Every so often you see/hear an ad using a popular song in their advertising. This has been going on for many, many years now. The impetus for this came mostly from the music industry looking for find new ways to profit from recorded music, and this makes sense. They have a lot more to gain from music licensing than the brand. There’s been a lot of debate about the pros and cons of using pop songs in ads. When done right, it can certainly lead to an uptick in sales, but does this benefit the brand long-term?

It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while a client will suggest using a popular song for a new campaign. Then I give them “The Talk”; reasons why popular music may not be a good long term audio branding strategy.


Licensing established music for commercial purposes can be very expensive. And yes, you have to pay regardless of how you use it. It doesn’t matter how much of the song you use or how you use it. If any part of a copyrighted song is used for commercial purposes, somebody has to be paid for it. This might lead some agencies to pursue less established music. That may be cheaper, but will it have the same impact? This tends to benefit the artist more than the brand. Is it worth the investment? In this case you’re better off with a stock track that fits the presentation. Stock music is very good these days and very accessible. However…


This is a big one. First there’s ownership in the literal sense. Licensed music can only be used for a certain amount of time. Branded assets are owned basically forever. But let’s dig a bit deeper.

Using stock music and established music is not brand building. A stock track is certainly the less objectionable option. It’s very easy to find tracks that fit the demands of your audio branding guidelines as well as your campaign, but the stock track you use could be heard in hundreds of other ads, videos, podcasts, etc. I remember seeing a Chevy truck commercial that used this great blues/rock groove. A few months later I heard the same track in a Cracker Barrel cheese commercial. We even had this happen locally. Kingston Tourism ran a campaign using this really catchy tune. A year later it popped up in a Shoppers Drug Mart ad.

Neither stock music nor established music can be owned the way custom sonic assets can.

Established music also undermines your brand’s potential to make a unique impact. When you have your own assets, you’re no longer a cultural tourist. It’s very hard to make an impact with existing ideas. Using someone else’s music is not creating culture. That’s reflecting culture.

And of course you can’t own artists either, not even in a particular industry. For example, songs by The Black Keys have been used to advertise both Subaru and Cadillac. And that brings us to…


Pop musicians are not brand ambassadors. Sure, one song of theirs might fit your current campaign, but do your brand values align with that of the artist? What if that artist gets caught in legal troubles? Do you want to risk having your brand tied to scandal?


This is a pretty simple one. You’re advertising to sell a product or service. All the efforts of the ad should be directed to that purpose. If someone hears their favourite song in an ad, where do you think their focus will be? Or worse, what if they hate the song?

You Show Your Age

Many brands use popular songs because they want to appeal to a younger audience. This is a tricky one. Some do it well, others not so much. This approach might work if you’re a brand that is cutting edge, and inherently in-tune with a younger audience.

Brands, like people, should be true to themselves. The industry is all about authenticity these days. If you find yourself asking what are those hip young people listening to these days?, you’re probably on the wrong track. People see right through that stuff. Nothing against Jack Harlow, but does he really match the KFC brand?

You Probably Just Want a Jingle

From the seventies to the nineties, it seemed almost every commercial had a full sing jingle. Today, full-sing jingles are out of fashion, but the jingle itself is far from ineffective.

Many years ago Head and Shoulders approached The Police about using their hit song Don’t Stand So Close To Me. The band thought about it, and in the end they decided they didn’t want people to forever associate their song with dandruff. This was the right decision, both for preserving the band’s artistic integrity, but also for the advertiser.

In the end, this was a missed opportunity, not for the band, but the brand. If the goal was to highlight an aspect of the product musically, they could have satisfied all the above points with an original composition. By doing so according to audio branding guidelines, they could have produced something that reflects the brand’s values, builds brand equity, and at the same time offers something original, memorable, and impactful.

Plus it would still be a heck of a lot cheaper.

If you’re interested in digging deeper on this topic, check out this episode of the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast. Some of the facts here came from it, and they go much more in depth.