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Expert Comment: John Lewis uses Beatles song in Christmas ad

Penguin Tuesday 11 November 2014

As John Lewis uses The Beatles' Real Love to soundtrack this year's Christmas advert Dr Mike Brocken, Director of the University's The Beatles, Popular Music & Society masters course, looks into the Fab Four's often uneasy relationship with the ad-men. 

The use of the song 'Real Love' in John Lewis's new Christmas advert reminds us that Beatles-related income streams do not simply emerge from record sales, but also from the licensing and commercial exploitation of this brand via the use of their songs.

Simply put, licensing means the granting and collecting of royalties from the use of a song, whereas exploitation means getting other artists interested in recording a songwriter’s work. While, as we can see from the advert, few problems are associated with the latter, with artists always willing to cover a Beatles ‘classic’ (not that 'Real Love' is a 'classic, as such), the former still raises issues concerning whether Beatles songs should be licensed to advertise a product (as if their works are 'above' such things).

There are, of course, several types of licenses, such as mechanical licenses, synchronisation licenses (songs are synchronised to visual images, typically for use in films, TV programmes, and commercials), print licenses and performing rights licenses, etc. I was reminded by this current John Lewis ad that in 1987, ‘Revolution’ was used in a Nike advertisement after an agreement was reached between Sony/ATV and EMI-Capitol Records and a payment of $500,000 was made. However, Sony/ATV asked for permission to do so only from Yoko Ono and they did not consult Apple on behalf of the then three surviving ex-Beatles.

As a result, Apple filed for a lawsuit against the use of the song. According to Apple in July 1987: ‘The Beatles’ position is that they don’t sing jingles to peddle sneakers, beer, pantyhose or anything else […] They wrote and recorded these songs as artists and not as pitchmen for any product'. Arguably, the use of any song in an advertisement can actually contribute positively to an artist, as long as it is relevant to the artist’ image. In this particular case Yoko Ono believed that the commercial was ‘making John's music accessible to a new generation.’ 

But Apple continue to be the key decision-makers. So while the Universal multinational which owns the Beatles’ master recordings would wish to synchronically exploit this brand as much as possible (especially in the light of declining direct sales), Apple have the final say concerning with whom or what the music can be synchronised. It is because of this multifaceted hierarchy that Beatles songs are seldom heard on films or TV. One other case in point illustrates this well: in 2012 the producers of Mad Men reportedly paid $250,000 (£155,000) to use only a small section of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ in one episode. As for the new John Lewis ad itself? Rather like their chocolates: sickly sweet would be my evaluation, with a rather weak version of an equally weak (and of course originally incomplete) Lennon song completing the cloying dessert.

More information about Liverpool Hope's masters degree in The Beatles, Popular Music & Society is available from the course page.

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