By on June 13, 2010

Music and scents. That’s what surrounds me during my work at car shows. The music tries to drown out the display next door. The ladies, gentlemen, even the cars in the booth are carefully perfumed. (There are other scents … but let’s not go there.)  Nothing evokes a greater emotional response than music and scents. Retail establishments have figured out how to get to you via your nose and ears for years. Until Smell-O-Vision is actually rolled out, TV advertising has to be content with the music side of things. Luckily, most auto manufacturers know exactly how to push our buttons with a great tune. Here are some of my personal faves.

(Double play bonus: Clicking on the song title gets you to the original song – except for one.)

This commercial for the Cadillac SRX didn’t make me go out and buy a crossover, but it did make me get on iTunes and download the Phoenix album. It’s so good that one YouTube commenter said, “This car should come with the song pre-installed in it. Why? So you can drive down the road pretending your [sic] in the commercial.”

“1901” by Phoenix

VW has a huge hard-on for Wilco, as evidenced by no less than five songs used in their commercials (and I don’t think that count is accurate; it is definitely not less but could be more). In fact, the band and VW used the album Sky Blue as a joint marketing effort in 2007 as means to their own ends.

“Sky Blue Sky” by Wilco

I swear I’m not a shill for Lincoln (I don’t even rep them at the auto show) but they have blown my mind with this space ship ad campaign. Eye-catching images and haunting music make you feel like maybe you, a person who is or still feels like they should be in their late 20’s, should run out and buy a traditionally grandpa-ish vehicle because the music is just that cool.


“Burning for You” by Shiny Toy Guns

“Major Tom (Coming Home)” by Shiny Toy Guns

(ED: Did you know that the soundtrack is a German import? Major Tom (völlig losgelöst) by Peter Schilling became a hit in Germany in 1983, a year later it was released in the USA as Major Tom (coming home) by the same artist. The German version is still a hit in certain European clubs where people go on trips into other galaxies … nuff said.)

“Under the Milky Way” by Sia

“High Roller” by The Crystal Method (Get it? Get it?)

And for LOLS…

Freakin’ Kia and their hilarious hamsters… So much better than the alternative. They’re kickin’ it old school in this Soul commercial.

“This or That” by Black Sheep

And the LOL Champion: Toyota Sienna Swagger Wagon (although what Dad’s doing to the giant baby bottle at the end looks rather obscene…)

“Swagger Wagon” by The Sienna Family (This will get you back to the video. Toyota actually paid for a new song, instead of recycling an old one. And created a minor hit.)

I’m glad I find this funny, because I have a sneaking suspicion Toyota will have this playing very, very loudly on heavy rotation throughout all next auto show season – loud enough to hear it at least five displays over.

What’s your favorite car commercial tune?

The Booth Babe is an anonymous auto show model who dishes about what really goes on behind the scenes. Read her blog at And if you treat her nicely, read her each Sunday at

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33 Comments on “The Booth Babe Chronicles: The Song And Dance Of Car Commercials...”

  • avatar

    In Major Tom, (SPOILER ALERT!), the protagonist dies. I want to buy a car associated with death. I have not heard such a dumb association since Wrangler jeans used Fortunate Son by CCR.

    Mercury introduced me to Morning Wood; likewise Cadillac with Phoenix. I prefer an ad that exposes me to new music rather than make a borrowed association with an old song.

  • avatar

    I feel like I don’t pay that much attention to the actual music in car commercials. I knew the music in the Kia/Hamster commercial was hip hop and thought it was pretty cool but that didn’t make me want to buy the music. I noticed the music in the Lincoln commercial cause I thought it was a pretty desperate grab by Lincoln at a more youthful market. I remember when Cadillac was using Led Zeppelin or some old 70s/80s heavy metal cause again I thought it was a funny choice. I’m most likely to notice the music in a commercial if it is from someone who is a “big deal” musician, but I only notice it long enough to think “sellout.”

  • avatar

    The songs of my stoned youth are used to sell me Cadilacs?

  • avatar

    Nice article. I just spent a half hour enjoying most of the music. Thanks

  • avatar

    So, if Ford comes out with a new Pinto, should they use Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’?

  • avatar

    Some trivia from someone who’s been there. In order to use a song in a commercial, you need to obtain the rights to it. This can be ( and usually is) an ordeal. It is usually cheaper to compose and record your own soundtrack than to go through the mess of obtaining a proper license.

    You need two licenses.

    A synchronization or “sync” license that gives you the right to use the song in films or other visual media. That license comes from the copyright holder to that song. It doesn’t give you the rights to the recording. Just the rights to the melody and the lyrics. Even if you hire the London Symphony and re-record that song, you need the sync license. If you want to use an existing recording, you need the sync license, but it is worthless without …

    A master license. That gives you the permission to use a previously recorded song in films or other visual media. The rights are usually held by a record company. Master rights are worthless unless you also have synchronization rights to the underlying song.

