A few weeks ago I found one very interesting website called Songs With A Brand Name. It’s a website full of popular songs that include different brands.
That concept is called ‘brand dropping’ and was first coined by Adam Kluger, founder and owner of The Kluger Agency that’s focused on strategic partnerships and product placement within the music industry. ‘Brand-dropping’ is actually a heightened level of product placement within the lyrics of songs and their accompanying music videos.
Of course not all brands, mentioned in songs, are brand droppings. “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.” from Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz can’t be classified as product placement. However, you should listen to Pass The Courvoisier by Busta Rhymes, Zoosk Girl by Flo-Rida or Ciroc Star by Chester French to see something completely different.
To get an insight into brand dropping I’ve asked Piotr Ślusarski and Gladys Santiago, creators of Songs With A Brand Name (SWABN) to tell us a bit more about their project and their opinion about the brand dropping industry.
How did the cooperation between you two begin and how did you come up with the idea for SWABN project?
Gladys: Piotr ran the idea by me, which I instantly loved. I’m drawn to new approaches to analyzing media and entertainment. It may be cliche to say, but music is the soundtrack to our lives and any project that promotes listening or scrutinizing the media we engage with in a different way, has my support. It’s a pleasure to be involved with SWABN.
Piotr: If anything happens by accident, this is just how it happened. Me getting the idea, that is. One day I posted “Koka Kola” by The Clash (love the band) on my other blog, imagining what it would be like if the line “Koke adds life where there isn’t any” was an actual claim for the brand – and then it struck me: why not gather some more songs like that and put them in one place? The snowball was set in motion.
Gladys was the first blogger to mention my project and when I found out she did I contacted her, saying how much I appreciate it. We knew each other a little, because back in 2009 she was one of the characters of my article on product displacement. She told me SWABN was a great idea and we exchanged some e-mails, by which I could tell she’s knowledgeable on the subject and takes genuine interest in it. So I plucked up courage and wrote “If you felt like it, SWABN could be our common project”, pointing out that our cooperation would make even more sense if we added “product displacement” as a category. She said yes – and so we did, which really made me glad. You know what they say, two heads are better than one. Long live teamwork! ;)
Is it difficult to find ‘songs with a brand name’?
Gladys: Not at all, but some music genres like hip-hop are easier to scour for brands than other genres, like heavy metal for instance.
Piotr: Umm…no ;) The more so as now I am listening to every song more carefully. Besides, from time to time people would post their own findings on our wall, which helps us a lot and is very welcome. Brands are an inherent part of our lives, so it’s quite natural they find their way into song lyrics too. How and why they got there is another story, but anyway – they’re there, sometimes hidden in plain sight. What I mean is, did you know “Nightrain” by Guns’n’Roses is actually a tribute to a brand of cheap wine by the name of Night Train Express?
Do you have some specific goal with this project, e.g. to collect as many SWABN as possible or to provide some expert opinions about the brand dropping?
Gladys: Providing a mega catalogue of songs mentioning brands is definitely a goal, but analyzing the occurrences and the industry as a whole are also important to us.
Piotr: Yes, the basic goal is to collect as many songs as we can and have fun while doing it. The other day there was a discussion on Facebook about our profile and one person said: “Hey, your subject matter is so broad that if you wanted to arrange songs in chronological order, you’d have to leave out documenting the 80s to your grandchildren”. ;) Yup, it sure is broad, moreover, our database will probably never be complete, but we’re OK with that because it is not our ambition to create an encyclopaedia. It’s like when you’re, say, a punk rock fan – you know you’re never gonna listen to each and every punk song that was released but it still doesn’t discourage you from exploring your genre of choice or having your CD collection, right?
I also thought recently about providing some exclusive interviews with contemporary bands on the presence of brands in their lyrics. For example, there’s this tune “Miami 2 Ibiza” by Swedish House Mafia, in which you can find like 14 or 15 brand names. So we approach the band, ask them why so many, why at all, if they like and use these brands themselves, whether or not they would ever do product placement, things like that. And then we put it on Facebook being the only place where you can read all about it. These expert opinions you mentioned would also be a good idea and we’ll certainly consider it. Anyway, it’s important to say we don’t just want to collect songs on the blog, we also want to get you some tidbits, extras, interviews, opinions – you name it – and this is what our wall is for.
A few years ago McDonald’s offered payment to hip-hop artists if they mention “Big Mac” in their songs. McDonald’s had to improve the content and apparently paid them up to $5 per radio airplay. What do you think about that move? Was it a great marketing idea or something else?
Gladys: Well, the deal in which Big Macs would be included in song ultimately never took place because, according to Russell Simmons, discussions of it were leaked to Ad Age. The fact that Simmons didn’t want to go through with it because the story broke speaks volumes of how product placements in music work (at least in hip-hop) — artists risk losing their credibility if it’s widely known they’re getting paid to name drop.
