Serving Up Musical Comfort Food

May 12, 2010

MADISON AVENUE is alive with the sound of “The Sound of Music” — and other mainstay musicals like “Carousel,” “The King and I,” “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific” — as more than a dozen marketers use songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in commercials.The rival packaged-goods giants Procter & Gamble and Unilever seldom agree on anything, but they are harmoniously singing the praises of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Procter ran a commercial during the Vancouver Winter Olympics that used “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel,” while the Dove line of hair-care products sold by Unilever is using “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music” for a television and online campaign that features Lea Michele of the hit series “Glee.”

So popular have Rodgers and Hammerstein become for advertising purposes that sometimes marketers are treating consumers to duets.

For instance, both Hyundai Motor America and State Farm insurance have run commercials that use “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from “The Sound of Music.” (The State Farm spot stopped at the end of March; the Hyundai spot is still appearing.)

To be sure, Rodgers and Hammerstein, who also collaborated on musicals like “Cinderella,” “Flower Drum Song” and “State Fair,” have long been a favorite of advertisers.

But the recent increase in the commercial use of their music — 13 spots in the last year, by one count — seems to be taking place for two reasons.

One reason is a shift in the public mood because of the economy.

The familiar tunes of Rodgers and Hammerstein are “really like comfort food,” said Josh Rabinowitz, an expert in music in advertising, who described them as “comfort songs, uplifting and heartwarming.”

“In times like these, you hear a lot of anthemic music, a lot of music that goes for the sweet spot in consumers instead of taking a risk,” said Mr. Rabinowitz, senior vice president and director for music at the Grey Group in New York, part of WPP.

Marc Pritchard, global chief marketing officer at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, agreed that “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is “a little bit” old-fashioned.

“It’s not a modern song, but it’s a timeless song,” he said, “and it hits people in the heart.”

“Music is one of the most important elements you’ll use in building a brand because it expresses your voice,” Mr. Pritchard said. “The recession caused everyone to hit the reset button. People want brands and companies they can trust and feel good about.”

David Rubin, hair-care marketing director for Unilever in Chicago, said that for the consumers who are the focus of Unilever’s Dove hair-care-product advertising — women ages 30 and older — “The Sound of Music” was “part of their growing up.”

“It still resonates,” Mr. Rubin said. “I don’t know if it matters what decade it is.”

One reason is that the 1965 film version of “The Sound of Music” has become a TV perennial; ABC shows it each year around Christmas and the ABC Family cable channel shows it each year around Easter.

“It’s kind of corny, we admit,” Chris Perry, the interim head of marketing at Hyundai Motor America in Fountain Valley, Calif., said of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” which is heard in a commercial for the Hyundai Sonata created by Innocean Worldwide Americas, “but the juxtaposition between the song and the modern-day setting gets your attention.”

Mark Gibson, assistant vice president for advertising at State Farm in Bloomington, Ill., said he became aware that Hyundai was also using “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” when his 15-year-old daughter told him about it.

The State Farm commercial, by the Chicago office of DDB Worldwide, part of theOmnicom Group, did not use the version of the song from the movie soundtrack, as Hyundai’s did, but rather a rock-style version from a company, Modern Music, that supplies songs for commercials.

The echoing song choice did not matter, Mr. Gibson said, because the State Farm spot — focused on a teenage driving safety program called Steer Clear — “performed very well for us; it was memorable, likable and catchy.”

Among the other marketers using Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are Microsoft, with a snippet from the title song of “Oklahoma,” in a commercial for the Bing search engine;Honda Motor, with “Getting to Know You,” from “The King and I,” in a commercial in Canada; and Suntory beer, with “Shall We Dance?,” also from “The King and I,” in a commercial in Japan.

“We do represent comfort food, in a way,” said Theodore S. Chapin, president at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization in New York, adding that the songs are “simple, but they’re not simplistic.”

A year ago, the organization, which was founded by Rodgers and Hammerstein, was sold by their estates to the Imagem Music Group, which represents musicians as diverse as Phil Collins, Rachmaninoff and Vampire Weekend. That sale is another reason for the upswing in the licensing of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs for commercial use.

Although the songs have been heard often in commercials, “I do think that the sale helped advertising agencies think these songs would be more available than in the past,” Mr. Chapin said.

Also, the number of employees devoted to what is known as synchronization rights — using the music in commercials, movies and TV shows — increased considerably, he added.

What must accompany the “great deal of interest” in the songs, Mr. Chapin said, is a careful scrutiny of the requests to use them and working closely with those advertisers like Dove that want to rewrite Hammerstein’s lyrics for commercials.

Mr. Chapin discreetly declined to describe changes he has rejected, but pointed to “the quintessential” example of what not to do: For a commercial for a toilet-bowl cleaner, a song by Cole Porter became “I’ve Got You Under My Rim.”

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