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On Beat, or Off Brand?

By Kenly Craighill

If digitized America was still warming up in 1995, Microsoft’s Windows ‘95 was the airhorn setting the country into a full-blown technological sprint. Windows ‘95 was one of the early commercial operating systems aimed at “regular” people—which, in the 90’s, meant people who weren’t familiar with computer operations. For its time, the operating system was a multi-media powerhouse. Microsoft even shipped Windows ‘95 with two music videos: Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” and Edie Brickell’s “Good Times.”  Suddenly, every-day Americans had the internet’s infinite opportunity right at their fingertips—videos, photos, graphics, and games, with just the click of a “Start” button.

It is impossible to separate the launch of Windows ’95 from the music that accompanied it. Microsoft introduced Windows ’95 to the world via its “Start Me Up” campaign — a clever homage to that “Start” button that anchored the new operating system’s experience. With quick film cuts, color filtered cameras, obscure angles, and the occasional glimpse of a CD-ROM, the campaign’s visuals weren’t distinct from its Nineties companions. Except, this commercial had something the others didn’t: the Rolling Stones.  

The ad rips open with a trademark Keith Richard’s guitar riff. Seconds after the Windows logo fades into the background with its 90’s graphic charm, lead singer Mick Jagger’s excited wail “start me up!” sets the trajectory for the minute-long video montage. Paired with the copy “start exploring…start creating….start playing….start Windows ’95,” the rock anthem infused the commercial with vitality, urgency, excitement, and an undeniable sense of cool. The alliance between software and song was an honest pairing, one that resonated with viewers and strengthened the message of both the music and the brand.

Microsoft’s iconic merge of pop culture, revolutionary tech, and a rock-era coolness communicated their vision for the PC as a center of the home—and gateway to the world—that would have been impossible absent the Stones. Microsoft wasn’t simply tapping the Rolling Stones’ massive fan base, and  Bill Gates definitely wasn’t attempting to coopt the edgy charm of Mick Jagger.  Windows ‘95 was a landmark moment in how people and technology interfaced—and nothing could communicate that cachet (and the importance of the “Start” button) like the Rolling Stones when Mick belted “If you start me up I’ll never stop!”

Music is tied inextricably to human emotion, poignantly expressing feeling when words and images can’t do it alone. When a compelling brand narrative (like the birth of the internet) respects the core sentiment of a song, rather than co-opting music’s emotional roots for profit, storytelling magic happens.   

Or, at least, it feels like magic. Researchers have worked tirelessly to understand the science behind how music’s grip on human emotion actually works. A person’s response to music isn’t abstract—the body physically changes in response to beat, tone, and melody. Pupils dilate, pulse quickens, blood pressure rises, and the brain region associated with bodily movement activates (explaining that subconscious foot tap or head bob.)

Combining results from fMRI and PET brain scan testing, scientists have found that music triggers the release of dopamine in the dorsal and ventral striatum. This neuroimaging showed that music electrifies parts of the brain that feel rewarded by food, drinks, and sex—the same primal reward networks that ensure the survival of both the individual and the species. To neuroscientists, this meant that seemingly abstract stimuli was actually changing the brain’s anatomical pathways, plucking at the strings of its anticipatory reward system. To everyone else, it meant one thing: music doesn’t just impact us, it’s a part of us. It’s a direct route to human responsiveness, making it an especially potent messaging tool.  

Savvy brands don’t need scientific validation of music’s stirring influence. Even before the advanced medical technology that made these discoveries possible, brands were tapping into the “magic” of music. In 1999, Volkswagen became the first brand to release a television commercial over the internet. This entirely new realm of advertising (made possible by Window ‘95’s ubiquitous Internet Explorer) was an unproven medium for an established brand—a platform vastly different from television, and largely unfamiliar. Rather than impatiently digesting the ad during a Seinfeld commercial break, people were invited to experience the commercial (and its soundtrack) on their own time, and of their own volition.

The “Milky Way” campaign featured four misty eyed teens cruising under a starry night sky in a VW Cabriolet, arms outstretched, hair blowing in the wind. There’s no dialogue—everything is communicated with subtle, knowing glances between teenagers. They pull up to a party, exchange playful looks, and silently decide to keep driving on through the night.

“If that script landed on my desk, I don’t think I’d approve it” says BBDO executive creative Matt Macdonald, just before describing the commercial as a “magical piece of filmmaking.” The difference between the script and the final commercial?

Nick Drake’s dreamy 1972 acoustic track “Pink Moon.”

 “Pink Moon” is a delicate, romantic melody that feels simultaneously foreboding and full of opportunity—a lot like what being a teenager feels like. Teens on the brink of adulthood pictured themselves in a VW Cabriolet, as “Pink Moon’s” soft melody gave depth to moonlit roadways. Adults watched the commercial and saw a reflection of their past selves, memories from their youth bubbling to the surface, the Cabriolet quietly becoming a source of longing. It was a glimpse into the “transcendent experience” of riding a convertible, a reminder of how a car can be the catalyst for adventure.  

