At the Super Bowl, music isn't just for the halftime show.
Through the years, songs have played a key role in famous commercials, with dance hits, classic rock, folks tunes, original compositions, and even "The Star-Spangled Banner" boosting memorable brand messages that cost millions of dollars to air. Artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Britney Spears to Labrinth have appeared in spots, harnessing their star power to tunefully tout sponsors' products and services.
Muse invited producers, licensers, composers and other experts to share their favorite uses of music in Super Bowl advertising and dish about crafting beats for breaks in the big game.
Here's what they told us.
Chief Experience Officer
Kobalt | AWAL
There have been a number of Super Bowl ads that have made music a centerpiece of the campaign, but for me, one of the most iconic is Budweiser's Clydesdales spot from 2013 which famously included Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." The song genuinely carried the spot and in just a few seconds made you feel emotional about the story of a man and his horse. What other song can make you tear up about a man and his horse? I can't think of any other song that would have had the same effect.
One of my favorite spots to work on was Heinz's "Wiener Stampede" in 2016. The use of [Harry Nilsson's] "Without You" helped make the creative both heartfelt and comical. There were a number of songs the agency was considering … [but] the fact that the song had not been licensed in a commercial for many years helped get it over the line.
Executive Director of Music
One Super Bowl ad that has stood out is Expensify's 2019 spot. As a member of both the Clio Music jury and the Cannes Entertainment Lions for Music jury last year, we gave this song very high marks. Expensify partnered with the rap star 2 Chainz to create a terribly entertaining, innovative and culturally relevant song and video.
The song was viable in a cultural sense—the clip has 12 million views on YouTube—and it was probably (definitely) the only music video ever created that you could expense. Collaborating with 2 Chainz allowed Expensify to turn something mundane, and quite frankly annoying, into something young people in offices everywhere would talk about. As the U.S. workforce becomes younger, services like Expensify need to find more engaging ways to reach this audience. Partnering with 2 Chainz was a brilliant way to achieve this.
In 2015, Energy BBDO worked on a Super Bowl spot for Bud Light called "Coin." The spot was created by capturing a live experiential activation for one randomly selected individual. At the event, a man found himself competing in a life-sized game of Pac-Man, to a custom-created rendition of the Pac-Man theme song.
The song was remixed by DJ Whiteshadow, Lady Gaga's executive producer and a band including the insanely talented Canadian beat-boxer KRNFX. The music set the tone for the activation, and later permeated the spot on TV and online, helping to engage a generation of Pac-Man enthusiasts as well as modern dance and pop fans who appreciated the contemporary jam.
Director of Music
The biggest Super Bowl project I've worked on, and without question the most music-focused, wasn't an ad in the traditional sense. Last year, we concepted, wrote and produced a Broadway show for Skittles that acted as our big-game "commercial." It was a one-time live performance featuring a full ensemble and band, performed in front of a sold-out audience at New York's Town Hall theater.
As a collaborator on the music, and a chief producer on the official cast album, it was one of the most innovative, challenging and exciting projects I've ever had the opportunity to work on. As a music supervisor, it's not every day that you get to play a part in creating show tunes—especially self-deprecating ones like "Advertising Ruins Everything." And it's another thing altogether to hear them on a record—the album was featured on Spotify and also pressed on limited-edition vinyl—or sung to a packed theater on Broadway. It was one of those projects that felt wholly unique in concept and execution, and called for massive levels of creative problem solving and teamwork.
Music Supervsisor, Droga5
Oddly enough, music wasn't what made Super Bowl ads memorable for me. Sure, there have been some really good uses, like Passenger on Budweiser's "Puppy Love," Van Halen's a capella skills on Acura's "What He Said," or Skittles' Broadway musical. But with so much money and pressure riding on these spots, it seems marketers often choose the safest, most obvious choice. As a result, many Super Bowl ads spend a lot of money licensing the most recognizable songs so they can attract the broadest audience, rather than making bold music choices that stand out and might not be as obvious. That combination of big budgets and pressure results in marketers choosing the safer "pop-music" choice over something a bit more unique, risky and memorable.
