Backstage at the Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip, a young assistant is anxiously preparing the dressing room for a visiting prince of darkness. It’s a tiny space crowded with gothic décor: a stuffed raven, Ouija board, black candelabra, black balloons, black roses, dark chocolate, bottles of midnight nail polish and a punch bowl filled with an unknown purplish liquid.
Into this scene enters Alice Cooper, veteran shock-rocker and Detroit native, dressed in black leather with a live boa constrictor curled around his neck. He looks around and asks: “What’s with all the black?”
The words are delivered in perfect deadpan, as Cooper faces a small film crew pressed against the opposite wall, delivering the punch line for a TV commercial about Dodge Durango. In scenes shot earlier, the assistant was shown rushing across town in the SUV to fulfill the rocker’s rider of required amenities, using the built-in Apple Car Play technology for directions and a blast of Cooper’s Seventies classic, “Under My Wheels.”
“This dressing room never looked this good,” Cooper says with a laugh to director Jake Scott, son of Ridley and the creator of many highly regarded music videos (Radiohead, R.E.M.). “My real rider is a bag of Doritos and Diet Coke. We’re very low maintenance.”
Even so, today’s gig is no low-budget operation, but is part of this summer’s huge media campaign from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which will include on-camera appearances by OneRepublic and the Brothers Osborne. It will be one of FCA’s biggest campaigns ever, as conceived by music-obsessive Olivier François, the company’s Paris-born chief marketing officer.
Once described by Bloomberg Businessweek as “Chrysler’s Don Draper,” François has often turned to popular music for help in connecting with a wide range of target audiences. In recent years, those campaigns have included the likes of Pharrell, Bob Dylan, X-Ambassadors and Imagine Dragons, while also breaking new artists to the wider public.
“If he wasn’t running Chrysler, he’d be running a record label,” says OneRepublic singer Ryan Tedder. “He has a phenomenal set of ears.”
The new commercials officially roll out the first week of July, emphasizing the Apple experience, a technology bundle created for FCA, including “45 million songs at your fingertips,” says François.
In 2011, François famously recruited Eminem for a two-minute Super Bowl commercial called “Born of Fire” that forecast the accelerating resurrection of Detroit after decades of despair. The rapper was drawn to participate because of that message of hometown pride, and the final commercial showed the Real Slim Shady rolling along those same city streets in a Chrysler accompanied by his hit “Lose Yourself.”
“It’s a good thing no one told me that Eminem would never do it, otherwise I would not have even tried,” says François, 56, in a call from Fiat’s offices in Turin, Italy. The timing of the ad made it especially powerful, coming as the battered auto industry was slowly rebounding from the 2008 financial crisis. “When you have Eminem speaking of recovery, Chrysler trying to emerge from the shadows, and Detroit trying to make it, that’s a perfect connection to the moment.”
There have been other moments and many campaigns, from Miranda Lambert singing for Ram Trucks to posthumously released Michael Jackson tunes for Jeep. Wyclef Jean has written songs specifically for Fiat, and a few years back Pitbull’s “Sexy People” became the brand’s official song. Fiat is just one of FCA’s eight brands guided by a carefully curated playlist and personality: hard rock for Dodge, hip-hop for Chrysler, country for Ram.
“My perfect commercial is when it doesn’t smell too commercial,” says François. “It’s almost more of a product placement – and more entertaining – than a commercial.”
A week before Cooper’s day at the Roxy, the FCA crew gathered the members of OneRepublic to the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles to shoot a commercial for Jeep. Facing a crowd of genuine fans hired as extras, the pop-rock quintet were filmed performing two new songs, including “Connection,” which is being released this week from Interscope.
“The hardest thing to do in the world is to let people know you exist – or that you have a song that exists,” says Tedder, who has grown weary of the time and travel required to promote a new album. “This is a huge campaign. This song will have as much exposure as you can have for a song in 2018.”
FCA commercial campaigns have become a high-profile path to breaking new songs and artists, says Steve Berman, vice chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M. “They’re spending a great deal of resources reaching millions of people with their message, and if the music is complimentary to that, it’s a great platform for us.”
Many of the FCA song choices are made far in advance, but can also come from sudden inspiration. Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer at Sony/ATV Music Publishing, recalls a night in Manhattan with François watching Pharrell perform outdoors on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. “So Pharrell goes and performs on the marquee over Sixth Avenue, but as he opens it up he gives this speech about freedom and what freedom means,” says Monaco. “And Olivier goes, ‘That’s the commercial! That’s it!’”
Four weeks later, Pharrell’s song “Freedom” and the recorded speech from that day in New York were part of a commercial “about the freedom of Fiat,” says Monaco, who has collaborated on more than 100 campaigns with Olivier. “It’s a joy to work with him because he has these crazy ideas.”
A generation ago, it was common for recording artists to shy away from commercial use of their music. As traditional promotion and revenue streams have been shattered in the last decade, fewer musicians can afford to say no. Tedder says OneRepublic fans are “indifferent” to band’s partnerships with other companies, including Disney, which licensed their 2010 single “Good Life” as a virtual theme song at Walt Disney World and various commercials.
“The day of people giving two shits about how they discovered – or where they discovered – a song they liked? Those days are gone,” Tedder says. “I love LCD Soundsystem. I love Radiohead. Would they do a Jeep campaign? Hell no, they wouldn’t dream of it. They’re also precious, and their fan base is way older than ours. That kind of preciousness doesn’t exist with the fans that we have.”
For François, the approach is simple. “He’s not endorsing a Jeep,” he insists of Tedder and OneRepublic. “He’s endorsing himself. And we contribute to endorsing him. It’s a perfect alignment: artist, words, sound. ”
The issue is less age than attitude for some artists, even Bob Dylan, a Nobel Prize-winning icon of popular music, and known for following his own whims. In 2014, François wanted the songwriter’s “Things Have Changed” for a commercial. Then he wanted to know if Dylan himself would appear on camera.
“I thought, ‘There’s no way he’s doing this. He said yes on the first phone call: ‘When do I have to shoot it?’’” says Monaco. The final commercial was another two-minute Super Bowl piece that praised the legacy of Detroit, with Dylan narrating: “Detroit made cars, and cars made America,” as he strolled some shadowy hallways, city streets and a music store.
“I was definitely surprised when he agreed, but you’re definitely seeing more catalog artists calling me up saying, ‘We’re in!’”