Today, car companies routinely use popular music to connect with a target demographic. Modern musicians eager for the exposure and licensing dollars are more than willing to help. But there used to be a time when licensing your image or a hit song for a car commercial was considered career suicide. Whether you consider them sellouts or music-marketing pioneers, here are four of the earliest examples of popular musicians pushing cars.
Judge—The Special Great One
America’s answer to the ‘60s British pop invasion, Paul Revere and The Raiders applied their acting, singing and songwriting talents to this 1969 commercial promoting the Pontiac Judge GTO. The record on which “The Judge” soundtrack appeared was actually part of the Pontiac sales promotional package that year. According to the original album’s liner notes, the record consisted of only five songs—two that were licensed for radio broadcast and three that were only to be played in Pontiac showrooms.
Tanya Tucker’s Trans Am Tune
Not much has been written about this 1980 collaboration between Pontiac and country starlet Tanya Tucker. But fans of the Trans Am probably remember it well. The promotional film starts with a couple ham-handed guffaws and pretty much continues careening off the cliff of good taste when Tucker—in prancing red pants so tight they appear painted on—offers a cringe-worthy rendition of Roger Miller’s King of the Road.
Two-Hundred Horsepower. No Time For Chrome
Back in 1968 when an ad agency offered The Doors $75,000 for permission to use “come on, Buick, light my fire” for a Buick Opel commercial, Jim Morrison famously threatened to take a sledgehammer to a Buick onstage if the band ever sold their music to make a commercial. Fast-forward to 1984 and Buick’s attempt to revive the muscle-car-buying market after the end of the 1979 oil crisis. Marketers for the “bad to the bone” Regal Grand National approached modern rocker George Thorogood, who not only offered to turn over rights to his 1982 classic but also likely caused Jim Morrison to roll over in his grave when he also agreed to butcher the song’s original lyrics and sing the tune anyway the company wanted.
Mazda—Just One Look
How do you cash in on a familiar song’s cachet without having to pay top dollar for it? In the early ’80s, Mazda answered a question that had been plaguing any car marketer looking to tap into the emotional connection people had with songs they routinely heard on the radio. Falling into a crafty licensing gray area, Just One Look was a familiar song Mazda turned into a jingle and a slogan in the early 1980s. The song was originally recorded in 1963 by R&B singer Doris Troy. But hardly anybody knows that. The best-remembered versions of Just One Look came during the 1970s courtesy of Anne Murray’s 1974, Billboard Top 100 version and an even more popular version by Linda Ronstadt in 1978.