One of my favorite Super Bowl projects to work on was Droga5's Tourism Australia "Dundee'' campaign from 2018. Music was not the focal point of these ads—which were staged as movie trailers—but it was one element that helped make them believable, ultimately tricking people into thinking they were real.
To ensure authenticity, we licensed a track from a famous Australian didgeridoo player and created several cues. There's even a fun Easter egg as the song crescendos: A vocalist very ostentatiously sings, "Australiaaaa." I don't think many people remember the music specifically for this campaign, but everyone remembers the spot, which means the music did its job.
Brian J. Monaco
President, Global CMO
Sony/ATV Music Publishing
Budweiser's 2014 "Puppy Love" ad—I loved the fact that the brand took the time to develop a heartfelt story with a plotline. It went beyond what a typical beer commercial brings until the last moment. I was fortunate enough to be working with Passenger (real name: Michael David Rosenberg) at the time, and watched his song become a global hit which topped the Billboard charts immediately after the commercial ran.
In 2014, I first had the honor of working with Olivier François, chief marketing officer for Chrysler and head of the Fiat brand. I secured a deal to use the Bob Dylan song "Things Have Changed" in the commercial, as well having Mr. Dylan appear in the spot. Dylan's ad followed in the footsteps of earlier two-minute Chrysler Super Bowl ads that featured Eminem and Clint Eastwood. After the Super Bowl, Chrysler continued to run the spot with a cover version by one of our writers and singers, Mozella.
In 2015, I regrouped with François, as he wanted a modernized version of the folk classic "This Land Is Your Land" to play under a Jeep Super Bowl commercial, so I jumped in to get a version made for him even though Sony does not represent the underlying copyright. I had about 12 artists create versions of the song during a two-day session in Nashville. Olivier selected Marc Scibilia's soulful rendition. It was the most Shazamed song from that year's Super Bowl.
My "new" favorite use of music in a Super Bowl spot: One Republic's arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner" for Jeep's 2019 "More Than Just Words" commercial. In the high-risk category of using a patriotic theme to sell product, this understated soundtrack with minimal lyrics—knowing we'll fill in the rest—is set against a breathtaking composite of iconic American imagery. We accept Jeep's history with our military and are invited to renew our love for the diversity, grit and basic goodness of our "best selves" as a nation. Amazingly, it works. Over 106 million online views with no network buy.
I'm also a fan of Verizon's "The Coach Who Wouldn't Be Here" from 2019 and its minimalist score, wrenching all the right emotions without being maudlin or pandering.
And let us not forget the EDS "Cat Herders" spot from the 2000 Super Bowl, with its hilarious, big-western-themed soundtrack.
We have worked on Super Bowl spots in recent years, but sadly, none that made the viewers' "Top 10" rankings. For that reason, names shall be withheld! What I have noticed about the process in the high-stakes realm of the Super Bowl spot, given the cost of airtime and size of audience, is that there can be a sense of overthinking when it comes to client direction and input. Everyone knows it has to be "amazing," which can lead to second-guessing and trying too hard and not letting the composer, well, compose. Which can lead to not arriving at the sublime pleasures offered by the spots previously cited.
VP, Creative Synch, Commercials, BMG
As far as pure emotional impact, Audi's use of "Starman" in its 2016 Super Bowl is pretty hard to beat. The pairing of the first two notes of the chorus with space rocket imagery and a life-affirming story is a tour de force right out of the gate—not to mention the fact that the entire world was still mourning David Bowie's passing only a month before. While the agency had been considering the song prior to news of his passing—my BMG colleague Dan Rosenbaum worked on the spot prior to my time there—the commercial became a powerful and unexpected tribute to a musical icon on a day normally devoted to sports. And if it's any indication of success from a marketing standpoint, the brand ended up extending the spot to a worldwide campaign.
As a publisher, it's our job to service the creative needs of ad agencies, while still honoring and protecting the work of our songwriters. This rings especially true during the Super Bowl, when brands are looking to put their own spin on big, recognizable songs. In 2018, E*Trade wanted to create a comedic version of "Day-O"—a track made famous by Harry Belafonte—that involved senior citizens singing about having to work outlandish jobs because they didn't save up for retirement ("I drop sick beats, they call me DJ Nana"). Obtaining approvals on lyric changes for iconic songs can be extremely difficult. However, in this instance, our writer Irving Burgie, who passed late last year at age 95, felt the spot, while comedic in nature, presented the song in a new light and still honored the spirit of the original—the same way its famous Beetlejuice usage did 30 years earlier.
