Having created my share of TV spots using hit songs including Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” for Office Depot, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (AKA “Everything’s gonna be all right”) for Sandals Resorts, James Brown’s “I Feel Good” for Mattress Firm, Pure Prairie League’s “Let me love you tonight” for Field of Flowers, Chubby Checker’s “Twist” for Mayors Jewelers , and ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” for S&K Mens Stores, I’ve learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share about the right and wrong way to use songs in TV spots and videos, many of which you’ll be seeing during the Super Bowl.

The four main tenets. Target audience. Message. Feeling. Execution.

There are four main tenets for effectively using songs in TV spots. Firstly, the song must appeal to the target audience you’re intending to reach. It makes no sense to use Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” for the launch of a new Xbox game. Secondly, the song must be true to the product’s messaging and brand promise. Using a Bob Marley song for resorts in the Caribbean makes more sense than using it for the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. Thirdly, the song must convey an impactful and positive emotion connection to the brand and the creative concept. And lastly, the song must be executed in a way that doesn’t detract from the creative or messaging, but adds volumes to it.

Doing it the right way.

A great example of a song well-selected and well-executed is the new 2017 Super Bowl spot for Mercedes-Benz featuring their AMG GT Roadster. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the agency enlisted the services of The Coen Brothers to direct it and the legendary Peter Fonda to star in it. The concept? As a group of bikers at a roadside bar are playing pool and drinking, “Born to be Wild” from Steppenwolf is playing on the jukebox, another member of the biker gang walks into the place to inform everyone that their motorcycles have been blocked in. Music stops and we then see Peter Fonda crazy enough to park his gorgeous Mercedes AMG convertible in front of their choppers. As Fonda gets back in his car and heads down the road in his convertible and the song kicks in again, the positive emotion is down right infectious. It all works together seamlessly. Great song choice and smart strategy appealing to the uber-successful guy with plenty of money in the bank and the ego to want to feel like Easy Rider in his convertible GT Roadster. Who wouldn’t? And when you’re an advertiser like Mercedes with deep pockets and a great agency to create a spot with the best directors, great talent, great cinematographers, a great script, and great song, it makes me smile from ear to ear! I give it an A+.

Another good example of a spot currently airing is HomeGoods’ charming TV spot “No Place Like Your Home” that uses Dan Croll’s song “Home” to set the perfect mood and create the right emotion. The “home” lyrics fit the retailer’s brand promise exquisitely, and the tone and feeling of the song hits all the right emotional chords, complemented by visuals that convey how HomeGoods is part of the fabric of family and home. I’m sure Ashley Furniture is hoping they came up with the idea first. I give it an A+.

Similarly, Chili’s new TV spot “Chilin’ Since ’75” that uses Foghat’s “Slow Ride” is a great song choice for a restaurant looking to revisit its 60’s roots as a one store burger joint that started at a time when mustaches and flannel shirts were in, burgers were big, and beer was everywhere—all shot with a constantly moving, grainy, 8mm-style camera with lens flares for an authentic feel. Yet the agency was smart enough to use beautiful 35mm food shots to make today’s burgers look fabulous. Love the short voiceover copy (beautifully written) that gives the power chords of the song plenty of time to establish and breathing room in the spot to set the mood and make the emotion that much more compelling. Great feeling throughout. The music and song choice captures the vibe of the 60’s, and the spot is well executed by everyone involved—from talent, styling and cinematography, to editing. I give it an A+.

Lastly is Walgreen’s current “Seize the Day” spot featuring two female seniors purchasing a ton of suntan lotions for their visit to a Nude Beach. While the client paid a pretty penny to purchase the publishing rights and needle drop to the Beach Boys’ song “California Girls,” it’s an excellent example of the right way to use music, even without the well known lyrics. I love that they start the spot with the recognizable organ melody which sets the mood right from the start. Then they choose the perfect female voiceover talent to compliment the song and mixed the two tracks perfectly together. Too many spots today don’t do that properly. We never have to hear the “California Girls” lyrics to get the feeling that these two seniors are reliving their youth with the help of Walgreen’s. Kudos to the agency creative team. I give it an A.

Using the right songs for the wrong reasons.

An example of what not to do with a hit song is Weight Watchers’ most recent TV spot with Oprah Winfrey, “Never Feel Deprived,” that uses Ben Rector’s hit song “Brand New.” Unfortunately, this great song is improperly used in this spot because (1) unlike Walgreens where we don’t have to hear the lyrics to feel the emotion of the song, this concept fails on two accounts. It would have made sense to hear the “Brand New” lyrics and the “oh oh oh oh oh oh” of the song since that’s how you feel when you lose weight, and (2) the music is mixed so poorly against the voiceover that you can hardly hear it the song at all, and consequently the spot does not benefit from any added emotion. The song is virtually unrecognizable for its key melody and so poorly executed it’s hardly worth the expense. Why use a great song with a great melody if no one can hear it! I give it an F.

