David Browne
January 12, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

Last year’s flirty intermingling of pop music and Madison Avenue will go down in the history books, but not for the reasons you think. Yes, it was disconcerting to see Sting shill for Jaguar or ‘N Sync have it their way with Burger King; ”selling out” now seems a quainter notion than a less-than-$50 concert ticket. But in reality, rock stars have been pitchmen before: In the ’80s, Eric Clapton pimped for beer as Michael Jackson moonwalked for soda.

The fresh twist in the wedding of rock tunes to commercials is far more unexpected. Long, long ago, one would flip on the radio to hear new music, switching stations when ads — with their irritating jingles — came on. But we are now living in a strange parallel universe in which exactly the opposite is true. The year 2000 will be noted as the one in which tunes in commercials became more adventurous than the bulk of what’s heard on the airwaves or broadcast on Total Request Live.

The first rumblings of this trend were felt when electronica cuts like Fatboy Slim’s ”Praise You” and selections from Moby’s much-licensed Play began showing up in ads for sneakers and department stores. Initially, this development didn’t appear too outlandish; with its emphasis on rhythm and soundtracky lushness, techno was a natural for sales pitches. Then, in late 1999, the long-deceased cult act Nick Drake popped up in a Volkswagen spot. Even stranger, the combination was effective in several ways: Drake received long-overdue recognition, and Volkswagen received credibility points, at least for its music taste.

As a seeming result of those campaigns’ success — call it the Moby dictum — the floodgates for using esoteric pop in commercials burst open. A warm and fuzzy, cuddling-couples spot for FTD features the Lemonheads’ grunge-era ”Into Your Arms.” As curious as it is to hear Evan Dando hawking flowers, it certainly is nice to hear this robust little song again. Meanwhile, the Gap appears to be on a quest to find its own Nick Drake. A snippet of ”All Mixed Up” by British brooders the Red House Painters wafts through one current spot; Badly Drawn Boy’s recent ”The Shining” (which owes an even larger debt to Drake) washes over another. The power-pop guitar crunch of the Dandy Warhols’ ”Boys Better” blares through yet another.

It’s unimaginable that those songs or genres would be heard on anything but the most experimental college or Internet stations. But whether it’s because aging alt-rock fans are now employed by ad agencies or because research shows that their peers have lots of disposable income, there the tracks are, in prime-time commercials. Volkswagen also employs cuts by Stereolab and Fluke; one new spot uses the sandblasting techno of Rinocerose’s ”La Guitaristic House Organisation.” To pump up the volume for its new Focus model, Ford licensed the nearly 20-year-old techno classic ”No UFO’s” by Model 500 (otherwise known as influential Detroit DJ Juan Atkins). Even the use of oldies is unpredictable: One Target ad features Canned Heat’s ”Let’s Work Together,” hardly a staple of classic-rock radio despite the boogie band’s ’60s pedigree.

In that regard, the unconventional marketing of Sting’s ”Desert Rose” is instructive. Sting wasn’t shy about getting in bed with corporations last year — witness his ads for Compaq and a free New York concert that doubled as a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Best Buy chain — but pop radio’s indifference toward his Brand New Day album forced him to seek other outlets. Along came Jaguar, which featured Sting and ”Desert Rose” in a spot and thus salvaged both song and album. It’s ironic, to say the least, that the advertising community proved far more receptive to Cheb Mami’s eerie wail than the music business that had embraced Sting for two decades. The ad itself, in which Sting nods off on stage and dreams of being driven around in a Jag by a black-masked female chauffeur, was more evocative than many videos, too.

Madison Avenue hasn’t transformed into a completely dark, edgy street; hip-hop, for instance, has yet to be exploited to any major degree. But imagine if some enterprising label compiled all the above-named cuts onto an album and dubbed it Ad Rock! It would be guaranteed to kick NOW…5’s ass.

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