To the connoisseur of classical music, the "Lacrimosa" from Mozart's Requiem is a particularly poignant, solemn portion of his Mass setting. To the uninitiated it means only one thing: basketball shoes.
In a current Nike TV commercial, the Lacrimosa accompanies the final seconds of a high school basketball game. The ad shows a visiting player stealing an inbound pass, driving to the basket and clinching the game as stunned onlookers weep and celebrate. Throughout, the slow motion gestures of players, fans, and cheerleaders are tightly synchronized to Mozart's dark choral tread.
The gravity of Mozart's music is, of course, absurdly out of scale with the events on the screen, and as a result the commercial becomes a spoof on the life-or-death struggle of a basketball game. It's also the latest example of how advertisers are changing their tune when it comes to classical music. No longer is the genre merely used to evoke class or elegance as it was a decade ago, when British Airways appropriated the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' opera "Lakme" as its corporate theme, or when DeBeers advertised diamond rings to the strains of ersatz Baroque music by Karl Jenkins.
These days, many advertisers look to classical music for its comedic potential, something that many in the classical music business see as an opportunity.
"We're trying to smash preconceptions of classical music as being old-fashioned wedding or funeral music," says Ken Krasner, senior music consultant at Boosey & Hawkes, the world's largest publisher of classical music. "We try to project fun – young, ironic, snide, energetic."
Mr. Krasner says that Boosey has aimed to overcome classical music's "ivory tower" image in recent years by reaching out to ad agencies and offering services that include clearance and synchronization rights. It has also hosted showcase events for contemporary composers such as Steve Reich and invited agency executives to hear their music. "We have to let people know our composers would not say no to commercials," says Mr. Krasner.
Karen Kloack, the director of film, TV, and advertising at the music publisher G. Schirmer, describes similar initiatives and says living composers garner significant financial benefits for licensing their pieces, with fees of $50,000 to $100,000 followed by additional royalty payments. For music in the public domain, however, advertisers often don't have to worry about paying fees or royalties to the composers, and Schirmer's profit is much smaller.
Ms. Kloack says the most popular pieces among advertisers often have humorous connotations, such as Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," or works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Yet sometimes even a simple aria can acquire comic value. In a recent Sharp Aquos TV commercial, for example, a golfer, caddy, and tournament officials search for an errant golf ball that home viewers can clearly see on their Sharp TV screens. "Caro Nome," the blissful love aria from Verdi's "Rigoletto," playfully underscores the action.
Pat McKay, a creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, a San Francisco ad agency, compares the use of classical music in advertising to Stanley Kubrick's film "A Clockwork Orange," where music by Beethoven and Rossini added an ironic tension to the violent, nightmarish story.
Mr. McKay and his colleagues recently created a campaign of seven "Got Milk?" ads themed "Get the Glass." They show a family's quest to steal the last glass of milk on earth, which is located inside a maximum-security facility protected by human and robotic guards. Accompanying the ads is "For You Ann Lill," a mysterious-sounding piece by Polish composer Henryk Górecki. "We wanted a very timeless quality to this campaign and that's the beauty of classical music," says McKay. "It doesn't come with a lot of narrative baggage."
Indeed, instead of sounding highbrow or elitist, McKay believes classical music fares better in ads than country music or rap, which have strong narratives and tend to divide audiences. "Sometimes it's beautiful, sometimes it's dramatic or painful," he says of classical music, "but it has such clear musical language without getting in the way of the story you're already trying to tell."