"They always want me to do ads for underwear and cigarettes, but I never did them.
I did one and I'll never do it again."
When Waits wrote Step Right Up in 1976, lyrics which are commentary on the hustle of the consumer, he probably couldn't have imagined how big a role advertising would play in his future career. In 1980, while making albums on the Asylum label, he renegotiated his existing contract with Herb Cohen. The new arrangement prohibited the exploitation of Waits's songs in commercials (see: Waits vs Third Story). Since then Waits's firm stand against working in commercials, or allowing impersonations of his voice and style, has become renowned and respected throughout the music and advertising industry. His successful lawsuits against such giants as: Frito Lay, Levi's, Third Story, MP3.com and Audi, have all made it into the law books. While Waits is not a top selling artist, his songs are still sought after by advertisers.
Tom Waits (1988): "...You hope that you'll be on radio, but radio is so changed now. It's like mainstream network stuff, the demographics of it. Except for a few struggling stations with a limited range and format. I mean, you can glue decals all over your head that say "Coca-Cola" and "Pepsi" and advertise cigarettes and underwear. That's one way to get across. You know, like race drivers that have every product known to man tattooed across the side of their car. And a lot of groups choose to align themselves with big companies to underwrite their tours. I hate that shit."(2)
Tom Waits (2005, on Opel hiring a soundalike): "...Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad -- ideally naked and purring on the hood of a new car. I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor. Currently accepting in my absence is my German doppelganger. While the court can't make me active in radio, I am asking it to make me radioactive to advertisers."(3)
In the late 1970's Waits went through a personal and professional turning point. His relationship with Rickie Lee Jones had ended. Legal and business conflicts with his manager, Herb Cohen, and minor commercial success left Waits disappointed and disillusioned. Waits needed to make some changes, perhaps make a new start.
Robert Hilburn (1999): "...Waits moved to New York around 1980, partly to shed some of the hard-drinking L.A. habits, even enrolling in a fitness class. Smiling as he recalls an image from that period, he says, "I was running down the street to the Y to work out and I had a glass of alcohol in one hand, with some aluminum foil over it so it wouldn't spill, and a cigarette in the other hand, . . . and I realized I was kind of coming apart."(4)
Tom Waits (1981): "...I just got totally disenchanted with the music business. I moved to New York and was seriously considering other possible career alternatives... The whole Modus Operandi" - he made it sound like a particularly militant branch of the Casa Nostra - "of sitting down and writing, and making an album, going out on the road with a band. Away for three months, come back with high blood pressure, a drinking problem, tuberculosis, a warped sense of humour. It just became predictable."(5)
In 1980 Waits was approached by Francis Ford Coppola to work on the soundtrack for One From The Heart. Around that time he also met his future wife, Kathleen Brennan. At the same time he was renegotiating his songwriting agreement with Herb Cohen. Things were looking good, Waits was building the next chapter of his career. In retrospect it also looks as if he was aiming for a wider audience. The 1980 album Heartattack and Vine seems to be Waits's shot at more commercial success. Still no radio play.
Tom Waits (1979): "...I'm trying to do an R&B album when I get home [Heartattack And Vine]. Trying to do something a little more - uh - mix-it-up. Trying to find a way to combine it, because I don't get played on the radio ever. Marcel Marceau gets more airplay than I do. I heard myself once in North Dakota, that's all. I was in Michigan somewhere and I was listening to the radio, and I called the disc jockey. I said, listen - I just played a concert, sold out a twenty-five hundred auditorium. And I'm bustin' my chops, would ya mind, you know? He said, Who is this? I said, My name is Tom Waits. He said, No it isn't. Hung up on me."(6)
In 1981 Waits decided to do voice-over work on a television commercial for Ralston Purina (now owned by Nestle). The product was a dry dog food called Butcher's Blend. It appears this is the only time Waits has done an advertisement for a for-profit company. It's not clear whether or not he wanted to do this incognito, but his name is listed in the credits..
One should keep in mind that in those days Waits was rebuilding his career from scratch. Although he had made eight albums by 1981, his contract with Herb Cohen did not make him financially secure. Waits' participation in this advertisement is a remarkable and unique document that will probaby never see a follow up. It earned three prestigious awards -- Toronto Television Cinema International Winner 1982, Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival and Clio Awards Festival in New York).
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Low-res video "Billboard" for Purina Butcher's Blend Dog Food. Live: Aisha Film Company, 1981.
Recorded: August 11, 1981. Credits: Agency Producer: Lorre Jensen. Animator: Bob Fortier. Animation Company: Nelvanna Commercials, Toronto. Art Director: Terry Illes. Cinematographer: Ousama Rawi. Composer: David Fleury. Copywriter: William Lower. Creative Director: Gary E. Prouk. Directors: Ousama Rawi, Bob Fortier Performer/Voice: Tom Waits. Producer: Mary Kahn, Brian McKinnon. Production Company: Live: Aisha Film Company. Account Supervisor: Eric Silmser.
Text (by William Lower): "...As dog travels through the envied and often tempting world of man, there's one thing, above all, that tempts him most...the taste of meat! And that is why Purina makes Butcher's Blend. Butcher's Blend is the first dry dog food with three tempting meaty tastes. Beef, liver, 'n' bacon. All in one bag. So c'mon, deliver your dog from the world of temptation. The world of Butcher's Blend. The first dry dog food with three meaty tastes."
Although he howls like a dog on his famous song Rain Dogs, today's association between Waits and dogs wasn't there at the time yet, so this is just a coincidence. Nor is there any connection with Waits name-dropping Purina in his 1975 Nighthawk Postcards. In those days he used many brand names and advertising slogans in his songs.
In 2006 William Lower (previously unaware of Waits's stand on commercials) donated the original tapes to Tom Waits.
(1) Source: "The Man Who Howled Wolf ". Magnet: Jonathan Valania. June/July 1999)
(2) Source: "A Flea In His Ear". City Limits magazine. Bill Holdship. Los Angeles. May 12-19, 1988
(3) Source: "Tom Waits Files Suit Against General Motors' Opel and Ad Agency for TV Commercial" PR Newswire Association LLC. September 15, 2005
(4) Source: "Pop music: Tracking an Elusive Character" Los Angeles Times Home Edition. Robert Hilburn. June 6 1999. Robert Durell
(5) Source: "Heart Of Saturday Morning" Melody Maker. March 14, 1981 by Patrick Humphries
(6) Source: "Wry & Danish to go". Melody Maker magazine. Brian Case. Copenhagen, Early 1979