The song transforms the commercial from what could have been a cliché, surface level advertisement to a sublime occurrence of youthful mysticism and moonlit adventure. Volkswagen wasn’t just selling a car. It was selling the dream and nostalgia of being a teenager — a period fastened to its soundtrack.

In the year after the “Milky Way” campaign Pink Moon’s album sales rose from 6,000 copies to 74,000.  Volkswagen earned major praise for its piece, prompting a reassessment of what it means to use music in commercial advertising: “it took a dead, obscure English songwriter to reveal a positive side to corporate America’s relentless exploitation of rock ‘n’ roll as a selling tool.”  The integrity of the campaign dodged the penchant other brands had for capitalizing on a song without genuine respect for its emotional significance.

Adding a soundtrack to advertising does nothing to guarantee a moment of musical alchemy. For every “Milky Way” or “Start Me Up,” thousands of music-fueled commercials are met with eye rolls and mute buttons. Though music’s fiery ability to hi-jack emotion and spark positive character in a brand can be uncontainable, that power can egregiously derail a brand message.

Victoria’s Secret learned this the hard way in 2004, when it awkwardly featured a crestfallen Bob Dylan roaming the same abandoned Venetian hallways as an almost naked Adrian Lima. The first moments of the commercial seem promising—the pulsing guitar strums of Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick” give a heartbeat to the misty streets of Venice, the camera passes over the glowing supermodel’s hypnotizing blue eyes, and the initial chords of Dylan’s gnarled melody add mystery and romance to the subtle glimpses of lingerie and angel wings.

But the Victoria’s Secret fantasy crumbles when Bob Dylan appears, his pencil-thin goatee making him look more like a police sketch than music legend. The editorial angles of Lima in the silky blue ensemble are timed with lyrics “I see silhouettes in the window”—an unnerving reminder of Bob Dylan’s voyeuristic presence. The two exchange glances and a fedora, and the “Angels in Venice” commercial closes.

The commercial’s heavy-handed attempt to create a more engaging advertising experience through music left viewers uncomfortable. New York DJ Dennis Elsas called the ad “weird” and “just strange” while other critics called the pairing “the sell-out of the week.”  

It wasn’t because people didn’t like the song. In fact, people loved that song—the track’s album Time Out of Mind won a Grammy seven years prior. It wasn’t because people didn’t like the lingerie, either. The anti-establishment identity Americans expected from Dylan felt removed from Victoria’s Secret’s hyper-popularized consumer image. The jarring misalignment between music, artist, and brand snapped viewers right out of the experience, leaving them to connect the long-distance dots between song and story. 

Just one year before this folksy and scantily clad advertising atrocity,  Apple danced its way into what’s arguably the most popularized pairing of music and advertising ever—its iPod silhouette campaign. Victoria’s Secret should have taken notes.  

The commercials were shockingly simple, featuring nothing other than a completely shadowed, featureless figure dancing against a highly saturated neon background. Only after a few seconds does the viewer even see that (now recognizable) white shape of the iPod in hand, bopping in tune with corded ear buds. The product plug was subtle; no close ups, no features or benefits, just bouncing hair, slick footwork, and the totally euphoric physical experience of music.

In 2005, Apple took home the Effie Award’s grand prize—an award honoring a product “at the forefront of popular culture complemented by a creative, breakthrough marketing campaign that has proven to skyrocket sales.”

It wasn’t the funky moves, the modern simplicity, or even the iPod that led Apple’s silhouette campaign to the pop culture hall of fame. It was the music.

Jet’s largely unknown “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” became a living room anthem as people across America rocked out to iPod commercials. The Black-Eyed Peas didn’t hit true stardom until their feature in the iPod campaign, and British pop group the Ting Tings’ career sky-rocketed after those reverberating silhouettes danced to “Shut Up and Let Me Go.”  

Every silhouette iPod commercial was scored with songs that made people turn up the volume during commercial breaks. Not for the same new-era excitement as Windows ’95, or the teenage dream nostalgia of “Milky Way,” but to experience fresh music with the same vigor as the shadowed figures. These faceless dancers were no one and everyone all at once. The ads were an embodiment of music’s ability to ignite a cultural phenomenon—and the iPod’s ability to mobilize that phenomenon.

For better or worse, it’s impossible to untie the inextricable tangle of music, storytelling, memory, and emotion. When paired with a brand who understands the specific ethos of a song, the physical power it has over our emotions, and the context of its existence, music is the catalyst for a profound relationship between buying and being.

Kenly Craighill is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.