The song remains the same

As summer was winding down, my old friend Peter Plant and his three kids (who are the same ages as our three kids, only opposite sexes) arrived from England to spend a week with us in Muskoka.

As summer was winding down, my old friend Peter Plant and his three kids (who are the same ages as our three kids, only opposite sexes) arrived from England to spend a week with us in Muskoka.

Pete was a Toronto copywriter who bought a one-way ticket to London in the ’70s and never came back. He landed a couple of writing jobs in major multinationals there and then teamed up with an art director to form one of England’s first jingle houses, Crocodile Music in Charlotte Mews.

Commercial radio had been unknown in the U.K. until the ’70s, and Brit marketers and agency people were initially dubious that radio could actually sell anything. (One used to speculate that the reason British television advertising was so wonderful, at least the best stuff was so wonderful, was because it developed directly from the experience of theatre and film, without having to spend several decades apprenticing as radio spots with pictures attached.)

But Crocodile was suddenly red hot, and the guys were working with the top clients of places like Saatchi and Abbott Mead. They did recording sessions in the mornings (their regular session guitarist was Lawrence Juber of Wings) and then drank the afternoons and nights away with their clients in the Greek Street restaurants and bars in Soho.

It was partly to save his liver that Pete eventually withdrew from the studio gig to work on his comic strip ideas, which is why he’s now one of the country’s top cartoonists. Bogart, a cat who talks, goes to the pub, and in fact, gets laid, is a daily feature in The Daily Mail, circulation two-point-five million copies.

The other disincentive to the old jingle-writing life, Pete reflected, as we sipped Bloody Caesars after an afternoon of taking six kids tubing behind the Jet Boat (besides how long it took Saatchi to pay their invoices) was that clients and agencies increasingly began buying the rights to existing pop songs, instead of creating original anthems for their broadcast stuff.

Well you see, nothing ever changes. Even after a summer of not watching a lot of TV, I can tell you Speedy is using Someone to Love by Queen. Hyundai has invested in The Chambers Brothers’ Time. In Ontario, Hydro One is bombarding us with flight after flight of spots with The Who’s ancient I Can See For Miles.

Is there a problem with this? Well, could just be. If you’re walking along Yorkville Avenue on a summer night and a kid rolls past in a Honda with John Mellencamp blasting on the stereo, you don’t say to yourself Hey, that must be John Mellencamp in that car! Only the kid thinks he’s momentarily John Mellencamp. You think there’s some doorknob in a cheap car with too much stereo.

Thanks to Golden Oldie Radio, our kids know the same songs as we did. So a client who buys a top hit to back a commercial message is pretty well assured most people are going to get it.

But what are they actually getting? When Bill Gates decides to play us an old Rolling Stones chestnut to flag the last big Microsoft launch, do we say Wow, Microsoft is cool! Or do we say I wonder how much that geek Gates paid for the old Stones track?

Now even blind pigs find acorns now and then, and I’ve got to admit that Chevrolet and their ad people were brilliant in securing Bob Seger’s Like a Rock for the truck line. But Like a Rock was a second or third string song to begin with, and Chevrolet has stuck with it with such determination and longevity that by now most people probably think it was written for them.

Creating something new involves risk for the agency. How do we sell the client something they can’t hear? Even if we do, we take all this time and money and what if they don’t like it? What if the focus groups don’t like it? What if consumers can’t hum it?

How much simpler if we just get off the elevator, play them Little Pink Houses, get a signature and we can all go to lunch.

We won’t wind up owning something amazing like I want to buy the world a Coke, or Your legs fit our Leggs, they hug you they hold you, they never let you go, or You’ve got a lot to live and Pepsi’s got a lot to give.

But in the ad business, life is not a long time anymore. And by the time they’ve realized Little Pink Houses is still just a John Mellencamp song, you’ll have your little brewpub out on Salt Spring Island, right?

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to blow off steam, and as a thinly disguised lure to attract clients who may imagine working with him could be a productive and amusing experience. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.