turning the hit song "Billie Jean" into a Pepsi pitch. Watch it here:

2. In 1987, Nike turned the rock ‘n' roll world on its head by using the actual Beatles recording of "Revolution" in a commercial, forking out $250,000 to Capitol Records and Michael Jackson, who owned the publishing rights. A firestorm of protest followed, with Paul McCartney objecting: "Songs like ‘Revolution' don't mean a pair of sneakers, they mean revolution." The ad is here:

3. In 1989, Pepsi decided to use the first single and title track from Madonna's new "Like a Prayer" album in a commercial featuring the pop superstar; in exchange, the soft drink company would sponsor her upcoming Blonde Ambition tour. However, Pepsi had no idea what story the video — intertwined with softer scenes of Madonna sipping cola — would tell: It depicts a black man who is falsely arrested for trying to help a white woman as she is killed by other white men. Along the way, Madonna brings a black saint back to life by kissing him; cuts her palms and displays stigmata; and dances provocatively in a field of burning crosses. Confronted by furious religious groups, Pepsi pulled the commercial after only two airings, canceled their ad campaign and sponsorship deal, but allowed Madonna to keep the $5 million in her contract. Oh, and for MTV's 25th anniversary, viewers voted the video the "Most Groundbreaking of All Time." Here's the ad:

4. Ray Charles' series of commercials for the soft drink Diet Pepsi — debuting in 1990 and featuring the tagline "You got the right one, baby!" — reignited his career and brought him a whole new generation of fans. Pepsico asked Charles to be its pitchman after research showed his "appeal crosses age boundaries like few other performers." The campaign was widely hailed within the advertising and music industries, and even The Economist enthused: "Diet Pepsi's jazzy ads featuring Ray Charles have scored higher than those for any other consumer product." The original ad is here:

5. In 1999, Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" was used in a hugely successful commercial for the Volkswagen Cabriolet, leading to a large increase in record sales for the once-obscure late artist. It even pushed the album, first released in 1972, to the fifth spot in's sales charts, while the commercial — with its atmospheric blue lighting and cast of young party-goers —generally drew raves for its marriage of song and mood. Watch it here:

6. Three years ago, Slate advertising critic Seth Stevenson conducted a reader survey of the most misused songs in television commercials, trying to answer the question: What's the worst ad song ever? The big winner with dozens of votes, according to Stevenson, was "Lust for Life," Iggy Pop's celebration of drug culture used by Royal Caribbean cruise lines.

7. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it's perhaps understandable that a company would overreach in its attempt to link country and commerce. But of all the songs Wrangler could have picked to hawk its jeans in a patriotic TV spot, Credence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" — explicitly about the privileged kids who avoided the war in Vietnam — was a real head-scratcher. Years before the 2002 ad, Fogerty had signed away legal control of his old recordings, so he was upset, to say the least, to see the commercials. "I hated that commercial ... After that ad was running, the L.A. Times called and did an interview, so I got to tell them what I thought about it," Fogerty said in 2006. "Making a stink in print got the song removed, which I was happy about. Because not even a year later, that song became relevant all over again with the war in Iraq." A short clip about the commercial is here:

8. Not all artists, however, are so chagrined at finding their music in commercials. In 2003, the relatively obscure dance band Dirty Vegas became an overnight sensation when Mitsubishi used the song "Days Go By" in an ad for the 2003 Eclipse. The ad is here:

9. In 2002, Cadillac tried to revamp its image by using the song "Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin, a band that had previously not licensed its songs to advertisers. The campaign was credited with increasing sales in 2002; see the ad here:

10. Certainly one of the stranger alliances between musician and corporation, Bob Dylan's ad for Victoria's Secret in 2004 became one of the most talked-about spots of the year. It ran for just three weeks and featured Dylan himself attempting to avoid the charms of a lingerie model. And yet, perhaps the commercial shouldn't have been so much of a surprise. In 1965, a 24-year-old Dylan was asked at one of those famously contentious news conferences about "selling out" as an artist. "If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest," a reporter asked, "which one would you choose?" Without missing a beat, Dylan replied: "Women's garments." Watch the ad here: