Music's message

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At one time or another, most of us have saluted an ad just for its artfulness.

Plenty of people chuckle at TV specials that showcase the zaniest commercials from abroad. Plenty more watch the Super Bowl in part to catch the big-budget spots that premier during the broadcast.

But as much as we admire the ability of good ads to deliver their pitches in an amusing way, most of us don't want ads sneaking up on us disguised as something else.

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For as long as Madison Ave. has been a force in popular culture, consumer advocates have bridled at what they perceive as in-your-face tactics. In the late 1950s they cited images of provocative women said to be hidden in the ice cubes in liquor ads aimed at men. These "subliminal" ads have since been roundly dismissed as urban myth.

But the arena has widened.

Ambient advertising - the not-so-subtle insertion of commercial messages into such unexpected public places as beach sand and bathroom stalls - has spread.

This fall, ads for Halloween TV programming by ABC's Family Channel were plastered right on sidewalks in some cities, raising questions about the legality of the practice. They were scraped off.

The next front may be popular music. Firms have bought the rights to pop tunes for years now. And artists have long played both sides of the art/commerce fence.

Barry Manilow, who once crooned jingles for the likes of State Farm insurance, sometimes trots out his early advertising work at concerts, just for fun.

But the lines become blurrier when musicians compose tunes at the behest of firms and then market them as art.

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