SVP, Music for Advertising, Universal Music Publishing Group
In the mid-'90s, Pepsi began running a series of commercials featuring a Coca-Cola delivery man who preferred Pepsi. One of their Super Bowl commercials, from 1995, started as a heartwarming tale of an unexpected friendship between rival cola delivery men—which quickly ends when the Coke driver refuses to give back the Pepsi. The use of "(Let's) Get Together" by the Youngbloods was brilliant. The lyrics "Smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now" at first supported the idea of a budding friendship, and then served as a humorous juxtaposition to their rapidly escalating fight.
Last year, I had the experience of working closely with iconic songwriter Charlie Daniels and Dodge for their online Super Bowl commercial. Since the game was being played in Atlanta, Dodge wanted to use "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" for Challenger. When presented with the initial concept for the commercial, Mr. Daniels was uncomfortable with some of the imagery and not convinced he wanted to license his song. However, in order to make sure that he was happy, the brand worked closely with Mr. Daniels and me to alter the commercial and even included some of his ideas in the final edit. The end result was a great team effort, and really showcased both the song and the brand.
CEO, CCO, JSM Music
Fortunately, JSM and I have been involved in creating and producing the music for over three dozen Super Bowl commercials through the years, receiving a Super Clio a few years back for NatGeo with McCann New York. The process of creating the music for Super Bowl spots is not dissimilar to the process of creating the music for any spot. However, there are heightened pressures for the work to make a meaningful statement, be more creatively brilliant—and to make sure we are not listed as the worst fucking spot of the game the next morning.
There is a sense from all involved to reach for more, to beat what we all know is already working, to exceed all expectations—even though those expectations are a moving target, reaching higher and higher levels as we proceed, at every turn, with every revision, every cut, change, every new mix. There is definitely a sense of higher importance and gravity surrounding the development and speed of the production process. Some spots have ample time to develop, while other seem to get final approval and ship as the game's kickoff is in flight.
We always make ourselves available 24/7, and if it were possible to be available 32/10, we would make that happen as well. It's part of the gig. Part of the process. Part of what makes this all so fucking great. Music and sound is just one part of the development and production for this work, and we strive to be the calm and safe space for our clients. Regardless of what we go through, they are all dealing with far more than we can imagine. We never lose sight of the fact that we are making music for over a billion people for around $187,000 per second. No biggie. More cowbell.
Executive Producer, Search Party Music
For me, it doesn't get much better than Britney's "Joy of Pepsi" from 2002. It's pure entertainment! I remember thinking this was absolutely iconic, and now that I'm watching it again, that still rings true. It was really at the peak of her popularity, and she carries the commercial effortlessly. It's pop perfection. The track could have been an actual single.
SP supervised last year's Mini Countryman campaign featuring Labrinth. Between licensing the publishing for "Don't Fence Me In," securing the talent deal with Labrinth, working to create the re-recording, and finding a time to have him in the shoot, all the stars really had to align.
The beautiful thing about this spot is that I don't think it was specifically intended to be a Super Bowl spot. But everyone was so happy with the outcome, they decided to air it during the big game. The spot has such an intimate feeling, with Labrinth singing a capella to himself while driving the Mini, while the real world is swirling around him. I found it to be a breath of fresh air that you sort of got lost in for a moment during a big, busy game.
Founder/Head of Music Supervision & Licensing, Groove Guild
On the whole, it is rare that music is the hero in Super Bowl spots. Sure, big tracks are licensed, famous artists appear, but to what end? Usually to drive home a punch line or support the message, mostly with the goal of making you laugh or cry to create an emotional connection. It makes sense, too. A lot of money is on the line, there's stiff competition, brands need to cut through and find a way to be sticky. Also, the people who create Super Bowl ads aren't necessarily thinking through the lens of music; they're tasked with getting a message across and, generally speaking, will use the power of music to support that effort. But every now and then music is the hero, and those are the ads that excite me the most.
