Bob Dylan and the Art of Commercial Affiliation
Guitars, cars, computers, yogurt, whiskey, chainsaws and more
“My Blues is Too Sacred. I Wouldn’t Sell Flour.”
“A lot of musicians have always been proud to have commercial affiliation. Sonny Boy Williamson sold flour. I can’t imagine Sonny Boy saying, ‘My blues is too sacred. I wouldn’t sell flour.’ Jimmie Rodgers sold biscuits. Sheryl Crow sells hair dye. More power to her.”
“And Jackie, have you ever seen a Victoria’s Secret ad?”
~ Bob Dylan, responding to an email criticizing Sheryl Crow’s “Not Fade Away” Revlon commercial. Theme Time Radio Hour, 2007
The legend goes that an angry Bob Dylan once called a radio station after hearing a Dylan sound-alike hawking cut-out bin protest songs. When told it was from a comedy album —1972's National Lampoon “Radio Dinner” — Dylan reportedly replied, “Well, you people shouldn’t play it anymore unless you say it’s a joke.”
That was two decades before Dylan’s songs — sometimes Dylan himself—began appearing in commercials promoting products from the mundane (guitars, harmonicas, cars, beer, whiskey, computers, yogurt, a clothing line) to the weird (ladies undergarments, maybe chainsaws).
Bob Dylan has been consistent in his stance that he never bought into the “voice of a generation” Big Bubba of Rebellion label thrust upon him. If “Chronicles: Volume One” is any evidence, the opposite is true. You can’t sell out unless you’ve already bought in, and while the public might think his songs are memorable songs, thought-provoking songs, even life-changing songs, Dylan seems to look at them as just songs. And songs are how Bob Dylan earns his daily bread, whether from live performance, albums, publishing, licensing, or sometimes through commercial affiliation.
It didn’t bother me at all that Dylan licensed “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” I think all songs should go up on this block… it’s a way of finding out if songs that carry people with them, songs that seem tied to a particular place and time, can survive a radical recontextualization, or if that recontextualization dissolves them. The Beatles “Revolution” may never recover from its Nike commercial, but Coopers and Lybrand didn’t lay a glove on “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
~ Greil Marcus
While he hasn’t been shy about forging commercial affiliations that put some change in his pocket, not all the Dylan deals that go down are cynical money grabs. He can also be unusually generous with the licensing of his music, with nearly 1,000 Dylan songs appearing in movies and television shows of all stripes, often — according to several reports — at nominal cost. As a 2015 story in Variety relates, “… one could assume securing a Dylan track would be a potentially budget-busting proposition. But the pros who have dealt with the Dylan camp tell a different story.”
Song licensing can be a tedious and expensive business as you work your way through scores of gatekeepers, many of whose main focus is to clip off a piece of the action for themselves. But as the Variety article relates, thanks to Dylan owning the publishing rights to his music, there’s only one person a wannabe licensee need deal with, and that person is Bob Dylan — or more accurately, Dylan’s long-time factotum, Jeff Rosen, who has guided Dylan’s creative business dealings for over 30 years. “… It’s not only you need the answer in terms of the financials, but you also need a timely response, especially when you’re trying to finish a movie,” says Randall Poster, who worked with Rosen to secure music clearances for Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.” “Jeff is always very quick to respond and is always looking to make it work.”
Turning back to Dylan’s commercial affiliations, here’s some highlights from the past 50+ years of Dylan promoting everything from guitars to cars. More power to him.
1966 — the “ ‘…’ Plays Fender Musical Instruments” ads
The first Bob Dylan endorsement, the 1966 Fender print ads feature photos of Dylan taken by Don Hunstein in 1965 at the “Highway 61 Revisited” sessions. One photo was used as part of a group advertisement (Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Challengers, and members of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass). There was also a standalone ad of Dylan himself (“Bob Dylan Plays Fender Musical Instruments”). Both ads ran in various music-oriented publications from 1966 through 1967.
Dylan may not have seen any money from these ads. One account has it that Fender donated several pieces of equipment for the “Highway 61” sessions, so there may have been a “quid” for a “quo” of a shot of Dylan playing a Fender.
The guitar Dylan is seen holding is a Fender bass owned by 21-year-old session player Harvey Brooks. It may have amused Dylan to provide a photo of himself with a Fender musical instrument that he didn’t play.
Some three years later, an ironic coda to Dylan’s commercial affiliation with Fender would be an unauthorized ad sponsored by a London musical instrument store that ran — for a brief moment — in the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival program.
Whether Bob Dylan insisted on using Fender guitars at the Isle of Wight Festival or not, his legal representatives definitely insisted that the ad be pulled from the program. However, a few of the Festival programs made it past the vetting process, and those containing the Dylan bootlegged endorsement are now hot collector items.