    The bigger the company is, the more expensive the two licenses will be. As you must negotiate with two entirely separate parties, getting a deal with one does not guarantee a deal with the other party.

    Using the ditty internationally can open a whole other can of worms, as licenses are often owned by different parties in different countries.

    It usually gets HIGHLY INTERESTING when a small subsidiary in a far-away land decides that this is a cool commercial, and because their budget is limited, they just take the commercial, add a new voice-over in the local lingo and air it without asking HQ. After all, the company owns it. Then the copyright holder (either one, or both) get wind of it, and all hell breaks loose, because the licenses contracts usually have territorial limitations.

    Lawyers love this.

    • 0 avatar

      The first thing I thought of after I read your comment was the song Money Talks by AC/DC is applicable when it comes to obtaining the licenses for a song.

  • avatar

    83-84 Volkswagen GTI commercial with Little GTI in German, a play on The Beach Boys Little GTO. Very fun.

    I think Mitsubishi did a great job 7-8 years ago with their music choices. They (quite suddenly) made their cars seem fun.

    Linking danger and cars, Major Tom dying…first off, I never put two and two together with that commercial, not sure how many would. Secondly, depending on the market, even if folks do pick up a whiff of dark foreboding, for the right vehicle (Challenger, Mustang, Camaro, or car that’s looking for this mystique) I say it’s a great thing. Throw an AC/DC commercial at the right black car, dark tinted windows…you have a winner.

  • avatar

    Blue Oyster Cult and Concrete Blond would like a word with you.

  • avatar

    Subaru Canada had a WRX commercial with Falco’s Amadeus (NDW!) that I love.

    Mitsubishi had a commercial featuring the Prototypes singing Je Ne Te Connais Pas that I liked so much, I bought the CD.

  • avatar

    Someone once said “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. But I can’t figure out which half it is.” I suspect it’s the fortune spent on getting the rights to pop music. Or maybe it’s both halves.

    But I do concede that Dinah Shore belting out “See the USA in your Chevrolet” was a pretty good message. Plus, there was no herky-jerky MTV-type 90-cuts-per-minute camera work in the dark.

  • avatar

    I can go on with this theme for an annoyingly long time (I’m a musician and formally studied music before deciding to get Literature degrees), but I’ll try to keep it brief.

    For some reason, Mazda’s use of music appeals to me, even in this simple, straightforward marriage of sound and imagery for the Mazdaspeed 3:

    But I’d have likely bought one if I wasn’t so concerned about reliability, so I’m biased.

    But the company essentially built its current brand identity out of a song:
    Zoom-Zoom (I didn’t find a better version of the ad/song):

    Finally, even though this isn’t the type of music I listen to and it’s very unlikely I’ll ever drive a VW Cabrio, I think this ad uses a combination of music and imagery to create a perfect moment in time:

  • avatar

    The music in the Lincoln ads is great. Right after hearing the Shiny Toy Guns cover of Major Tom I went and downloaded it from iTunes. Lincoln actually made a CD (and gave tons of copies to all the dealers to give out to customers as a freebie) with the full songs of the covers of Major Tom, Under the Milky Way, Burning for You, and an (as of yet unreleased in commercial) cover of Golden Earing’s Twilight Zone. Alas, the one that I’d really like to hear and have would be the full version of Cat Power’s Space Oddity, but it hasn’t been released.

    My absolute favorite fusion of music and car commercial though is this VW Rabbit ad with Patrick and Eugene’s The Birds and the Bees, such a catchy tune, and such a fun little commercial, it really made me want to go out and buy a Rabbit.

    I still detest the Swagger Wagon. I dislike marketing anything as ‘urban’, associations with hip hop and ‘street culture’ makes me want to distance myself from something rather than go buy it, but that Kia ad is too adorable not to love. The song reminds me a lot of the Fatboy Slim song Weapon of Choice though, which had an equally entertaining video of Christopher Walken flying around a hotel lobby…

    • 0 avatar

      Hate to break it to you, Shiny Toy Guns had that song as a free download off their website right when the advert came out. This was before it was even available on iTunes. (I know this because I tried to get it too, and was denied until I searched on Google).

      Best song in an ad – or possibly the best car ad ever. 300ZX and Van Halen:

      … Youtube keeps on taking this ad offline since it uses copywritten music (the irony is laid on thick)… so the audio sounds a bit funny to bypass their audio-screening process.

      The worst combination of audio and cars in an ad was Chrysler and Celine Dion (she pimped lots of cars but the Pacifica bombed the worst of them all):

      … Youtube should just take all the Celine ads down because they’re a huge steaming pile of poo that cost a few people their jobs.

