Could John Lennon ever have imagined this?
His music urged listeners to imagine a world of no possessions. But now corporate America is using his music to sell cars.
Appropriately, perhaps, the first Beatles song to cross the line into commercialdom is "Help!"
It is played as background for a Lincoln-Mercury TV ad that has been appearing since late February. The ad marks the first time a Beatles song has been played in a commercial advertisement, according to Jay Meisenhelder, assistant public affairs manager for the Lincoln-Mercury division of Ford.
Among a number of Lincoln-Mercury commercials featuring music from the '60s and early '70s, the ad depicts a treasure hunt for such '60s memorabilia as granny glasses and surfboards by people driving their new Lincolns and Mercurys. Steppenwolf, the Shirelles and the Beach Boys provide background music in some of the other commercials.
But being the first Beatles song used this way doesn't mean it will be alone for long.
A number of Beatles tunes are now being offered for use in television commercials, according to Joe Dera of Rogers & Cowan, the public relations firm that has represented Paul McCartney in the United States for the last eight years. Hewlett-Packard will reportedly use "We Can Work It Out" for commercial use in Britain.
The Beatles lost control of the songs in a chaotic takeover battle in 1969. Lennon's and McCartney's attempts to regain control of the songs, which were owned by Northern Songs Ltd., were thwarted when a group of investors sold their shares to ATV Music, a large music publishing company owned by British impresario Lord Lew Grade In the end, Grade acquired the songs for about $19 million.
"Help!" is one of about 180 songs in the Lennon-McCartney song catalogue still owned by Northern Songs Ltd., now a part of ATV.
ATV chief executive officer Julian Appleson said, "This is the normal method of exploitation of musical compositions. Lennon and McCartney sold their rights to a publishing company and no one forced them to do it."
McCartney and Yoko Ono, Lennon's widow, tried to negotiate with ATV not to license the music for commercial use but ATV would not agree, according to Gerard Meola, spokesman for Ono.
"There is nothing Paul or Yoko can do about it," he said. "It is big business and it is sad."
Tapping the impact of Beatles and '60s nostalgia that appeals to the young-professional market may be an effective way to increase sales, which the company largely attributes to this ad campaign. Lincoln-Mercury sales are up 33 percent this year, Meisenhelder said.
Lincoln-Mercury reportedly purchased six months' worth of rights to "Help" for $100,000. The only thing Meisenhelder would say about how much the rights to the song cost was "We paid a good price for it."
Schweppes also purchased rights to use the same song for an undisclosed fee for commercial usage in Spain.
Chuck Riley of Young & Rubicam, the advertising agency handling the Lincoln-Mercury account, said, "The bottom line is, we have had zero feedback of people saying you are using something sacred and holy to me and putting it in a commercial. If the song had been altered in any way and not kept true to its original form, then we would have had negative feedback." Young & Rubicam rerecorded it for commercial use using a sound-alike studio group at EMI Studios on Abbey Road in London. It would have cost them a lot more money to use the Beatles version.
McCartney, traveling in the West Indies, was not available for comment, London spokesman Bernard Doherty said.
Lennon wrote "Help!" in 1965. It was the title track to the Beatles' second movie. He discussed his view of the song in a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine.
"Most people think 'Help!' is just a fast rock 'n' roll song. I didn't realize it at the time; but later I knew I was crying out for help. And I'm singing about when I was so much younger and all the rest, looking back at how easy it was . . . I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help."
Rumors abounded last year in London when ATV was put up for sale by Associated Communication Corp., its parent company, that McCartney was interested in making a bid for the catalogue, but they were never officially confirmed. ACC was asking $60 million for ATV at the time.
Meanwhile, the royalties keep rolling in.