Imagine a collection of music, aimed at a broad audience, that featured songs by Sammy Davis, Jr., Derek & the Dominos, Olivia Newton-John and the Osmonds. In this age of satellite radio, niche music formats and narrowcasting, that seems unthinkable. In fact, that was just part of the lineup on an actual 1972 compilation album called “22 Explosive Hits,” as advertised below:
“22 Explosive Hits” was typical of the offerings that a company called K-tel churned out in large quantities back in the 70s. If you watched TV on a regular basis 40 years ago, there’s no way you escaped seeing trippy, cheesy effects-laden commercials for K-tel Records titles like “Pure Power,” “Out of Sight,” “25 Polka Greats!” or “Goofy Greats.” As a child growing up in that era, I think my first exposure to at least half of the songs on the charts in those years was hearing their hooks played on K-tel commercials.
K-tel was (and remains) an interesting company. Most people old enough to remember them at all remember K-tel Records, but that was only one facet of their operation. Much like Ronco, K-tel was a marketer of plastic gadgetry of the “As Seen on TV!” variety. Along with the records, they sold igloo makers, sporting goods, and gimmicky kitchen appliances, among other things. They would even sell you record and 8-track tape organizers to hold all of that music you were buying from them. (Awesome mustache/shades/sideburns combo seen on the guy at 0:06 in the 8-track commercial sold separately.)
Those oddities aside, this is a post about compilation albums, and those scads of 70s Various Artists LPs will be K-tel’s true legacy. Of course, K-tel wasn’t the only company cobbling hit singles into heavily-promoted collections. In fact, The Marketing Smart Aleck believes that the two finest TV compilation album commercials of all time were for non-K-tel titles: “Hey Love” and “Freedom Rock.”
The spot for “Hey Love” is low-budget advertising storytelling at its finest. Three guys and three gals are assembled at a party and nothing’s happening. Then one of the characters introduces the product and things quickly get interesting…
Of course, there are a million commercials out there that follow this product-as-hero template. But there are three things that set “Hey Love” apart and make it truly memorable: (1) It really does seem to be a quality compilation of songs that are worth having for fans of that genre; (2) The subtitle of the album is “The Classic Sounds of Sexy Soul.” Just try to keep your credit card in your wallet when the announcer drops that line. I don’t think you can.; (3) The exchange beginning at 1:28 where the one guy asks to borrow “Hey Love” and his friend coldly replies, “No, my brother. You’ve got to buy your own.” Ouch! As stingy as that seems, I must admit that it became a personal catchphrase of mine in college and beyond whenever someone asked to use or borrow pretty much anything I owned, large or small. (In retrospect, I might have beaten the “No, my brother…” line into the ground.)
While the “Hey Love” spot is downbeat and smooth, the commercial for “Freedom Rock” decides the best way to get our attention is with loud guitars and even louder hippies.
It may seem that there’s nothing subtle about this commercial, but watching it all these years later, I found myself noticing the sly, subversive undertone beneath all the “Hey Man!” interjections and shouting. Consider this exchange:
Hippie 1: Remember the good ol’ days? You know, war, protest…
Hippie 2: Going to jail.
One has to admire the chutzpah of a commercial that is trying to sell nostalgia for a bygone era while simultaneously reminding the viewer that said era was one marked by violence, unrest and paranoia. A small thing perhaps, but here at The Marketing Smart Aleck, we always enjoy seeing Baby Boomers getting tweaked, especially while they’re being sold something that panders to the very heart of their bong water-scented Sixties idolatry.
In that regard, all of the compilation albums discussed in this post and the commercials that promoted them are just like “Freedom Rock” and its aging flower children pitchmen – small time capsules that at once remind us of both what was terrific and what was laughable about a certain snapshot in history. It is a truism that the popular music we grow up with becomes “the soundtrack of our youth.” How fitting it is for those of us whose youth spanned the 1960s through the 1980s that our generational soundtracks are so neatly condensed into 60-second TV commercials.