Skip to content
Culture & Religion

Are These Rock Stars Sellouts or Savvy Entrepreneurs? You Decide.

It used to be that if rock artists wished to maintain credibility with their fans, they would not agree to have their music re-purposed for commercials. Boy, how things have changed.

It used to be that rock music, which is anti-Establishment down to its DNA, could not be re-purposed for commercial licensing. That is, if artists wished to maintain credibility with their fans. Boy, how things have changed. Big Think looks at five of the most prominent sell-outs (or savvy sales moves, if you prefer) in recent rock n’ roll/advertising history. Enjoy, and consider this question: if the message of the brand seems totally at odds with the message of the artist, who’s the fool?

1. U2-branded iPod

U2’s deal with Apple was a marriage between one of the world’s most successful companies and one of the world’s most commercially successful bands. Not only has this deal involved co-branding and content-bundling, but also a custom iPod.

Watch Bono and The Edge sell iPods here:

2. I am an Anarchist/I like Country Life Butter

The career of John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols, has been unorthodox, to say the least. But who expected this anti-corporate, anti-consumerist, anti-Establishment loudmouth to become the brand ambassador for Country Life Butter? And yet, Lydon was perhaps simply following in the footsteps of punk impresario and infamous swindler Malcolm McLaren: it really was all about making money.

Watch John Lydon as a perfect country gentleman here:

3. Baby, You Can Buy This Car

Lou Reed was a bit ahead of his time when “Walk on the Wild Side” was featured in a Honda scooter commercial in 1986, long before it was cool to sell out. While Reed took a lot of heat for this commercial, it’s hard to argue with his justification: when he left the Velvet Underground (which had only experienced very limited commercial success), he had taken a job as an accountant making $40 a week. While “Walk on the Wild Side” may have been a hit on the charts, it was really the Honda commercial that reestablished Reed as a public figure.

Take a walk on the wild side here:

4. You shoulda heard him just around midnight

According to Donald Draper, advertising is supposed to make people happy. Rock music soundtracks have become so ubiquitous in advertising because their driving beats accomplish just that. Rock songs about slavery and sadomasochism, however, would seem to be an odd pick.

The Rolling Stones 1971 #1 hit single “Brown Sugar” would perhaps be more controversial if more people could actually understand the lyrics Mick Jagger is singing, which are about beating and raping slaves (“Hear him whip the women just around midnight”). When Pepsi licensed “Brown Sugar” for a commercial, they cut out just about every lyric, besides the words “Brown Sugar” and “yeah.”

Watch the video here:

5. The Man Who Sold The World

Like Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation, David Bowie’s fabled Japanese Sake commercial, below, is an example of selling out discreetly–in Japan. After all, if you shoot a commercial in Japan, and no one sees it in the West, are you really selling out?

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

Watch the video here:


Up Next