Acura Taps Van Halen for a Hard-Driving Super Bowl Commercial

Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” served as the perfect soundtrack for Budweiser’s heartwarming 2013 ad where a Clydesdale reunited with its former trainer. The composer John Williams’ “Imperial March” from “Star Wars” added just the right touch to Volkswagen’s humorous 2011 spot about a junior Darth Vader trying to use “the Force.”

On the other hand, Nissan’s selection of Harry Chapin’s melancholy “Cat’s in the Cradle” last year felt too dour for many viewers.

When it comes to Super Bowl ads, the use of well-known songs can be a high-risk, high-reward proposition, said Tristan Clopet, creative director of the Sussex Music House in Brooklyn. Done right, music can be a highly effective branding tool. Done wrong, viewers remember not the product, but the song (and not always fondly).

This year, the luxury carmaker Acura is gambling that its use of Van Halen’s hard-driving rock n’ roll classic “Runnin’ With the Devil” will make its 30-second spot for the 2017 NSX high-end sports car stand out during CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7.

The spot, by the ad agency MullenLowe U.S. in Los Angeles, contains no dialogue. Instead, the familiar sound of the singer David Lee Roth’s voice is set against images of the car, which will become available this spring for the sum of $156,000.

Acura and MullenLowe considered a variety of songs from different genres before settling on Van Halen.

“Ultimately we knew that we wanted this to be a rock song,” said Leila Cesario, the national advertising manager for American Honda’s Acura division. “The Super Bowl is a big American platform. It needed a big American band that screams excitement.”

This will be Acura’s first Super Bowl spot since 2012, when the comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno dueled over the first NSX to come off the production line. MullenLowe deliberately shot NSX in shades of red, white and blue to highlight that the two-seater is designed and built in the United States.

Van Halen won’t be the only rock and rollers on Super Bowl Sunday. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, for example, will star in a spot for Skittles candy. Pepsi is also planning a commercial featuring well-known songs.

Choosing the right music for an ad is not simple. Many marketers hire advisers like Tena Clark, founder of DMI Music & Media Solutions in Los Angeles, to pick songs that they think will resonate.

“It’s a perfect storm in the wind when you’ve really done your homework — and that piece of music matches with the story line and the visuals you’ve shot,” said Ms. Clark.

Agencies license songs a variety of ways. The most expensive is to license an original version, like Acura did. An alternative is to use cover versions. The cheapest way is to use the music of relatively obscure artists.

Licensing a classic song by a popular band like Van Halen or Aerosmith can cost six figures for one-time use during the Super Bowl, said Josh Rabinowitz, director of music for the Grey Group in New York. (Acura did not say how much it paid.) If the agency wants to use the song for a monthslong campaign, the cost could run into the millions, he said. Savvy music labels also raise the price when they know an agency badly wants a certain song for a Super Bowl spot.

The good news for advertisers? With major changes in the economics of the music industry, more artists are willing to work with Madison Avenue than ever before.

Long after bands’ records stop selling, or the musicians stop touring, “advertising is the gift that keeps giving,” Mr. Rabinowitz said.

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