A Little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Aretha, the Commercial Performer

Few people have the depth and breadth in their career in commercials to have appeared in ads for cars and gasoline, candy bars, a credit card, an internet service provider, for McDonalds and Pizza Hut, and for both Coke and Pepsi. When Aretha Franklin died earlier this month, she left behind not just a legacy in music, but one in advertising as well.

Aretha was, in fact, involved in a pioneering effort in advertising on the radio. One of her first appearances, a 1969 radio ad for Coca-Cola, was a part of their “Things Go Better with Coke” campaign.

The campaign was the brainchild of Bill Backer of McCann Erickson. While working on a radio spot that was to showcase the great taste of Coca-Cola, he heard Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park,” a pop song about having a hot dog at an amusement park. Inspired by this song, he worked on a way for Coca-Cola to be included in a pop song, though in the form of a more traditional ad jingle. He knew radio was a powerful means for reaching a young audience, and contacted leading performers of the era. He asked them to create songs not for a new album, but for an ad jingle. They were asked to include the slogan “Things Go Better With Coke,” and left on their own to record a short song in their signature style. The results were hits of their own. They did not sound like ad jingles of the era, but instead stood out, since really, they were short hit songs.

In March of 1965, McCann Erickson notified Coke bottlers about the upcoming new form of advertising on the radio. No longer would Coke have traditional jingles, now they would have short pop songs about Coke. The first spots featured the Four Seasons, and Jan and Dean.

Aretha joined the effort in 1969, when Coke evolved their slogan to “It’s the Real Thing.” Aretha partnered with Ray Charles, performing a song written by another star of the era, Neil Diamond.

Raised in Detroit, and growing up singing soul and gospel in her father’s church, Aretha left her mark on the Motor City. She made a name for herself with the MTV Generation with the 1985 release of her music video for “Freeway of Love.” The song and video, which includes beauty shots of Detroit and footage of Fords and Cadillacs on the manufacturing line, spent more than 15 weeks on the Billboard top 100 list, offering fantastic exposure and free ad time to Detroit, Ford, and Cadillac.

Aretha also appeared in several television campaigns for Chevrolet. In this ad for Chevrolet, a part of their Heartbeat of America campaign, she celebrates America and urged Americans to get behind the wheel, of a Chevrolet.

Her classic songs “Natural Woman” and “Respect” have also been in many commercials over the years as well. In 1995, Clairol used Debra Messing, a hit actress from the original series “Will and Grace,” in an ad for Clairol’s Natural Instincts hair coloring. Debra colors her own hair, with “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” as her soundtrack. She starts singing quietly, in the shower, but by the end of the spot, when her hair looks great again, the shyness is replaced by confidence and a diva-like attitude.

Aretha had a huge personality, a powerful and unmistakable voice, a fan base and following with which many brands have wanted to align. She certainly will be missed.

August 31, 2018: Today is Aretha’s final send-off in Detroit. All week, Aretha’s casket has been carried in a pink 1940 Cadillac LaSalle Hearse; the streets of Detroit are being lined with pink Cadillacs, a nod to Aretha’s “Freeway of Love” song and music video. This morning, Cadillac put up a full-page tribute ad in the New York Times – a simple and moving tribute, with a pink background, 1942 – 2018, and RESPECT laid out on the bottom below a vintage Cadillac logo. Cadillac also posted the tribute on Twitter


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