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An image from Lil Nas X's 'Panini music video. A woman in the foreground is facing away from the camera, looking towards a futuristic cityscape full of large holographic advertisements featuring Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X’s ‘Panini’ video. Image: YouTube/Columbia Records

No one likes ads. Contrary to what Don Draper might opine while day-drunk in a boardroom, no one has ever liked ads. And today’s on-demand media environment gives audiences the power to skip, block or otherwise avoid ads like never before—we choose the content we want to watch and when we want to watch it, rather than being captive to the schedules of broadcasters who leverage our attention to sell advertising space. As audiences have gained more control over the media we consume, our tolerance for ads has dropped: a majority of under 30s use some form of ad-blocker online, and most people would cancel their Netflix if the streamer introduced ads. However, this avoidance of ads has a knock-on effect—media industries like television, print media and radio, once so lucrative because they were able to sell a captive audience to advertisers, are in freefall. From the ashes of traditional advertising and media revenue streams, a new form of advertising and branding has risen: one which forms an integral part of the content people choose to watch, and in some cases, even becoming the content itself.

‘Panini’, the follow up to Lil Nas X’s wildly successful ‘Old Town Road’, had already been certified Platinum when its futuristic music video dropped in September 2019, featuring in-universe ads for Fiat, Uber, TikTok, Beats by Dre and Acorns, all starring Lil Nas X. Lil Nas X is himself presented as another inescapable brand in the world of the music video, a human brand endorsing other brands and becoming ubiquitous through this symbiotic advertising. The song is directed at a fan (played by Skai Jackson, herself a living meme) who has turned against Lil Nas X in the face of his fame—as now he no longer relies on them, they have decided that he has sold out. The song is dismissive of early fair-weather fans, but in the music video Lil Nas X uses the omnipresence bestowed on him by the brands to try to reach out to his lost fan.

In an increasingly fragmented music market, paid product placement can make music videos one of the few profitable parts of the industry.

Product placement in music videos is nothing new—music videos are expensive, but since YouTube is now the world’s biggest music streaming site, they are an essential part of a song’s success. But while there are clear laws around disclosing product placement in both traditional and social media, music videos exist in a space between the two—most of their audience is online, but they are still broadcast on traditional media platforms. While an influencer must clearly declare paid product placement in most videos, paid endorsement of the same product in a music video can go undeclared. In an increasingly fragmented music market, where millions of streams may earn artists only a few dollars, paid product placement can make music videos one of the few profitable parts of the industry, and music videos are no longer just being supported by product placement, but made to facilitate product placement in the first place.

But brand participation goes beyond merely making money—over the past ten years, an artist doing brand endorsements has gone from ‘selling out’ to a key mark of success. For Gen Z, who have had the hustle mindset wholly integrated into their online experience and are encouraged to develop parasocial relationships with celebrities, brand partnerships have been reframed as a way for your favourite artists to make bank. Paid endorsements feel like a recommendation from a friend, and when newer artists become successful enough to gain the attention (and money) of major brands, fans are more likely to view this as a victory than loss of integrity. It has become the equivalent of a recording deal in previous generations, a mark of approval from the gatekeepers of the industry. Much like a recording contract, this exposure goes both ways too—brands will leverage the fanbase of a successful viral artist, but simultaneously, they expose the artist to a wider, less online audience. Not everyone who first encountered Lil Nas X in his Super Bowl Doritos ad might be his target market, but they now know who he is.

Over the past ten years, an artist doing brand endorsements has gone from ‘selling out’ to a key mark of success.

This is exactly the type of brand endorsement that ‘Panini’ explores: the jump from an underground, online ‘friend’ to a mainstream advertising machine. And while most music videos feature overt enjoyment of products and brands, Jackson’s character reacts negatively to Lil Nas X and the companies he is shilling for, sick of his overexposed image. But Lil Nas X notices this, and at the end of the video, replaces his own hologram ads with enormous digital trees. It’s a strangely anti-brand angle for a music video to take, but admittedly on-brand for Lil Nas X, whose reputation and image is as a fun, reactive celebrity whose initial TikTok success makes him more accessible than most musicians. He’s not just a rapper, he’s your friend, and if you hate him appearing in ads, he’ll stop for you. And he’s held (relatively) good on that promise—the music videos since ‘Panini’, ‘Rodeo’ and ‘Holiday’, have only featured two brands each.

