Olympic Gold: How Three Of The Games' Biggest Music-Driven Ads Came To Be

Fireworks at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics.
Luiz Souza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Fireworks at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics.

By the time the Summer Olympics wrap on Aug. 21, advertisers will have spent $1.2 billion across NBCUniversal’s broadcast, cable and digital platforms -- and publishers say synch requests for music are at an all-time high for the Rio Games. “We definitely responded to more creative briefs than ever before,” says Brian Monaco, Sony/ATV worldwide head of advertising, film and TV.

Joshua Rabinowitz, EVP and director of music for Grey Group, says brands came to the ad agency seeking songs much earlier than in past years. In the case of Gillette’s “Pretty Isn’t Perfect” spot, the razor company began looking for music, ultimately choosing Sia’s tune, more than a year in advance. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years -- it’s the first time we’ve had to dig deep so early,” he says.

While the Olympics aren’t a juggernaut on the level of the Super Bowl -- the most-watched TV event of the year, where synchs can top $1 million -- a spot for a well-known song can go as high as $250,000 for the Games. Following are the stories behind three commercial placements. 

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"TIme after Time" (McDonald’s)
The creative brief from Leo Burnett Chicago called for “sentimental father-daughter songs,” says Monaco. His staff pitched Cyndi Lauper's 1984 hit, which struck the right chord for the split-screen ad that time-travels between a father, seen as a young boy, and a young girl, who the viewer later realizes is his daughter, sharing youthful hobbies like bikes and puppies. As father and daughter, they then share an order of Chicken McNuggets. Instead of the original master, the song was performed by indie veteran Iron & Wine, which gave it an updated feel. "A lot of times we pitch our own master," says Monaco. "But this time there wasn't enough time [to record one]."


"Rock the Bells" (Royal Caribbean)
Breaking a new song was one objective of this spot, which features the techno-tinged "Rock the Bells" by Boys Noize (aka DJ-producer Alex Ridha) which samples Bob James’ cover of Universal Music Publishing writer Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras.” “We hope this will elevate the song into pop culture,” says Universal Music Publishing senior vp music for advertising Tom Eaton, who cites Empire of the Sun’s recent success (its “Walking on a Dream” was featured in a Honda Super Bowl ad). "We're hoping that people are Shazaming, then going to YouTube to look it up. There's money that will come from streaming and downloading, all of which are peripheral revenue streams."


"Couldn't Ask For A Better Friend" (Folgers Coffee)
Olympic placements aren’t exclusive to big publishers. This genial tune, written by peermusic writer-producer Andrew Simple and Secret Road Music Publishing writer Michael Logen, provides the perfect accompaniment for the spot, which follows a young man on his journey to becoming an Olympian, with the help of his coach. Says peermusic’s Craig Currier, “I knew it could be the soundtrack for a spot that taps into a close relationship.” He pitched the then-unreleased song to Grey Group, which licensed the synch and master for three months for a mid-five-figure sum. The song was rushed to streaming and download services, arriving on Aug. 9.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.