Piotr: The idea that originated back in 2005 was not-so-great and luckily for both McDonald’s and the artists I guess, nothing came out of it. I actually wrote a piece last year about it (among othert things), the deal was 1-5 bucks per airplay and the agenda behind it was to motivate rappers to create a hit: more plays equalled more money for artists and more exposure for the brand. And Gladys actually made fun of the whole thing on FB by posting “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, a classic 1988 hip hop song with the line “I like the Whopper, f**k the Big Mac” – and commenting that McDonald’s may have tried to erase the past with the “1-5 bucks” offer ;)
Why do you think they chose hip-hop artists and not rock or metal artists? Do you think that the majority of brand-droppings appear in hip-hop genre? If so, why did that happen?
Gladys: I think hip-hop is more centered on a lifestyle; most rappers focus on luxury and the best way to convey a rise in social status is by name-dropping brands. It’s probably easier to approach hip-hop artists, but pop artists like Fergie and Lady Gaga and Katy Perry have also been known to cut product placement deals. It probably really has a lot to do with the type of fans a genre attracts.
Piotr: When you think about artists singing about clothes they wear, cars they drive, food they eat and bling-bling they flash around, which genre comes to mind, hip hop or black metal? ;) It’s much easier to plug brands into the kind of music that is associated with brand-name dropping anyway, because it then looks all natural, even when it’s not. A whole lotta different story is whether hip hop – considering its roots – should really be about brand names being uttered even more often than swear words. Listen to Nas’ “Hip Hop Is Dead” for example. On the other hand, if we assume hip hop to be an “expression of poor people’s desire for the good life”, as Manthia Diawara writes, then maybe there’s no escape from the world of brands anyway – and that opens many doors to product placement deals.
“We only rap about things we like. I’ll mention Cheetos because I like them, but if I didn’t they wouldn’t be in our songs,” Damon Dash, co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, once said. We could say that this was the case in the past (in the times of Janis Joplin), when brand-dropping wasn’t so widespread. How about today, how big is brand-dropping industry?
Gladys: It’s widespread. We’ve covered a few agencies that set up these deals. Record companies also actively seek out brand integration deals for their artists and it’s only going to increase. Music videos viewing has moved from television to online, where brands logos aren’t blurred, which was standard for MTV. It’s only fitting for brand name-dropping increase as record labels begin seeing music videos as revenue generators instead of promotional tools for an album.
Piotr: I am not aware of any recent studies on that, but according to PQ Media’s estimation from a few years back, product placement in “recorded music” was supposed to be a 50 million-dollar market in the US in 2009. The same year, spending on all product placement – in television, films, internet, videogames and other media – amounted to around $3,5 billion.
There are many agencies today that act as a liaison between singers and advertisers in this field, like Kluger Agency from California. Google: “placement oppertunity” (yup, with a typo) to find out how it all works. Some sources say Kluger has worked with renowned artists like Pussycat Dolls, Black Eyed Peas or All-American Rejects.
And about this statement from Damon Dash – does rapping about things you like involve taking money for it or or not? What he says doesn’t answer that question. I mean, if you like Cheetos, will you agree to be paid by Cheetos to rap about them because you like them anyway – or won’t you, meaning you don’t need any financial incentive to rap about Cheetos because, well, you like them anyway? ;) I hope you see what I mean…Also, a slightly different, but equally interesting thing is how people from Roc-A-Fella like Jay-Z rapped about Armadale vodka when they in fact already owned the Armadale brand. So, did they still just like it, or did they also want to make other people like it? There’s a difference between “being fans of the brand” and “being business entrepreneurs wanting to be directly involved in the brand”. The latter, as American Brandstand report puts it, makes mentioning brands “a lot less cool”.
Online dating site Zoosk.com paid to be a part of Flo-Rida’s song Zoosk girl. Brand was included in the title, chorus and its name was shown in the video of the song. Is this the future for brands and music artists?
Gladys: It is, but probably not as blatant. The video and song was embarrassingly blatant and I don’t think taking it to such an extreme was a strategic at being ironic or self-referential.
Piotr: I do hope it’s not. When I turn on my stereo, I want to relax to the sound of music, not be advertised to. I’d rather it was more to the effect of “ain’t singin’ for Coke, makes me look like a joke” or something, but the line between singing and, well, shilling has been crossed a long time ago – in 23 B.C. Horace is supposed to have written odes to wines under the pressure of winemakers. And as they say in my country, the farther into the forest, the thicker the trees. It’s all part of a bigger picture that shows advertising eating up its own tail – its objective is to break through the clutter and find new places to be, but doing so it only adds to this clutter.
