The Song's Just Wrong

Slate advertising critic Seth Stevenson talks with Madeleine Brand about his listener survey of the most misused songs in television commercials. Listeners chose "Lust for Life," Iggy Pop's ode to drug culture, which is featured in an ad for the Royal Caribbean cruise line.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Last week, the advertising critic for our online partner, Slate magazine--that's Seth Stevenson--Seth issued a challenge. He asked readers and listeners to send in nominations for songs that have been misused in commercials. What we're talking about is songs whose meaning is contrary to what you'd think the advertiser was trying to get across. Well, write in you did about how songs like Janis Joplin's "Mercedes-Benz" was later used in a commercial by the carmaker.

(Soundbite of "Mercedes-Benz")

Ms. JANIS JOPLIN: (Singing) Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz. My friends all drive Porsches. I must make amends.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand discussed this and other transgressions with Slate's Seth Stevenson.

SETH STEVENSON reporting:

This ad came out--I believe it was in the mid-'90s--and people at the time were pretty outraged. And people still have it in their memories. A lot of people wrote in about how tragic it is that Janis Joplin, you know, sings this song that's all--it's, you know, an ironic song about capitalism and materialism, and Mercedes-Benz jumps on it to sell luxury automobiles.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

OK, number two is "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. And this one is for Wrangler jeans.

(Soundbite of "Fortunate Son")

Mr. JOHN FOGERTY (Creedence Clearwater Revival): (Singing) Some folks are born made to wave the flag, ooh, that red, white and blue...

BRAND: And this got people's ire up.

STEVENSON: Yes, because just as we did just now, they faded out right after those initial two lines, `Some folks are born made to wave the flag, ooh, their red, white and blue.' And then the next line is, `And when the band plays "Hail to the Chief," they point the cannon at you.' And it's a song that's a really angry song about the Vietnam War and about privilege. And Wrangler just sort of glosses over all of that, uses the first two lines, and it turns into a song that's about bland patriotism and a song about selling jeans. And to see it used this way, it's just galling.

BRAND: OK, well, we don't want to gall anyone. So let's play those two lines.

(Soundbite of "Fortunate Son")

Mr. FOGERTY: (Singing) And when the band plays "Hail to the Chief," ooh, they point the cannon at you.

BRAND: Well, and speaking of an anti-establishment hero for a lot of people--Iggy Pop. I think a lot of people prematurely rolled over in their graves when they heard him singing this song for Royal Caribbean cruise lines.

(Soundbite of "Lust for Life")

Mr. IGGY POP: (Singing) Here I come jamming in again with liquor and drugs and a fast machine.

BRAND: OK, liquor and drugs on a Royal Caribbean cruise line.

STEVENSON: You don't actually hear that lyric in the commercials, funnily enough. Yeah, this one was the number-one response from people, I think, partly because the commercial gets shown so often and it's been on recently. This song is about a lot of things. It doesn't seem so much like it's about a fun family cruise and azure waters and snorkeling in a little lagoon. One of the people who wrote in to me said, `Nothing says maritime comfort like a song about shooting up junk.'

BRAND: (Laughs) Well, I wonder if people are angrier at the advertisers or angrier at the rock stars. I mean, Iggy Pop--why is he selling "Lust for Life" to Royal Caribbean cruise lines?

STEVENSON: Most of the people who wrote in weren't so mad at Iggy Pop. They said, `Hey, you know, good for him to get the money.' You know, I'm sure he was really confused when Royal Caribbean wanted to use his song for their cruises. I think what people are just stunned about is that the advertisers would use these songs and just ignore what the lyrics are and what they're about. And also people, I think, are a little angry at the masses out there who don't know what the song is about and who say, `Hey, catchy drum beat, "Lust for Life," all right, sounds good,' and don't know anything about the actual underlying meaning.

BRAND: Contest results from Seth Stevenson, who has his own lust for life. He writes the Ad Report Card column for our partners at the online magazine slate.com.

Thanks a lot, Seth.

STEVENSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of "Lust for Life")

Mr. POP: (Singing) Got a lust for life...

CHADWICK: That interview by DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand.

Our show continues in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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