How Music Makes Good Ads Great

Our digital strategist, Jim Wolff, was recently on a panel at XpoNorth all about ‘Music Supervision’: Using Music to Make You Laugh, Cry or Buy’. Here’s some of the stuff he rambled on about…

To help prepare for XpoNorth I put out an all-staffer and a tweet asking people:

Which ads are made great by their music?

Normally you get a grunt of feedback trickling in, and the odd two fingers in a GIF, but this time the response was massive. It touched a nerve. Or rather struck a chord. I got a deluge of replies, and someone even congratulated me on ‘email of the year’. What an accolade.

It made me appreciate two things: just how crucial good music or sound is to an ad or piece of film, and how much people love it when ads and music go well together.

There are times when the ad and the music are so perfectly matched that they make something better than the sum of their parts. Some of the most popular answers that came back included…

Guinness ‘Surfer’

Featuring Leftfield’s ‘Phat Planet’, this ad heralded their much anticipated 2nd album, arguably better than any music video could. And it did Guinness a world of credibility goodness, that they’ve never topped since. Good to know Leftfield are finishing the sets of their recent tour with this track, nearly 20 years later.

Levi’s ‘Laundrette’

Another classic in advertising history, this was a great bit of creative and film-making, but it wouldn't have been the same without Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard it through the grapevine’. It helped push the song back up to number 8 in the UK charts at the time, and is credited with bringing soul to a new generation. It also helped establish BBH and got Levis flying off the shelves. Though Brian in Birmingham didn't quite get the same response when he stripped off in his local laundromat.

Dunlop ‘Tested for the Unexpected’

Another from the nineties (seems like a theme here), this surrealist masterpiece fit the Velvet Undeground’s ‘Venus in furs’ perfectly, making tires somehow enigmatic and strangely beguiling. Gone are the days of surrealist ads, which is a shame, as they have a knack of nestling into your subconscious and pitching up unannounced in your dreams.

Carling ‘Big Match’

Had to get a Leith ad in there somewhere. But hopefully for good reason. The tune from the practically invented the word earworm, and helped get the ad voted as the number one football ad of all time.

Channel 4′s Paralympics ‘Meet the Superhumans’

Another triumph of film-making and storytelling, with a soundtrack featuring Publc Enemy’s ‘Harder than you Think’ and sound design that takes it to a whole other level. If you care, the original sample is from Shirley Bassey’s ‘Jezahel’. Another belter.

And the list goes on…


One of the things that came up on the panel was how music makes things stick in your head better. Sometimes for years. An example that came to mind features an old HEBS ad ‘Stinx’ written by Leith copywriter Chris Watson.

This is still remembered word for word by a few of the more recent starts at Leith who take great pleasure in singing it back to him. Who says public service advertising doesn't work?


Some ads have helped launch music careers too. Levi’s in the 80s and 90s have a lot to answer for, thanks to Mr Oizo’s ‘Flat Eric’, Babylon Zoo’s ‘Spaceman’ and Scottish band Stiltskin.

There are others too. From Jose Gonzales (off the Sony ‘Balls’ ad) to Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’ on the Tennent’s ad of the same name, ads help give music and artists exposure they wouldn’t otherwise have. Caledonia’s rocky reworking for the Tennent’s ad for example took the song from a niche folky audience to number one in the Scottish charts. Back when Scotland had charts.


But a word of warning. Ads can soil a perfectly good piece of music for good. Think the ‘I believe in Penicuik’ ad for Penicuik windows. Errol Brown is still turning in his freshly-dug grave…

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