Sky’s True Colors

In March 1986 Billy Steinberg wrote the lyrics to the song “True Colors”. Inspired by his mother, he and writing partner Tom Kelly already picked up on the fact that the title phrase could be anything. He noted, as the duo were in the midst of coming up with the song, that “The chorus has tremendous universal appeal, it could be sung by anyone to anyone.”.

They’re so geeky, they’re cool!Madonna

These were not wannabe songwriters. The partnership had already yielded huge success when they invited Michael Ostin, then head of Warner Bros. Records’ A & R department, to their house to listen to four or five songs, one of which was titled “Like a Virgin.”. “I liked the play on words; I thought they were clever. They’re so geeky, they’re cool.” replied Madonna in a 2009 Rolling Stone interview with Austin Scaggs.

After a couple of rewrites, including the first verse, thus taking out content specifically tying Steinberg’s mother to the song, True Colors was starting to take shape. George Martin, the famed Beatles’ producer heard their rough demo and promptly declared his love for it.

Steinberg and Kelly pitched the song to Canadian pop and country singer Anne Murray, who passed for various reasons. Thus the song came to Cyndi Lauper who dismantled the original piano based gospel ballad and turned it into a traditional arrangement that “was breathtaking and stark” according to Steinberg himself.

This would be the only song on Lauper’s album not written or co-written by her. The album would, in fact, be called True Colors after the song. It garnered a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Lauper and was her last song to reach Billboard’s coveted number one spot.

The song was released on August 25th, 1986 and the floodgates opened.

A Methodist minister in Texas was persuaded by his kids to take them to a Cyndi Lauper concert. He relented on his objections that popular music was a bad influence on children and was pleasantly surprised by Lauper’s “True Colors” when he discovered its message of true love, acceptance, tolerance and forgiveness. He went so far as to even include this in his church newsletter.

The first use of True Colors in a television advertisement came in 1988 when Kodak used a gospel choral version of the song in a commerical for Kodakfilm, first airing it during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. However, both the ad and the song failed to resonate with audiences. The imagery was filled with children and young adult sportsmen, training in various olympic sports and ended with a voice over saying “Capture the gold in our future with Kodacolor Gold film”, thus failing to take into account the personal nature of the song and was simply content to coast on the song’s lyrics without seeking a deeper meaning to inspire and convey a message or extract emotion.

I haven’t succeeded in finding out the ad agency that produced the Kodak True Colors ad of 1988 but I bet someone thought that they had struck gold by pairing the chorus of “true colors” with the prospect of showcasing Kodak’s film color processing capabilities. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to move audiences, even in 1988. A simple play on words cannot dissuade people from “tuning out” of a boring, unispired and emotionless commercial. The gospel rendition of the song was a mistake as well. By not using the Cyndi Lauper version, which was widely known, the ad already loses some of its potential appeal. By using a choral gospel version, it detaches the audience even further by making it a church-like experience instead of a more personal one.

But this would not be the last time someone used “True Colors” for an ad.

In 2008 the Rupert Murdoch-founded British Sky Broadcasting (Sky) was looking for a way to promote its flagship high definition television service, dubbed Sky Plus HD, and turned to a familiar song to entice customers to subscribe. Although launched in 2006, the HDTV service was branded Sky HD for the first two years and supply did not meet demand. However, in 2008, that uptake started to slow down. To reach its goal of millions of subscribers Sky turned to its agency partner: the SapientNitro-owned Digital and Direct, which has worked in the business for the past 15 years.

What DAD came up with is a masterpiece.

Using the now 22 year old song “True Colors”, in a vocal and guitar arrangement, the 30 second TV spot is a stroke of pure genius. The spectacle, explosions and frantic action of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters is slowed down (using After Effects, the Twixtor plugin and a 2.5D matte camera movement) and put right up to your face while the personal nature and finesse of the chorus of “True Colors” makes the most fast paced movies seem like they are standing still.

The genius of the ad is the fact that without words, without prodding and probing, without sound effects, actors or lines, you get the whole message, even if you’re not thinking about it or really seeing it. It’s emotional and subconscious advertisement at its best. It juxtaposes the sparkle of Hollywood blockbusters with the personal nature of the song, while slowing it all down. It’s calm and stress free. And, as the ad ends, it’s right there, in your house, next to you.

You get the biggest movies, without hassle, at your pace and leisure, only through Sky Plus HD.

The ad is so good, Sky are using it even today. Every month, the Hollywood blockbusters change to showcase the new releases that are coming to Sky Movies HD or any other Sky service, but the song and arrangement stay the same. As do the amazingly well done slow motion / still time 2.5D effects.

Quality always wins in the end and Sky’s ad stands out. The graphics themselves look amazing, showing detailed pictures that are treated like artworks. This is class advertising at its best, going to the heart of the matter and transcending words. They could have just as easily used the type of advertisement that Sky’s competition BT used. BT actually had two men in a middle class apartment only watching what they feel is worth (the less money they have) spending on.

There are currently over 64 versions, covers and re-releases of the “True Colors” song by artists and bands all over the world. In October of 1998, Phil Collins released a smooth-jazz influenced version for his compilation album “Hits”. But none of them could have been used for such an effective ad except such a perfect vocal arrangement. Even Cyndi Lauper’s original is far more elaborate to suggest, subconsciously, a close up personal view. The latest Sky ad, in 2015, uses a version sung by Lily Juniper, who manages to transform the song from the pop ballad it was in 1986 to a personal experience a lover would whisper to declare her undying adoration.

I would love to shake the hand and congratulate the artist (no other word for it) who came up with the Sky ad. It is by far one of the best uses of imagery and sound to advertise a product. The nature of the song, making it up close and personal, with the spectacle of the biggest movies slowed down to stillness, says that subscribing to Sky makes watching movies in your home a personal experience – one to be taken in your own time and stress-free.

This is the Genius of the Ad.

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