commercial breaks

Commercials. They’re not about jingles anymore.

Okay, local ads are still about jingles. And are all the better for it.

But in the big-money world of national advertising, it seems never again will we hear stubbornly catchy tunes like this:

Today, advertisers prefer licensing a known quantity over nurturing a new one. After all, it’s easier to throw money at a favourite song than to commission a snappy song about Apple’s latest product.And artists, publishers and labels are only too happy to play along. Hence, decades after Lust for Life disappeared from the public consciousness, Iggy Pop was able to count it as a hit, thanks to licensing deals for films as well as a TV commercial. Did it matter that a song about heroin and debauchery was being used to encourage people to go on a pleasure cruise?

Maybe. Maybe that was the idea. I’ve never been on one of those cruises.

Selling your stuff to advertisers can make a career. Just ask Feist, who hooked up with Apple at precisely the right time. Or Nick Drake, who partnered with Volkswagen a few decades too late. (I’m thinking he would have had mixed feelings about the experience anyway.) Ads have given The Clash a belated UK chart-topper and thrown a few bucks Le Tigre‘s way.

They have also provided an occasional opportunity for an advertiser to exercise a devilish sense of humour. Hence, Apple’s use of the risqué Pixies cut Gigantic, or Bell Media’s recent resurrection of Hopeton Lewis’s Take it Easy. At least, I hope someone at Bell appreciates the ironing irony of making drastic cuts to Lewis’s laidback classic in order to hurry the man through a 30-second spot.

Makes me laugh. Though, perhaps it would be a more fitting tune for Royal Caribbean cruise lines.

And then there’s GMC, whose subtle message behind an ad for its new line of vehicles is summed up by Pete Townsend in the chorus to Eminence Front: “It’s a put-on!” Enjoy that new GM truck, people. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

Not that Pete Townshend needs the money. And when it comes to deep-pocket advertisers, one likes to think once in a while a company or organization can use its media-saturation power for good.

Which brings me to the Pan Am Games.

(All roads appear to lead to the Pan Am Games at the moment.)

It seems safe to say few advertisers have deeper pockets than the event being touted as the “largest multi-sport Games ever held in Canada.” (A curious claim given that these serious-business Games will feature athletes from fewer than half the number of nations that participated in the Montreal Olympics and precisely half the number featured in the Vancouver Olympics. But I suppose there are many ways to measure bigness. Especially in Toronto.)

There has been much hype surrounding the Pan Am Games — the multi-sport event for those who see the Commonwealth Games and Francophonie Games as too exclusive and the Olympic Games as too inclusive. This is a very big deal, we’re told. A chance for Toronto to be featured on the continental stage. An opportunity for our amateur athletes to show those Bahamian bastards who’s boss. (Likely the United States, but we’re bucking for a solid second-place finish.)

Oh well, as long as there’s hockey, right?

And as long as those dollars are being spent to promote all things Toronto Canadian.

To that end, in addition to sports the Games are being touted as an opportunity to promote the arts. That extends beyond a concert series and art exhibitions, to the music employed by organizers to announce the event’s imminent arrival.

And sure enough, there is an official song for the Games: Together We Are One. The ditty was the result of a competition, staged with the blessing of the Songwriters Association of Canada. Songwriters have further benefited from the Games’ saturation-advertising campaign. You might recall one of the more stirring visual distractions, set to a soundtrack by Ottawa’s own A Tribe Called Red.

This is encouraging, particularly as the first volleys in the Games’ saturation-advertising onslaught were unlikely to please the Songwriters Association of Canada. One prominent commercial featured, inexplicably, a song written and performed by Imagine Dragons — a band from Las Vegas. Another impossible-to-avoid spot, which featured athletes running, swimming and paddling towards the CN Tower, featured a cover of Ready or Not Here I Come — a song you might recognize as a 1968 hit by the American soul group The Delfonics. (You don’t, though; you recognize it as a Fugees song.)

True, the latter number was at least performed by a Canadian, now living in Los Angeles. Hence, Esthero’s somewhat hysterical reading ticks at least one or two MAPL boxes. Let’s call that Canadian, eh?

Still, one wonders why a Canadian composition could not have served the purpose as well or better than an old American number. Granted, Seasons in the Sun or American Woman might not have been deemed appropriate. And we know Neil Young can be touchy when it comes to Rockin’ in the Free World. But surely Barenaked Ladies were available to sing If I Had 2.5 Billion Dollars.

To be fair, there have in recent months been plenty of Pan Am ads that feature Canadian compositions and performers. And we have seen at least one promo incorporate a new original composition by a bona fide Torontonian. Todor Kobakov’s ominous, synthesizer-heavy piece is certainly powerful; though, it does rather eerily echo Chopin’s Funeral March. (This may be the composer’s sly commentary on advance ticket sales for some of the Games’ events. See devilish humour in advertising, above.)

So plenty of work for Canadians. Still, one wonders how those American songs made the cut. Perhaps they began as place-keepers. Perhaps Canadian songwriters missed a deadline.

Perhaps I should ask someone connected with the Games. Or Lydia McCourt, Corporate Communications Manager for the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation (OTMPC).

Perhaps I already have.

Her response:

“OTMPC was extremely pleased to use Esthero’s song, as an Ontarian artist, in the ‘Invade’ ad for the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. In all of OTMPC’s marketing activities, we are very conscious about promoting Ontario artists and Ontario’s live music scene. OTMPC has used songs composed by Ontario artists in several past activities and will continue to do so in the future. The ‘Invade’ ad generated a lot of interest in Esthero and we are pleased that we were able to contribute to this interest by using her song in the ad. Esthero’s version of Ready or Not also captured the passion and energy that we wanted to convey with the athletes ‘invading’ Ontario and to build momentum for the upcoming Games.”

Invasion. Got it. And if the song is American, well, I suppose that’s appropriate.

Not that the Games are alone in forsaking Canadian compositions in favour of easy-to-find American ones for use in patriotic ads. Heck, even the Canadian Labour Congress brought us public service announcements last fall to the tune of a cover of The Four Tops’ Reach Out I’ll Be There. The Canadian Labour Congress!

And yes, I did ask a spokesperson for CLC why the Congress did not offer that opportunity to a Canadian songwriter. I was directed to Taxi, the Toronto-based company hired to create the TV commercials. Funny, ’cause I would have thought the CLC would have final approval over its public service announcements. As, indeed, it must have had with regard to a similar 2014 PSA, this time featuring a cover of Bill Withers’ Lean on Me.

Maybe it’s a union thing.

For the record, I did also attempt to contact the Songwriters Association of Canada and SOCAN to ask what licensing songs for use in national advertising campaigns can mean to a Canadian songwriter. I also attempted to reach the Games’ Media Centre; though, I suspect it may be rather busy at the moment. I shall keep you in the loop, should I hear from anyone.

‘Til then, let the Games begin. And no matter how things work out for Canada on the field of play, here’s hoping Canadians can at least score big on the soundtrack.

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