However, the brands in ‘Panini’ are still there—it doesn’t matter if Lil Nas X replaces them with trees at the end, they are still exposed to hundreds of millions of viewers on YouTube, who have either sought out the video or been fed it by the algorithm. The companies have already bought space in the consumer’s brain, and have signed off on Lil Nas X destroying them. Like the manufactured intimacy of a fast-food giant’s Twitter account, the brands are in on the joke: they’ll facilitate Lil Nas X’s statement about the end of branding, on the condition that they are the brands you see being killed.


There is, however, another direction advertisers can take within the music world: creating the music itself. In our ad-cynical world, this goes far beyond jingles like ‘Happy Little Vegemites’—the most sophisticated homegrown example is last year’s album Bonds’ Bloody Comfy Period Undies Presents: Unplugged.

There is, however, another direction advertisers can take within the music world: creating the music itself.

To promote its new line of period underwear, Bonds commissioned an ‘unplugged’ acoustic album with six female Australian musicians writing songs while on their period and wearing the underwear. As well as the album, the Bloody Comfy Period Undies campaign (created by global advertising giant Leo Burnett) included print ads and traditional 15- and 6-second ad spots, several of which emphasised the underwear’s environmental credentials. The artists involved—G Flip, Montaigne, Georgia Maq, Kira Puru, Alice Skye and Ali Barter—have moderate but loyal fanbases, and are all known for being vocal feminists. The album ties Bonds (owned by clothing multinational HanesBrands) to a distinctly Australian identity, using independent Australian artists who reflect modern Australia, and the songs on the album celebrate body diversity, self care, female strength and confidence. All royalties from the album were donated to Support Act, a charity delivering crisis relief to struggling musicians and arts workers during the pandemic.

The campaign ticks all the socially conscious boxes, aligning Bonds with the kind of cool, environmentally conscious feminism on trend with Gen Z, the target market of this campaign. Some songs are more explicitly about periods while others are general fempowerment anthems. None of the songs specifically mention Bonds or period underwear, but the live recordings on Bonds’ YouTube channel all open with a ‘Bonds Bloody Comfy Period Undies’ graphic, and all performances have the brand name in the background. Whereas Lil Nas X destroyed brands who paid for the privilege, the songs on the album are so divorced from their advertising origins that as a pure musical endeavour they are unidentifiable as a commissioned piece of marketing material. Since each song is written by the artist performing it, the music is indistinguishable from the artist’s regular output. The album could easily play on radio without being identifiable as a commissioned advertising product, or ‘brand partnered piece’—G Flip’s song Unapologetic was even premiered on the strictly ad-free triple j.

It’s safe to assume that while audiences continue to avoid ads, artists and labels will continue to look for new streams of income.

The music video for ‘Panini’ and Bonds Bloody Comfy Period Undies Presents: Unplugged are ultimately two sides of the same coin—whether it’s brands making winking references to how sick we are of being advertised to, or an advertising agency commissioning songs for a branded album full of songs that make no mention of the product itself, both are paid advertising content that does not want to be seen as such. It’s hard to predict where the music market will go from here, but it’s safe to assume that while platforms like Spotify continue to funnel money away from musicians and audiences continue to avoid ads, artists and labels will continue to look for new streams of income. And thanks to changing ideas around authenticity, what was once selling out is now an essential part of making it. Lil Nas X is as ubiquitous in the real world as he is in the world of ‘Panini’, and part of that exposure is thanks to his appearances in ads. G Flip’s 15-second Bonds ad, which was run as a YouTube pre-roll ad, has more than a million views: her song has less than 10,000. In an increasingly cash strapped music industry, dependent on alternative revenue streams, we can expect to see more of this new form of marketing that is both clearly selling something and desperate not to be seen as doing so. The real question is how long audiences will put up with it, and at what point regulators have to step in to clarify what is content, what is marketing, and if the two can ever truly be separated.