Tuning Up

Since television’s early days, car companies have used music to help peddle their metal. Rather than using broad-appeal anthems and entertainers today, however, many vehicle divisions are honing their messages and pinpointing demographics.

With its power chords, soaring choruses, and pulsating beats, the French indie group Phoenix likely doesn’t conjure up the traditional Cadillac brand.

But times are tough, and like other manufacturers, the luxe General Motors marque is looking for buyers where it can. So, being careful to maintain its core consumer base, Cadillac is adding some edge to its image. That includes using the Phoenix single “1901” in TV-commercial spots for its all-new 2010 crossover SRX, unveiled in September.

Since television’s early days, car companies have used music to help peddle their metal. In the 1950s, Dinah Shore’s “See the USA in Your Chevrolet” promotional song was a popular success. Rather than using broad-appeal anthems and entertainers today, however, many vehicle divisions are honing their messages and pinpointing demographics.

In Cadillac’s case, the hope is to add younger buyers to its cadre of consumers. The average age of any new-car buyer is 49, says Cadillac spokesman David Caldwell; at Cadillac, that number is closer to 60.

“We want to express sophistication, but we also want to elevate the image to be fresh and contemporary, to reflect a forward-looking design,” Caldwell says. “The audio representation supports that.”

He says the Phoenix commercial spot debuted in September 2009. October and November have been the best sales months for the SRX since its 2004 introduction. (The vehicle starts at about $33,000.)

Lincoln is after Gen X-ers in its commercial spots, which feature covers of 1980s singles. For its luxury sedan MKS with EcoBoost, the division uses electronica indie rock band Shiny Toy Guns performing “Burnin’ for You,” which was originally recorded by Blue Oyster Cult. For the MKT crossover, Australian pop singer Sia covers “Under the Milky Way,” a cut first recorded by the band The Church. A full-line Lincoln segment has electro-pop band CSS performing “The Twilight Zone,” which was first produced by the Dutch band Golden Earring.

“We picked song choices relevant to the demographic, music they found interesting when they were growing up,” says Thomais Zaremba, Lincoln communications manager. “There’s something really different about it. They recognize it enough that it grabs their attention, but they also appreciate the fresh, new voice.”

Like Cadillac, Lincoln’s goal is to attract a wider audience. “There’s a lot of association with Lincoln in the form of what it used to be years ago,” Zaremba says. “The music we use has been a cornerstone of our communications, and it’s been really successful.”

At Toyota, it’s more about the message than a specific target audience. In its 2010 Prius commercial, the tagline for which is “Harmony Between Man, Nature and Machine,” Petra Haden sings an a cappella version of the Bellamy Brothers’ ’70s classic “Let Your Love Flow.” Says Mike McKay, executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, Toyota’s advertising agency, “The tone of the music evokes optimism, which fits with the personality of Prius. In the commercials, the whole landscape is made of people, so we wanted to use a cappella music, using just voices, to tie into the theme.”

Music and vehicles are inextricably bound, as exemplified by the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, which uses nostalgic tunes as part of its promotion, says Mike Bernacchi, professor of marketing at the University of Detroit Mercy. “Now, everybody has a zeal for the young marketplace, and music is the perfect tent under which to go after it,” he says.

Other automakers are eschewing music in their campaigns. After a period of tumult during which Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and aligned with Italian automaker Fiat, the manufacturer is eager to re-establish itself. The company met in November to unveil new brand taglines. For its 300 sedan and Town and Country minivans, the theme will be “Connect.” Says spokeswoman Jodi Tinson: “We’ve obviously been through a tough time in the last 12 months or so. We want a fresh look and feel. So, ‘Connect’ is about connecting with the consumer, and how the vehicles connect to their lives.”

Mercedes-Benz typically likes to let its product do the talking. “We at Mercedes have never really pushed celebrities, musicians, or bands as a way of connecting,” says Drew Slaven, general manager of marketing services for Mercedes-Benz USA. (They haven’t been altogether immune to the appeal of star power, however, and have shot commercials featuring actor Josh Brolin and tennis great Boris Becker, as well as the music of Christina Aguilera and Janis Joplin.)

“Music is always a component of TV ads, but with us, it’s secondary, not primary.” In any case, it’s important to make sure music used in commercials communicates intended messages and feelings, says Jerry W. Thomas, president and CEO of Decision Analyst, an Arlington, Texas-based marketing research and consulting firm. “Music can touch emotions and evoke feelings. Music can inspire empathy and stimulate action. But it must be the right music, used in the right way at the right moment, and in the right context.”

Cadillac’s Caldwell says that likely spells the end of long-running campaigns like the familiar refrain of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock,” which was such a success for Chevrolet trucks.

“People tend to tune out after a while,” he says. “You shouldn’t expect to hear Phoenix for years to come.”