As expected, Bruce Springsteen’s rumored Jeep commercial was the big highlight of this year’s Super Bowl ad haul, with The Boss making his first-ever appearance in a commercial. His music, however, remains an advertising holdout, as Springsteen opted to compose an original score for the two-minute spot with frequent collaborator Ron Aniello rather than license one of his hits (his publisher Universal Music Publishing Group still collected a fee on the music use, however).
Still, Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer for Jeep’s parent company Stellantis, was thrilled to finally team up with his white whale of all celebrity cameos. “It took me ten years to get him in, but once he was in, he was all in,” he told Variety’s Brian Steinberg over the weekend.
Those looking for Sunday-night surprises had to make do with previously unannounced cameos by Drake (State Farm) and Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton & Adam Levine (T-Mobile), as the vast majority of this year’s ads premiered several days — if not a full week — before the big game to extend the hype cycle.
In spite of a tough economy, it was a booming year for music licensing, with Sony/ATV reporting a record year in Super Bowl sync revenue and many other publishers scoring multiple high-profile placements. Among the top publishers, Sony/ATV finished Super Bowl LV with 11 synchs in national brand campaigns that aired post-kickoff, while Universal Music Publishing Group landed seven, Warner Chappell had five, Primary Wave had four, Kobalt had three (plus multiple in-game audio tags for writer The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” with Pepsi) and BMG had two.
“It was a big year for catalog vs. frontline songs than prior years, and I think that’s because brands gave a lot of thought to how they were going to message this year – whether it would be serious or with humor,” says Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer at Sony/ATV, whose team scored synchs for everyone from Queen (Doritos 3D) and The Beatles (Mercari, who used a re-record of “Hello Goodbye”) to Lil Nas X (Logitech) and Lou Reed (Michelob Ultra, which sampled A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It”) this year. “It seems to be humor that won out, and big, iconic copyrights played a role in bringing that to life.”
Julie Hurwitz, Kobalt’s co-head of sync and brand partnerships at Kobalt, concurs that familiarity won out with music supervisors. “Conceptually, this is a great metaphor for our times; we crave nostalgia and comfort from music we know and love but adding a modern twist brings us to the present.”
Though many on social media were quick to point out the lack of mask use in ads aiming to depict the uniqueness of this year, music helped strike a tricky balance between keeping audiences optimistic and in the moment. “On the one hand, [advertisers] are addressing unity, well-being and the real environment of the pandemic and today’s economic and social justice challenges,” says Marty Silverstone, partner/senior VP-creative and head of sync at Primary Wave, who helped land synchs for several writers including the late Ray Charles and Allee Willis. “On the other hand, many are still all about entertainment, and right now everyone could use more laughs.”
Among the songs that helped set an upbeat tone this year: Surfaces’ 2020 top 20 hit “Sunday Best” (for a Scotts Miracle Gro ad starring Martha Stewart), Joe Esposito’s “Karate Kid” anthem “You’re The Best” (for E*Trade’s sporty spot) and Joey Scarbury’s “Greatest American Hero” single “Believe It Or Not” (for Tide’s ode to the Jason Alexander hoodie). Artists reworking their own classics was a micro-trend, too, with Dolly Parton turning “9 to 5” into a side hustle anthem called “5 to 9” for Squarespace and Shaggy adding an extra verse to “It Wasn’t Me” alongside Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis for Cheetos.
One lesser-known catalog track that found its way into one of the night’s most-hyped spots, for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, is Jo Stafford & Gordon MacRae’s 1950 duet “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday (I Love You).” Though Stafford was one of the most popular vocalists of the post-World War II era, her songs have been less common in licensing circles than her peers of the period like Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. But it was the song’s “Groundhog Day”-esque lyrics (“January, February, into March and April / Same way, too”) that sealed the deal for Bud Light Seltzer’s ad agency Wieden & Kennedy and music supervision team at Walker. Capitol Records re-released the track to streaming services on Friday (Feb. 5) to capitalize on the new exposure.
Newer acts got a shot at mainstream reach, too. Luca, a singer-songwriter who licensed his song “Woke” to sync platform Songtradr, found his track make its way into Hellmann’s Game Day spot starring Amy Schumer. The sync was secured by Songtradr subsidiary Big Sync and its long-standing relationship with Hellman’s parent company Unilever, and represents the kind of game-changing exposure that sets Super Bowl ads apart.
“The difference between a Super Bowl commercial and other advertising is the sheer magnitude of the audience, together with the hype and awareness of these commercials,” says Dave Curtin, Songtradr’s vice president of partnerships. “It can mean much more than just the fee paid for the use, it can mean they have a shot at being recognized in the future, in case the advert sticks out.”
Plus, with in-person touring on hold for nearly a year now, sync revenue “means everything,” Curtin adds. “No one is playing live, no one is selling merch, and social lives are already a thing of the past. Artists making money by having their music on any piece of audiovisual content — whether it’s an ad or a TV show or a movie — may be the only income they see outside of streams from the DSPs.”
The Super Bowl’s king-making status applies to established names, too. One ad that aired just before kickoff, Rockstar Energy’s spot featuring Lil Baby, should help further raise the star quotient of a rapper who scored 2020’s most-streamed album. “His profile is just growing everyday, and people are learning who Lil Baby is,” says Cayla Cousins, senior director-brand partnerships at Capitol Music Group, of the spot that features Lil Baby’s December single “Errbody.” “It’s great that we also have his voice in the spot to help tell a story. We hope folks will continue to search and learn more about him and not only love his music but him as a person. It’s a great ‘I’ve arrived’ moment for him after such an exciting year.”
Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.