1994–2018 “The Times They Are A-Changin’” Commercials
1994 — Coopers & Lybrand ( Richie Havens cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin”)
Some thirty-odd years after Bob Dylan’s first endorsement for Fender Musical Instruments, he inked a licensing deal for the use of his signature protest song, “The Times They Are A-Changin” in an accounting firm’s TV commercial. The move predictably ignited universal cries of “Sell Out!” and became an easy target for media criticism as well as engendering genuine fan unhappiness that the grandeur of “Times” had been sullied.
For Bob, it was just a song he wrote.” ~ Dylan publicist Eliot Mintz
Given that the license agreement specified that Dylan’s name couldn’t be used in any fashion, and that it wasn’t even his original song that played in the commercial but a cover of “Times” sung by Richie Havens, the reaction might be characterized as “ somewhat overwrought.”
As with most licensing deals — certainly all Bob Dylan licensing deals — how much the accountants at Coopers & Lybrand ponied up to Special Rider Music for their first use of “Times” is unknown, but speculation has it between $500,000 and $750,000 in fees, a small price to pay to steal the anthem of a generation and break that generation’s collective hearts. It may be indicative of the restrictions Dylan placed on the licensing that while nearly every other Dylan-associated commercial can be located on the Internet, the Coopers & Lybrand ad disappeared after a few airings in 1994 and today is nowhere to be found.
1996 — Bank of Montreal (cover version of “The Times They Are A-Changin”)
Waiting a couple of years to allow wounded fan’s feelings to heal, Dylan again licensed a cover version of “Times,” this time of a children’s choir singing an insipid version of the song to promote the Bank of Montreal. If anything, the outrage greeting this commercial was even more pronounced than the reaction to the Cooper & Lybrands ad culminating with Billy Bragg taking to the stage to sing “Times” in front of 200,000 people at a Toronto “Day of Action” and encouraging the crowd to reclaim the song from bankers and advertisers.
2005 — Kaiser Permanente (“The Times They Are A-Changin”, Bob Dylan)
“The Times They Are A-Changin” wouldn’t be used again for nearly a decade. The song reappeared as a clip taken from Bob Dylan’s original version in a television commercial for health insurer Kaiser Permanente.
“By connecting with consumers on an emotional level we needed to reinvent the language, champion a cause and redefine the system,” says the ad agency pitch in a virtual eruption of marketing-speak inanities to plug a very boring commercial featuring an overweight man trying to get into shape as Dylan’s “Times” plays in the background.
2018 — Western Governors University (“The Times They Are A-Changin”,
cover by Sonia Solorzano)
The on-line nonprofit Western Governors University featured an Internet-only commercial using a pretty cover version of “Times” by Sonia Solorzano. You can view the ad here, or watch Ms. Solorzano perform the full song without commercial affiliation below.
1997–2015 Computers & Cars
1997 Apple “Think Different” campaign
Chiat/Day’s “Think Different” television commercial featured black and white footage of the world’s most popular movers and shakers including our boy Bob Dylan. The print campaign comprised magazine ads and promotional posters using black and white images of many of the same celebrities.
Like the Fender Instruments campaign thirty years earlier, it’s unclear whether Dylan was actually paid anything for his (perhaps unwilling) participation in the Apple ads. While Steve Jobs bragged that he had personally convinced Yoko Ono and Joan Baez to license their images for the “Think Different” campaign, Jobs’ legendary charm apparently left Bob Dylan unmoved. Although a poster of Dylan was created, it was not officially released due to licensing issues which were never resolved. While a few made it into the wild, most of the Dylan “Think Different” posters offered for sale today are — appropriately — bootleg reproductions.
2002 — Volkswagen Phaeton Campaign
“Is this just a musician?” the Volkswagen Phaeton television and print ads asked rhetorically. “Is this just a car?” While the answer to the former question was definitely “Nein,” the answer to the latter was “Wahrscheinlich.”
Bob Dylan licensed clips from “Don’t Look Back” and yet another photo taken at the “Highway 61” session to promote the Phaeton in Germany when VW introduced the car in 2002. While the Phaeton ad would be Dylan’s first car commercial, it wouldn’t be his last.
2006 — Apple iPod/iTunes commercial
In a co-op campaign, Dylan promoted both the release of his new album, “Modern Times” and Apple iTunes in a slick television commercial featuring “Someday Baby.”
2007 — Cadillac / XM Radio commercial
In 2006, Dylan launched “Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host, Bob Dylan” — an XM satellite radio show that would run for three years and 100 episodes with Himself acting as deejay. During its second season “Theme Time” began opening with a “Sponsored by Cadillac” bumper, an outlier move for a show on the subscription-based XM Radio, which aggressively promoted itself as a commercial-free alternative to broadcast radio. The Cadillac sponsorship deal was probably cut to help offset the cost of Dylan’s show — rumored to be the largest single expense on XM Radio’s books after Major League Baseball licensing.
