Ad Report Card: Mitsubishi's Commotion

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 6 2001 11:30 PM

Ad Report Card: Mitsubishi's Commotion

Lots of people have written in lately with questions or comments about songs used as minisoundtracks for various ads. This is a perennial topic among ad-watchers and critics, although the nature of the discussion has shifted in the past year. It used to be that the main theme was a sort of outrage over advertisers co-opting and thus "ruining" familiar music—the famous Nike spot using the Beatles' "Revolution" being the prime example. But lately advertisers, as has been widely noted elsewhere, are more likely to pick obscure songs, perhaps hoping to latch a little indie credibility onto whatever they're peddling. So, now there's a lot of (not so interesting) discussion as to whether this a sell-out move on the part of this or that artist, letting big companies use their music; and also a lot of "who's that in the so-and-so ad" questioning. (On the latter score, look here and here for lists.)  Examples are numerous, but I'm obliged to mention Volkswagen's use of Nick Drake, because everyone else who writes about this topic always brings it up.

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That said, probably the most potent song-ad combo to date has been the use of a tune called "Start the Commotion," by the Wiseguys, in a Mitsubishi Eclipse ad. You've almost certainly seen the spot, which has been playing constantly for months. Lately "Start the Commotion," which was released on a 1999 CD called The Antidote, has been finding its way onto pop radio play lists. You can view the spot on this Mitsubishi site using the Windows Media Player, or through Adcritic.com  using Quicktime. To hear a snippet of the song without the ad, try here.

The Ad: Various good-looking people are shown driving—or just sitting—around in Mitsubishi Eclipses, thoroughly enjoying "Start the Commotion." That's pretty much it.

A Potential Hit-maker. The ad is a hit, but it remains an open question who benefits more: Does Mitsubishi gain by associating itself with "Start the Commotion," or is the song the bigger beneficiary of this campaign blitz? Or is there a kind of perfect symbiosis in effect?

There's little question that this commercial has been good news for the Wiseguys—which actually turns out to be one guy, a British DJ called Touché (real name Theo Keating). I gather that The Antidote produced a top-five hit in the UK, "Ooh La La," which apparently was used in a Budweiser ad there. But it's hard to imagine that a track from a two-year-old record would be getting air play on American pop stations now without the Mitsubishi spot spreading it around. The other day I also noticed the record being touted in one of those full-page Tower Records newspaper ads, which mentioned that it contained the song "from the Mitsubishi commercial." Even in the waning days of the now-departed version of Napster, the song was being widely swapped, though you had to search for Mitsubishi to find it.

All of which indicates that the Mitsubishi name is getting plenty of collateral attention well beyond its actual commercial buys. Does this translate into more car sales? That's hard to say. But I do think the ad is a victory for Mitsubishi in at least two ways. First, it's a giant improvement over the car-maker's last campaign, which also featured a lot of interesting music, but drowned it out with some foolish voiceovers that were, as it happens, the subject of the very first Ad Report Card. Second, despite all the hoopla about using little-known music in ads, and especially car ads, "Start the Commotion" may well be the best actual driving song to be chosen. This opinion was reinforced for me when the tune came over the radio while I was on a stretch of open highway this weekend.

On the other hand, I also found that the music is just as effective even if you're not driving a Mitsubishi when you hear it.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.