Drive my car

When most of their products are minor variations on a bland theme, how can the big manufacturers appeal to the car-buying punter? Simple. Use a good pop song. Even a bad one will do...
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Sting, The Who, The Pretenders and M People are each sufficiently high up the pop food-chain to trumpet their latest album releases with a front cover interview in Q magazine, in which they will pronounce on the inspiration behind the latest CD, and anything else you'd care to think of. These are proper, hard-working, time-served stars, masters of the three-minute pop song, the catchy chorus, the insistent riff. All of which, it seems, is no longer enough. Today, each artist also has a part-time job selling cars.

That's because a roster of performers, both famous and not-so, are responsible for forging what one automotive industry product planner blithely terms a "primary recall mechanism". A primary recall mechanism is what a car company gets when it pays a pop act to use a hit single as the soundtrack for a television advertisement. "From a car point of view," says Peugeot's Chris Edwards, "it's often difficult to find a unique selling point." In any market sector, rival products tend to be virtually indistinguishable in hardware - in price, performance, practicality, quality, reliability, cost of ownership. "What Peugeot has concentrated on is trying to create emotional differences. The music is part of that sensual sell."

The sensual sell for Peugeot's 406 was starkly monochrome, vaguely surreal and underpinned by M People's "Search for the Hero". Imagery for the 405, the car's predecessor, centred on burning cane fields and Berlin singing "Take My Breath Away". That's two product lines from the same manufacturer, split by eight years and billions of francs in advanced r&d, released into the community against the same advertising strategy. Strong visuals, proven pop record: job cracked.

Sting's "An Englishman in New York" forms the centrepiece of the latest Rover 200 campaign. Scenario: bloke zips around NYC in nimble Rover, avoids getting crushed by a Checker cab and hassled by various strains of urban streetlife before driving into a cargo lift and parking the car in his fashionably spacious loft in front of his fashionably caring other half. Why Sting?

"What we wanted to show at the time was the relaxation aspect of the consumer," says Steve Bale, managing partner of Ammirati Puris Lintas, Rover's ad agency. "What we also wanted to show was that, in the face of adversity, a Rover driver did not suffer aggravation and hassle. In terms of trying to achieve that, the New York environment was a good example of something which is alien and confrontational."

But why Sting? " 'An Englishman in New York' is not only a very enjoyable piece of music, but also the lyrics says an awful lot about the idea that we had. It actually supported that idea."

Sting got paid for his tune. No one in advertising will even hint at the fees received by performers in return for moving metal, but a six- figure sum would appear to be a starting point for negotiation with an A-list act. The sums are calculated on projected usage - on radio, cinema or TV - and will depend to a large degree on the savvy of the artist's advisers. There are perks to be had, too. According to Colin Edwards, the members of M People are also "involved in driving some of our cars".

Yet just how carefully thought-through is the selection process? "Take My Breath Away" was a success for Peugeot as it had previously been used in the Tom Cruise fighter pilot movie Top Gun, soundtracking wall-to-wall high-tech, advanced aerobatics and extensive kissing of Kelly McGillis, each the kind of activity the average male 405 owner might readily associate with. On the other hand, it's hard to fathom the associative connection between Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" - a paean to the benefits of drug rehabilitation - and the Ford Fiesta family runabout it breezily celebrates in ad breaks.

Ford's latest ad for the Probe coupe is all sepia tones and a deeply enigmatic visual style superimposed on "Fly Me to the Moon" performed by Julie London. It wasn't always so. According to Tom Pallister, director of marketing for British Ford, the original dance track selected "didn't research well", and was dropped. "We normally don't choose the music until about two weeks before we go on air," he says.

Yet music remains a key element in the differentiation of product in an era of automotive conformity. "It's like black-and-white advertising photography," admits one product planner, who requested anonymity. "Music is just another tool to be used when you want to give a product personality."

The idiosyncracies of national taste can also be accommodated by careful use of pop. In Germany, Honda needed to reposition its Accord as a slightly warmer, friendlier product in a market fixated with dour technology, so Steely Dan's upbeat, urbane "Do it Again" was used as a cornerstone of the TV campaign. In Italy, the Accord was to be perceived instead as quirky and individual. The musical choice was between Tangerine Dream and Enya. Enya lost.

It is possible to get the wrong end of the stick. "Imagine if Lada used an acid house track," muses the planner. "That wouldn't work with the over-sixties who buy the product. Then there's Volvo and Ford who are using music to reposition the product in people's minds, but they're doing it far too quickly."

Possibly. But if pop music can sell cars, then cars can be made to sell pop music. European road users will probably be familiar with Volkswagen's standing association with such rock eminences as Bon Jovi and the Rolling Stones (the VW Golf Bon Jovi - it exists), but a dramatic example of the way endorsements can cut both ways is M People's Bizarre Fruit II album, which was lodged at the bottom end of the album chart when the 406 ad was first screened. "The record was still selling, but at a dribble," says David Pullan, head of marketing at DeConstruction records. "After the second week of the ad being shown, it went back into the charts at number nine. Over the next three months, we sold another 500,000 albums. And we came under enormous pressure from our retailers to release the track as a single." DeConstruction resisted. "Linked to an ad," says Pullan, "an act becomes a novelty. I imagine we could have sold a million singles - it was a guaranteed number one. But we looked long-term at the band's career and decided against it. The band agreed completely with the decision."

Pop, then, is a vital part of car marketing in Britain. Manufacturers would be perhaps advised to forget explaining the brilliant engineering of their new anti-lock brakes and concentrate instead on finding the right tune to trigger the primary recall mechanism. And consider Japanese methods. The Japanese surely have the sharpest grasp of pop celebrity endorsement. Currently, a 51 year-old family man with a pretty young wife and a set of charming children is being used to position a certain family car as stylish, practical and, above all, safe. That's right. In Japan, Rod Stewart advertises the Subaru Legacy Estate. Obvious, reallyn

How a song sells a car that would never take your breath away...

Soul II Soul: 'Keep on Moving' Renault Clio

Citroen Xantia "Sleep" / Marion

Citroen AX Soleil "Dancing in the Street" / Jagger / Bowie

Dunlop tyres "Venus in Furs" / Velvet Underground, then "21st Century Schizoid Man" / King Crimson

Ford "Everything We Do" / Brian May

Ford Probe "Fly me to the Moon" / Julie London

Honda Accord "Doors in the Shadow" / Tangerine Dream

Mercedes-Benz "Mercedes Henz" / Janis Joplin

Peugeot 406 "Search for the Hero" / M People

Peugeot 306 "Sexual healing" / Marvin Gaye

Peugeot 205 "See Me, Feel Me" / The Who Peugeot 205 Look "The Look of Love" / ABC

Peugeot 205 "Baby, Please Don't Go" / Them

Pirelli tyres Commissioned from Aphex Twin

Renault "Johnny and Mary" / Robert Palmer

Rover 100 "Brass in Pocket" / The Pretenders

Rover 200 "An Englishman in New York" / Sting

Sony in-car hi-fi "I Want You" / Inspiral Carpets

Toyota Crown "Anchito No Waltz" / commissioned from Michael Nyman

Volkswagen "Changes" / Alan Price

Volkswagen "Young at Heart" / The Bluebells

Iggy Pop: 'Lust for Life' Ford Fiesta