The three word ad was just the tip of the Cadillac commercial affiliation iceberg. In October 2007, Theme Time Radio Hour’s 56th episode centered around the theme of “Cadillac,” with some 15-odd songs — from “A Pretty Girl (A Cadillac And Some Money)” to “Be Thankful For What You Got” — all name-checking the car in one way or another. In lesser hands the episode might have been an embarrassing, clunky promotional tie-in to its sponsor. Thanks to writer Eddie Gorodetsky’s eclectic music selection and producer Ben Rollins’ oversight, the “Cadillac” episode was one of the show’s strongest. Complementary television commercials featuring Dylan behind the wheel of a Cadillac promoting the car, XM Radio, and “Theme Time” were also aired during 2007.
2010 — Google Instant Commercial
Originally shown at the 2010 “Google Search” event in San Francisco, the commercial cuts between shots of Dylan’s cue card “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video and a Google Instant search displaying results based on what Dylan is singing.
The Weird and the Whacked-Out
2003–2004 Victoria’s Secret “Lovesick” campaign
The Victoria’s Secret “Angels in Venice” TV spot is probably the best known of all Bob Dylan commercial affiliations. Dylan had already licensed his song “Love Sick” from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind” to the company, and authorized a special in-store-only CD. This 2004 ad was the first time he appeared “live” on-screen in a commercial.
And what a commercial it was. Supermodel Adriana Lima struts her stuff. Cut to Dylan. He throws his cowboy hat to the floor, and stares bleakly into the camera. Lima, pouting and clad in signature Victoria’s Secret unmentionables and angel wings, now wears the hat. What does it all mean?
Reporter: “If you were to sell out to ‘commercial interests’, what would they be?”
Dylan: “Ladies’ garments.”
2012 — Brother Printers (“The Times They Are A-Changin” cover by “The Printer Orchestra”
Hands-down the weirdest use of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is this 2012 commercial for Brother Printers. Ninety-seven different pieces of computer equipment were modified to create “The Printer Orchestra.”
2014 — Chrysler Super Bowl Commercial
There’s so much strangeness going on in this commercial that it would take another full article to decipher, from Mr. D’s ah, “unique” appearance — Plastic surgery or an excess of makeup? A wig or bad perm? — to its bizarro script, reproduced in its entirety below, which certainly did not come from any ad agency writer’s hand, unless s/he were on serious drugs and decided to kiss her/his commercial career goodbye. Is there anything more Dylan than Dylan?
Is there anything more American than America?
’Cause you can’t import original
You can’t fake true cool
You can’t duplicate legacy
Because what Detroit created was a first
and became an inspiration to the rest of the world
Yeah…Detroit made cars. And cars made America
Making the best, making the finest, takes conviction
And you can’t import, the heart and soul
of every man and woman working on the line
You can search the world over for the finer things,
but you won’t find a match for the American road
and the creatures that live on it
Because we believe in the zoom,
and the roar, and the thrust
And when it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing
you can’t import from anywhere else.
So let Germany brew your beer
Let Switzerland make your watch
Let Asia assemble your phone
We will build your cars.
2015 — “Bob Dylan & IBM Watson on Language”
Dylan and IBM’s AI supercomputer have a heart-to-heart where Watson shares that he’s read all of Dylan’s song lyrics in order to improve its language skills. According to an IBM spokesperson, the company actually did use the Watson computer to analyze 320 Dylan songs and that, as Watson relates, Dylan’s main themes are the passing of time and fading love.
? — Husqvarna Endorser Bob Dylan
Created by Norwegian Dylan fan Dag Braathen, you might write this off as just another parody advertisement, except it sure sounds like something Bob Dylan would write and was tweeted by the official Husqvarna Twitter account. Even if it’s not a real advertisement, it should be.
The photo in the ad uses a picture taken from the little-seen 1989 movie “Backtrack” where Dylan plays a chainsaw-wielding sculptor. Maybe in some alternate universe someone at Husqvarna was one of the few who actually saw “Backtrack,” noticed that Dylan was wearing a safety hat with the company’s logo, asked for an endorsement, and an amused Dylan came up with, “I like to roam around in the woods, cutting down trees, man, there ain’t nothin’ like it!”
2018 — Heaven’s Door Whiskey (a night at the circus with Jimmy Fallon)
Introduced in 2018, Heaven’s Door is a line of pricey handcrafted whiskeys with each bottle featuring artwork of Dylan’s ironwork sculptures. Dylan is promoted as the whiskey/bourbon “co-creator” in PR blurbs, and likes the line of booze well enough to have done this “not-an-ad” ad with Jimmy Fallon on its behalf.