  • avatar

    Sorry “Booth Babe”. Music and commercials don’t get me interested in cars, or the music. A commercial doesn’t make me want to buy a car. A frickin decently put together car (getting harder to find) makes me want to buy a car.

    • 0 avatar

      I would imagine you would never get a job in marketing… the whole premise of marketing is to understand that there are multiple types of customer behaviors and interests and trying to target them effectively. The goal is to crate awareness and to have a positive foundation to build subsequent exposures. Your notion of a well-built car is in the realm of engineering and manufacturing excellence. Would you rather marketing tell you the car is well made, or would you prefer that they assume you’re smart enough to go out and research the car on your own and go for a test drive?

      The absolute worst trait for a marketer is when they think “gee wiz, what would it take to get me to buy this?” You’re setting up for gigantic failure the moment you start marketing to yourself through your own advertisements.

      Volkswagen has been doing their kitchy feel-good-hipster-professional-JCrew-catalog ads (Bertel – I’m sorry if I’m off the mark about the JCrew … maybe it’s Eddie-Bauer-meets-American-Eagle) for years trying to target a specific audience. These ads get you aware of products and then the marketers expect potential customers to do the research and car buying antics that would ultimately place them into a VW because those people liked the car.

      This is also why beer commercials rarely show much beer but instead hold your attention just long enough so you can hear some words about “triple hops” and “king of beers.” A vast number of people would not immediately go drink Bud because the Japanese sushi chef said “WWHHHAAAZZZZZABIIII.” However, at the time of sale hopefully their slight affinity towards particular cheap beer causes them to pick up that pack Bud instead of Milwaukee’s Best.

    • 0 avatar
      thats one fast cat

      Thanks for posting the Nissan 300ZX ad – I agree, possibly the best ad of all time. Makes me want to run out and find a pristine 95 (or was 96 the last year) 300ZXTT if it weren’t for the worst placement of a seatbelt design EVER.

  • avatar

    1.Pontiac GTO ad

    2.1980s Pontiac

    3.Buick Somerset

  • avatar

    Good music will get me to pay attention to any commercial. My favourite commercial of all time is this Peugot 206 ad:

    The music at the end is pretty catchy.

  • avatar

    I’m a big Crystal Method fan, and I’m personally surprised more of their stuff doesn’t end up in commercials because it has that post-modern wide-yet-hip appeal that Moby had**. High Roller is a good song; so it Wide Open (that must have been used for someone’s ad for something) and American Way just begs to be used in a Cadillac ad.

    ** before every track from Play was used to hock everything under the sun

  • avatar

    Another good exploration of music and car ads are Mitsubishi’s spots from a few years back. Lots of good stuff, there (some Paul Oakenfold, Overseer’s now-overplayed Horndog, etc).

  • avatar

    Hamsters doing Black Sheep for the win. I don’t understand why they stopped just before the best part of the track though. Engine engine number nine…

  • avatar

    I’m surprised that no one caught the mistake for the Kia ad. The song is called “The Choice is Yours,” not “This or That.”

    OK, maybe I’m not at all surprised.

  • avatar

    I first heard “Do You Realize”, by The Flaming Lips, from a Mitsubishi ad. That’s the most memorable one for me.

  • avatar

    It’s been years since it was common, but Toyota (back in the “what a feeling” days) used to always use this old tune as backdrop for their deal adverts – Badfinger’s Come and Get It. I found it highly ironic since the song speaks about a “fool and his money” and it’s being used to get people to go down to the dealer and buy a car.

    It’s not a car commercial, but the irony of the musical choice stands out just as clear as Toyota’s, especially since I heard somewhere that the “Whiteboard” commercial for UPS was supposedly some kind of award winner. The use of Such Great Heights by – of all bands – The Postal Service strikes me as a CMO oversight on the part of UPS.

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    For the record, I will quote-unquote knock the bottom out of that Swagger Wagon chick if I ever have the chance. And by “have the chance”, I mean “catch her unguarded”.

  • avatar
    7th Frog

    I love Wilco…VW not so much.

    Those swagger wagon spots irritate me to no end. That mom and dad are about the two most punchable people on TV right now.

    The “Dogs Love Trucks” spot with the Peanuts song has always been my favorite.

  • avatar

    Let’s not forget Mitsubishi using Dirty Vegas “Days Gone By” for the new Eclipse –

  • avatar

    not exactly my type of music, but I thought it was perfect or this ad

  • avatar

    @ Bertel Schmitt… you owe us an Autobiography on BS dedicated to ad music rights acquisition….man i miss that series

  • avatar

    I am hoplessly late with this one, just got to watching all the comercials now, but this is one of my favorites, catchy tune and they Thurogood reworked the lyrics for the legendary Buick…

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