Do you think brand-dropping is a win-win situation for brands and music artists?
Gladys: It’s hard to say if it’s win-win. It’s risky. Artists could lose credibility with their fans or brands could suffer consumer fall-out from an artist’s negative behavior.
Piotr: You mean brand dropping for money? It’s not so simple. It’s risky, it’s controversial and it can backfire. It also seems to be embarrassing for artists themselves who most of the times would rather keep mum about it. Still, if it suddenly leaks somehow, those artists put their credibility and authenticity on the line. That’s a steep price to pay. Consequently, if such a bomb goes off, the blast hits artists the most, but advertisers may also be peppered with fragments, if you catch my drift, as villains who contribute to spoiling the music industry. On the other hand: do you know Tetley Intensive, the tea? It was supposed to be in a Polish song but you know who got cold feet? The advertiser, not the artist.
Interestingly, trading your lyrics for cash may also bring some collateral damage among fellow singers. There’s this pop singer in Poland that goes by the name of Sidney Polak who recorded a song about his Suzuki Burgman 650. Everybody took for granted that the guy did it for money paid by the Japanese – and panned him for that, because the song was so full of “Suzuki this, Suzuki that”. In fact, no product placement was involved, it was just pure and unrewarded devotion for the brand. At least this is what the guy assured me of when I interviewed him and he sounded convincing.
But maybe it could be win-win in certain conditions. First: if it’s open, not hush-hush, like in Petey Pablo’s “Freek-A-Leek” where he goes (although a bit ironically) “Now I got to give a shoutout to Seagram’s Gin cus I drink it, and they paying me for it”. Second: if it helps a beginning artist get a name for themselves. I once talked to a young writer who inserted a wine brand into the plot of her book. When I asked why she said most publishing houses are interested in reprinting bestsellers and won’t talk to and invest in someone virtually unknown. So the way out of it was to cut a deal with a brand: its name in the book in return for financing promotion of the book. I can imagine a similar situation in the music industry. Then again, wouldn’t the openness I mentioned ruin the effectiveness of product placement? As I said, it’s not so simple…
What is in your opinion reaction from the fans? Do they love it, are indifferent or maybe hate it?
Gladys: It’s hard to say. I think fan responses probably vary depending on genre or artist. An artist like Lady Gaga is a spokesperson for so many brands, that her fans wouldn’t really care, but I think if Jay-Z fans discovered he was being paid to promote Ace of Spades champagne, he might lose their respect.
Piotr: I can tell you about my own reaction as a fan: I like brand names being dropped in songs because it allows me to run my blog ;) And to be more serious – brands in songs are fine and avoiding them on purpose would be unnatural. As I said before, they’re part of our lives and a way to describe the world too. So if dropping them fits, if it makes the lyrics more real, if it conveys some emotions, it’s well and good. But if there’s some hidden agenda behind it and money changing hands “under the table”, then it makes brand mentions “a lot less cool”, to use the American Brandstand term.
But you know what I’ve recently read in Vancouver Sun? “Young audiences today really aren’t bothered by product placements. There’s more of a mentality of: ‘Cool. If you can make money on this, then make the money'”. And that came from Leo Kivijarv, PQ Media’s vice-president of research. But he meant music videos, so you could argue there’s some difference between these and the lyrics. And when it comes to hip-hop, back in 2004 I guess a study by New Media Strategies said that 60 percent of consumers who consider themselves hip-hop fans are likely to buy products mentioned by rappers.
A truly pioneering research on product placement in song lyrics comes from Switzerland, is three years old and bears a title “Let it Rock. The Effects of Brand Name Placement in Songs on Attitudes toward the Artist and the Brand”. Let me give you a quote: “First, when artists get associated to incongruent brands, individuals will discard the possibility of a merchant association artist-brand unless the artist conveys positive comments about the brand, in which case he/she will be penalized. Second, when a brand-artist match is congruent, individuals will state more positive attitudes toward the brand if they are persuaded that no commercial purpose is sought, but will penalize the brand if listening to positive commentaries about it”.
Piotr Ślusarski is a freelance journalist from Kraków, Poland. He has specialized in issues related to marketing, advertising, PR and popculture for several years – and written for several big media outlets. One of his favourite movies is Knife in the Water by Roman Polański and the band he likes most is Screeching Weasel. You can check Piotr’s blog (in Polish) or follow him on Twitter.
Gladys Santiago is a New York-based media analyst, currently working as an associate analyst at The Nielsen Company where she’s a member of the National Television Insights and Analysis team. Gladys is a founder of the brilliant Product Displacement blog, which has been featured in Wired UK, Marketing Week and AdFreak. You can follow her on Twitter or check her blog.