It’s easy to think of an ad’s soundtrack as something that enhances the emotional moments or simply fills out the rest of the edit, and sometimes that’s true. But, there are also times when the script is flipped, when music becomes the highlight, not an undertone.
That’s what we’re here to celebrate today. Not every ad can take advantage of the music in the way that these nine ads do. Each of these ads is a great example of thinking outside the box, turning traditional advertising tropes on their head, and using a soundtrack as so much more than a soundtrack. They use the sound as part of the story, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Here are nine ads that made music their hero.
1. Nike — Kyrie 3 Improv
Here’s the perfect example of an ad being inspired by music. Most of the time, we think of music as a final product, like a song or a composition placed after production. But R/GA did something genius here by incorporating musical creativity into the concept of their ad about improvisation. And, who better to show off their chops than Questlove? By creating the comparison between musical improvisation and Kyrie’s virtuoso skills on the court, they were able to create a compelling narrative by dropping their audience in on art in the making.
2. Quit Smoking — I Will Survive
If you want a masterclass in how to walk the delicate balance between two different tones, then just watch this spot from BBDO Dublin. It would’ve been incredibly easy to make this spot purely funny. It also would’ve been incredibly easy to make this spot heavy and affecting. Somehow, this Quit Smoking campaign manages to do both. By having Gloria Gaynor’s motivational anthem set against a very serious topic, the edit manages to strike so many tones at once (sad, funny, inspirational, strange) and pull off every single one of them.
3. Apple — Macbook Air
It takes quite a bit of confidence to build an ad the way Apple does. Their spots are incredibly simple, straightforward, and effective, and so much of this comes down to their music selection. We could have picked dozens of their spots for an example on this list, but the Macbook Air introduction is a perfect example of using music discovery and tastemaker status as marketing tools. They took an unknown artist with an unknown song and dropped it right in front of their audience. It’s as if Apple is saying, “Trust us, we know you’re going to love this.” And they were absolutely right.
4. Canon — Live for the Story
And then, you have the perfect song choice. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle, and any music supervisor knows that it also requires the perfect storm—an artist, client, and creative team coming together at the right moment. VCCP’s vision for this Canon spot is perfectly realized between the music and the edit, creating something more like a music video for Mikey Mike’s “Doin’ Me”—only if it had been shot by Michel Gondry. It’s a unique choice, creating a sense of longing and wonderment that embodies the passage of time and hope for the future.
5. Under Armour — Rule Yourself
It would have been so easy for Droga5 to go the usual route with this Under Armour spot. If you watched the visuals alone on mute, you’d assume the soundtrack would be a sweeping score or an amped-up rock anthem. Instead, they made the genius choice to go with “The Last Goodbye” by The Kills, a song that’s closer to an emotional show tune or ballad. By doing so, they could not only tie in the emotion and angst of Michael Phelps’ training routine but also tap into the audience’s knowledge that it’d be his last Olympic Games. That’s smart.
6. Lyft — The Sound of Y
Out of every ad on this list, Lyft’s Sound of Y spot is the furthest away from traditional music. There are environmental sounds, horns, ambient undertones, and more, but no single underlying score. But, there’s intentionality. They use the sounds and music to create a beautiful dissonance between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing, which is a magic trick only achieved by letting an editor do what they do best, which is exactly what Avocados & Coconuts let Spencer MacDonald do.
7. Chipotle — Back to the Start
Love it or hate it, it’s pretty hard to ignore Chipotle’s now-iconic spot. CAA’s decision to have an aging country singer cover a recognizable but out-dated (even for 2012) Coldplay song was an incredibly bold choice, but it told the story it needed to tell—both emotionally and logistically. Willie Nelson’s vocals brought a weariness that Coldplay simply couldn’t and it made for a captivating animated short film. The lesson to learn from this one is—it may sound like a bad idea on paper, but remember that many great ideas started with, “I know it sounds crazy, but…”
8. Guinness — Good Things Come to Those Who…
Jonathan Glazer got to be Jonathan Glazer by making spots like this one. In this Guinness piece, every creative choice is incredibly bold, from the lo-fi Lynchian visuals to the abstract V/O to the pounding, pulsing soundtrack. The most beautiful part is that none of these elements would work on their own, and the music choice may seem like only a supporting role, but it’s the glue holding this piece together. The buzzy bass strings and unrelenting rhythm only amplify the angsty, “impatient” tone to create something masterful. After more than 20 years, this spot not only holds up but gets better with age and that’s due in large part to the risky decision making.
9. Volkswagen — The Force
Last but not least, don’t underestimate the power behind more than 30 years of pop culture nostalgia. We’ve all been kids, and most of us have been kids that loved (and still love, be honest) Star Wars. Donny Deutsch Advertising took their creativity a step further to tap into another secret we all carry—we all want to be Darth Vader, not Luke Skywalker. By using John Williams’ legendary score, they were able to make us laugh on the surface, but also make us wish we were 7-year-olds trying to tap into The Force.
If there’s one overarching lesson to take away from this article, we hope it’s this: Music has no limits for creativity if you give it the chance. None of these spots were created without the music selection being in the conversations upfront, and that’s why they’re on this list and hundreds of others could be, too. So, put your music where it belongs, right upfront in the process, and there’s no telling where it’ll lead you.
Read how Blue Ox Films used Musicbed to create the soundtrack for their broadcast series for The CW, ‘All American Stories’.