One of my favorite music-driven commercials in recent years was 2018's "A Song of Ice and Fire" for Doritos and Mountain Dew. How can you not love a rap battle that features the unlikely stars Peter Dinklage, rapping "Look at Me Now," versus Morgan Freeman, battling back with "Get Your Freak On." They killed it! It was bold and completely unexpected in every way possible, and they really stuck the landing—despite using a Chris Brown track which obviously didn't age well. At least they had the good sense to use the Busta Rhymes verse. The Busta and Missy cameos were pretty cool, too.
Another favorite was 2004's Young Jimi Hendrix spot "Crossroads," from Pepsi. Music is so deeply baked into this concept on multiple levels. Yes, we get to hear one of the most famous riffs in all of rock 'n' roll—the opening of "Purple Haze"—but music plays a much larger role than the actual song itself. It suggests that music history could have been completely changed if it wasn't for Pepsi. That famous riff played on an accordion probably would have been left in the dust bin of history. That alone makes me want to drink a Pepsi, if I drank soda. I also love that the classic 1950s Fender Telecaster guitar has a cameo.
Winning the award, at least in my book, for the most adorable use of music mixed with pop culture is the 2011 Volkswagen spot "The Force." We see a child dressed up as Darth Vader trying to use the Force on everything from an exercise bike to a washing machine to the family dog. His dad pulls up in the family car, at which point he tries to use the Force on it, allowing VW to showcase their remote start-up feature. The kid's reaction is heart-melting. The music sets the tone and instantly hooks you because … well, Star Wars. Although the music ultimately is not the hero of the spot, it definitely shares the spotlight and helps to bring out the inner child of the viewer, while the adult in you feels warm and fuzzy because, you know … Star Wars.
Eric David Johnson
Svp, Executive Integrated Music Producer, McCann
Loctite Super Glue, 2015. One of my favorite original music uses. Sometimes nothing is so perfect as using music as comedy. And this one just cracks me up every time, still. Talk about brand awareness through music. Keep it simple and on-point, make it sound funny and smart. They really crushed it on this one.
Budweiser's "Eternal Optimism," 2012. The idea of mashups can arguably feel passé by now, but in 2012, this was relatively groundbreaking. I personally thought it was a pretty incredible use of two iconic songs from very different genres/eras to help tell this story of the brand's journey from past to the present.
Microsoft's "We All Win," 2019. This one is super special to me. I loved working on a project rooted in being meaningful around the idea of inclusiveness. We worked with JSM to create an original score to find the right tone and really support and enhance the emotion of this story. For me, it really resonated deeply and still gets me every time I see/hear Owen's dad say, "He's not different when he plays." It was truly an honor to create the soundtrack for the notion of "When everybody plays, we all win."
Verizon's "The Coach Who Wouldn't Be Here," 2019. The licensed use of a song called "The Mighty Rio Grande" from the amazing band This Will Destroy You. I'm a big fan of theirs. Since Peter Berg was the director, we had a feeling that we might be able to play in a similar sonic landscape as his previous work, specifically Friday Night Lights. This idea came about as I sat with the creative team at the editorial company, who helped us home in on this song. We tried many other songs, but this one was just the perfect match.
NatGeo's "Genius," 2017. Working with Lady Gaga and her team, we knew which song she'd be ending her Super Bowl halftime performance with, and we knew we wanted to make a connection to our commercial, and have "Einstein" play his rendition of "Bad Romance." We had so much fun with this little music wink, and knew it would give the brand and commercial that much more cultural cachet. In one word—genius.
Verizon's "Answering the Call," 2017. This is another special use of a licensed song and a special moment in my personal music and advertising history. I've loved Max Richter's work going back decades, and when his album The Blue Notebooks came out in 2004, it was not only one of my top albums of that year, but I specifically earmarked the song "Vladimir's Blues," as I hoped to find the right opportunity for it.
As we were in the edit, we knew the emotional tone that we were trying to convey: that fine balance of pulling at the heartstrings in a way that is sometimes referred to as "happy/sad," which means illustrating the seriousness, even somberness of the moment, and yet with a hopeful lift. Once we knew that was our direction, this song felt like the obvious choice, and I personally was honored to finally get to work with Max. In my collection, I have everything that he has composed on vinyl, including this beautiful track.