Other bad choices include Ford’s new Super Bowl spot with Nina Simone’s song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” It misses the mark by leaps and bounds. While the ad shows some vehicles that are available for sale today, the spot is far from a sales pitch. It is more of a corporate branding play designed to set the company up as a mobility company of the future. Unfortunately, the song is a disconnect, the editing and mix are disturbing and disjointed, and sound is so retro it detracts from Ford’s intended futuristic message. While Ford is trying to shift its brand story to include mobility solutions for the future, it should have instructed the agency to look a little harder for the right song and the right execution. This could be one of the worst Super Bowl spots in years! I give it an F.

At least Kia’s Soul spot using the song “Applause” by Lady Gaga and featuring the iconic hamsters working out, getting their hair done, and arriving on the red carpet opening night after exiting the hatchback, this high-energy song is as fun and quirky as the hamsters and the car itself. Getting the applause and looking cool when arriving in a Kia Soul is a great takeaway for the brand. But again, the “Totally Transformed” theme for the car could have been just as well executed, and the message just as effectively delivered, without the borrowed interest and the million + dollars for Gaga and her song. But then, Kia’s got the bucks! I give it a B.

Wrong song, wrong message?

In 2007, Cadbury’s video used Phil Collin’s song “In the Air Tonight” featuring a gorilla playing drums and appearing in 95% of the spot. Terrible concept, terrible waste of a great song, stupid agency to spend the client’s money so wastefully. If someone can please tell me what this song or the gorilla playing drums has to do with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate’s key message “A glass and a half full of joy”, I’ll buy you a box of M&Ms. Now if they used a cow playing drums, okay, maybe. I give it an F.

Wendy’s will make its Super Bowl debut with a TV spot that satirizes its competitors’ use of frozen beef patties scored to Foreigner’s 1977 hit song “Cold as Ice.” And while the spot clearly conveys the message that Wendy’s fresh burgers are not cold as ice like its competitors, the spot spends too much time showing the non-palate-pleasing frozen patties and not enough time on the great Wendy’s burger. So even with Foreigner song piped throughout the chill factory, we’re not left with a good feeling about Wendy’s or their fresh beef. In fact, the song is so strong, it may be working against the fresh message Wendy’s is trying to convey. I give it a C.

What about Not-So-Well-Known Songs?

Surely, one of the reasons to use music in a TV spot is to convey an emotion, or a good feeling, or to create an audio canvas for your message, or be an integral part of the brand promise. Yet, it’s not always necessary to pay killer dollars for a song to achieve that objective. Point in case, when Kia’s TV spot reached back into the archives and pulled out “Beep Beep Beep” by Bobby Day to add some spunk to a commercial about parking in a too-tight spot and convey that the car “fits like a glove”, it was more about the feeling of the song, regardless that “Beep Beep Beep” didn’t cost a lot of money and never charted or became as big a song as Day’s 1958 hit, “Rockin’ Robin” (which would be a great song for Red Robin to use for a “rockin’” new burger recipe or a rockin’ choice of condiments on its French Fries!).

Another example of a not-so-well-known song, but a perfect fit for a TV spot, is the Tropicana’s Farmstand spot. Using Passion Pit’s song “Carried Away,” we see this guy restocking the Tropicana shelves in the juice section, getting “carried away” with his job. It’s hard as a viewer not to similarly get excited about the juice after seeing this colorful and happy commercial. The spot was perfectly mixed, had minimal voiceover copy, great acting and choreography, and top-notch cinematography for the juice pours. A+

But perhaps the best spot (and one of my favorite) to be featured on the Super Bowl without a hit song is Mr. Clean’s new TV spot. While Sarah is having a fantasy daydream with a new sexy Mr. Clean, we hear an original track that sounds like a 90s boy band playing in the background, then signed off by the recognizable Mr. Clean melody notes from 40 years ago. Great touch. My hat’s off to the agency and client for resisting the temptation of buying a big 90’s boy band hit, or a Barry White song, by recreating the style of that genre instead and saving the client big bucks. It works beautifully to convey the mood, allowing the viewer to focus on Sarah and Mr. Clean’s provocative dance moves as he brings a shine to the shower, the floor, and kitchen. All integrating beautifully with the ad’s slogan You Gotta Love A Man Who Cleans.

STUART DORNFIELD is an award-winning freelance Creative Director/Copywriter with more than 40 years experience in marketing, strategy, advertising and production. As the former Sr. VP-Creative Director of Zimmerman Advertising, the 13th largest agency in the U.S., and the former co-founder of Gold Coast Advertising, ranked 3rd largest agency in South Florida, today Stuart offers his creative services and marketing insights as a freelancer with offices in New York and Miami.