Melissa Etheridge On Creating Iconic Advertising With Music

It was a rockstar moment: When Melissa Etheridge stepped up to present the Grand Clio Music award and introduce the night's musical acts at the 2015 Clio Awards, the Grammy winner broke into Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.”

The spontaneous song demonstrated two powerful ideas—one of the first music and brand integrations (the 1970 song was later featured in a 1990s Mercedes-Benz advertisement), and Etheridge’s savvy understanding of the brand-band bond.

We spoke to the 2016 Clio Music juror about how music in advertising is evolving to capture not only the next earworm, but also the ethos of the day—and how both brands and artists can exist in harmony.

You treated the audience at the 2015 Clio Awards to an impromptu rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.” How do you think the marketing world receives that song differently than the music world?

The beautiful thing about the advertising world and their relationship with music is they understand what music does to a person—to the soul. “Mercedes Benz” was a brilliant song. First you hear the hand clapping and you hear her start singing, and it catches you—you’re paying attention. It’s so iconic and haunting. There was no one like her and there was nothing like that moment and that song. To put [the brand] Mercedes in it years later is to say, “We are iconic.”

For artists, it now seems less taboo, and more authentic, to have their work featured in an advertisement (case in point: X Ambassadors for Jeep). What has promoted the shift in perspective?

I think television has changed and radio has changed. It used to be that a commercial on television reached everyone, all at once. It was the polar opposite of what music was at that time. Music was anti-establishment; television was establishment. Artists were singing about the alternatives and the other side, but as time has gone by, television has become as diverse as music. It’s not like there is one radio station everyone is listening to; it’s very splintered. Now with my children, when the television is on and they hear something they like, that’s an opportunity for them to get to know new music.

How has the connection between music and advertising evolved in recent years?

There’s a long history of what is capitalism, what does it represent, and is it good or bad? The artist was always of the mindset, “I don’t make money off my art; I’m an artist.” With my generation and onward, it’s not about us and them. There’s a feeling that America is a place where you can create and use capitalism to try to reach people.

The Clios celebrate excellence in advertising. What part does excellence in song selection play in a campaign’s overall success?

A song can make or break a commercial. If you put the right song to it, you’ve got an iconic, classic moment. “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”—that’s as much a part of America as is Coca-Cola. With the iPod, the Jet song “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” places a generation where they’re at and with what type of music.

If you have a product and you want to say, “I’m new, I’m inventive, I’m cutting edge,” you’re going to look for cutting-edge music. If you want to be a product where you want people to know they can rely on it—it’s solid and dependable—you’re going to go for a song everybody knows. It’s another way of defining what your product is.

What do you consider some of the most effective artist-brand collaborations?

I remember in the ‘90s, Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly” [for Nissan]. It was perfect for the song, it was perfect for him, and it was perfect for the car. I remember sitting in a Jaguar singing “Desert Rose” [by Sting]. Amazing stuff. When The Beatles music first became available, Nike did “Revolution” first, and I thought, “Oh, you guys are bringing it.” And then Microsoft using “Start Me Up.”

How can a newer artist take advantage of the opportunity to have her music shared via advertising, without it overshadowing her personal brand?

I would say, you take your breaks when they come. Any break like that is huge. If a brand likes your song, it means they understand who you’re reaching and the power of your music. I don’t think it’s damaging at all anymore. It can make your whole career. The TV is considered like radio; you can find new music on it.

What line should a brand never cross when it comes to collaborating with an artist?

I would stay out of the creative process—you either like what they do or not. I wouldn’t go in and say, “Hey, can you change this line?” You’re going to use the recording, or you don’t.

How has starting your own independent label changed your approach to music?

Independent means you have to look for more collaboration. I don’t have the budget and the power of the big companies anymore, but I have all the creativity so I can go out and find the collaborations. The way that new artists are making electronic music so musical is exciting. It’s all about sounds, but it’s natural sounds used electronically. It’s crazy.

What brand do you think would be a great fit for your own music?

I’m just waiting for any water company to come “Bring Me Some Water.” I just think it’s kind of perfect. And also—hello, Microsoft, “Come to My Window.” It’s kind of right there.

What are you most looking forward to seeing as a CLIO Music juror?

I really think it’s about the synergy—it’s about the song that benefits the brand, and the brand that benefits the song. That’s what I think is the highest art form of advertising as creative. It’s a little mini movie or mini video, with product placement and music. So often commercials are depicting a slice of our life right now, and that’s why it becomes so iconic. It’s a look at ourselves, and at the product that wants to be part of what’s happening now.

The Clio Music Awards, in partnership with Billboard, underscores the visceral power of music to connect consumers and brands. Clio Music, presented by Citi, was highlighted at the 56th annual Clio Awards in 2015, with host Melissa Etheridge and performances by X Ambassadors and Salt-N-Pepa.  

Entries for the 2016 Clio Music Awards are now open. The final deadline for submissions is June 17. For more information, please call 212.683.4300 or visit