Lou Reed: Was He The First Rockstar To Sell Out? (Honda)

Lou Reed

Was Lou Reed The First Rockstar to Sell Out?

Today on Rock N’ Roll True Stories they look at the time Lou Reed appeared in an ad for Honda Scooters and lent his song ‘Walk on the Wild Side.”

What’s going on my fellow rock n’ rollers don’t forget to hit the bell notification icon to be notified every time I put out a new video on my channel.  I had previously talked about electronic musician moby who made a ton of money off his album Play by not only selling 12 million copies of the disc through record stores, but by licensing every song off the album to advertisers, movies and tv shows. . Many accused him of being a sell out, but who was the first artist  who used their music to sell commercial products to the public? Stay tuned to find out. 


These days it’s not uncommon to see rock  music appearing in commercials.. It’s almost accepted now with some notable moments including taco bell trying to sell fast food using a Guns N’ Roses song or  Cadillac using classic Led Zeppelin tunes to hawk its cars,or , Beatles songs selling Nike shoes and the list goes on and on. But when did this all start? Well people can thank Velvet Underground founder and solo artist Lou Reed. in the autobiography Lou Reed: A Life, biographer Anthony DeCurtis claims it all started with Lou Reed who not only licensed his hit song walk on the wild side,  but also made an appearance in the commercial to sell honda scooters. 


To some it wasn’t a big deal while others saw it as just another way some musicians would sell out. Honda two decades prior had a massive amount of success with their advertising campaign that used the slogan “You Meet the Nicest People.” As the 80’s rolled around the company wanted to take a different approach making people think scooters were a “cool way” to get around large cities.


In the 70’s the idea of using rock n’ roll to sell commercial products to the public was a ridiculous idea. To companies and advertisers rock n’ roll wasn’t mainstream enough, but by the next decade their attitudes had changed and the counterculture that Reed represented was now absorbed by capitalism and the era of Reagan. In some respects it was the Rolling Stones who opened the floodgates to rock n’ roll being used to sell products  as in 1981 their tour at the time was sponsored by fragrance company Jovan who paid the band $1million to have their name splashed all over the tour.. Some critics claimed it was the death of rock n’ roll, but it paved the way for Honda to have rockstars sell their products.


Honda’s campaign for their scooters are the time saw them  reach out to musicians including Miles Davis, Grace Jones and Devo, but The most notable part of the campaign involved Lou Reed. , 

Lou Reed was a strange choice for Honda given that typically advertisers want to use spokespeople with clean images and Lou Reed wasn’t that as you can see in these short clips. 




During Honda’s 1984 campaign Lou Reed also released his 13th studio record New Sensations which was well received by critics and audiences and it represented his first album in 6 years that charted on the billboard album charts.


According to author Mick Wall’s book Lou Reed: The Life writes:


New Sensations was so listenable that … it attracted the attention of an advertising agency executive, Jim Riswold, then chief copywriter for the oregon based company[actually Portland] giants Wieden (Wyden) & Kennedy. … So he approached Lou Reed to help make an ad for Honda scooters.

At the time, Riswold recalled, “advertisers didn’t put people in commercials who had a long history of drug addiction, and of course [Lou Reed] was a man who at one time in his life was married to a man, and that man was a transvestite, so I guess you could say he wasn’t your typical spokesman. But if you looked at who we were trying to sell scooters to, it was natural. Actually, when you look back at that commercial it seems pretty damn tame today.” 


What’s funny is that in Mick Wall’s book he points out that Reed’s album New Sensations has the musician singing about a competing vehicle  the Kawasaki GPx750 Turbo motorcycle.

Prior to bringing Reed on board Riswold needed Honda’s buy in so he  arranged a meeting with the manufacturer where he brought nothing but Lou Reed’s album with him and  played “Walk on the wild side” in order to pitc to the idea of having Lou Reed being the celebrity endorsement and the company agreed. 

Honda would announce in a press release their partnership with Lou Reed at the time  stating the company would “take a walk on the wild side to portray the spirit and adventure of scootering

“Reed is an innovator one of the pioneers of new music. His music is unique and experimental much like scooters the statement would read. 

The commercial featuring Reed used New York lower east side as a backdrop which seemed like a bizarre choice given the City’s crime and drug  ridden reputation in the 80’s 


Using the shots of the gritty streets of new york with squeegee men, policmean, grafiitii and the homelss with interspersed shots of Lou Reed, Honda’s scooters wouldn’t make an appearance in the ad until the very end when the musician would say the trademark line “don’t settle for walking” as you can see here.  The advertising agency gave the cmmercial a grainy apperance to give it the feel of a documentary

 Lawrence Bridges who was the editor for Michael Jackson’s beat it video was brought in to put everything together. 

Bridges was intimidated of editing the commercial to Lou Reed’s 1972 track walk on the wild side revealing


. “The generation being advertised to at that point was probably the most cynical and suspicious toward the medium to date,, “and, moreover, I had this monumental piece of music that I had to honor. For me, the answer was to make it into an ‘underground’ film.”

Bridges would use a lot of what he learned helping piece together videos for MTV using junk cuts and flash frames. It was a standard technique when the editors had less footage tha nthe actual length of video. With the editing process complete Bridges and his partners met with the marketing people at Honda with him remembering

“The client was a very shrewd, practical person and I knew that he was averse to conspicuously daring creative work,”This gritty, almost avant-garde spot, set in pre-gentrified Lower Manhattan with every art film trope you could imagine might have put considerable demands on his charm.” Bridges was shocked by Honda’s reaction as when the commercial finished playing the marketing manager exclaimed “We need to be THAT scooter company.”

Sadly the campaign was a failure as a young generation of Americans werent interested in Honda’s product. According to the book in Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign, “the Lou Reed commercial did little for Honda. Three years later the model of scooter honda used in the Lou Reed commercial was discontinued. 

A year or so following the honda commercials Reed moved onto now promoting American Express. The musician was enjoying some of the most positive press coverage of his career at that point in time.

Decades after the campaign aired


Lou Reed has said that musicians should no longer shirk associations with the advertising world saying

“It used to be that being involved in advertising was selling out. Now it’s opposite,” he said in answer to a question from Mumbrella on how the music and advertising industries could work better together.

Asked whether young people want to choose advertising or music for a career these days, he said “neither, if you’re in it for the money.”

“If it was about money, you’d be a politician,” he told journalists at a press conference at the Cannes Lions festival today.