“They say a man should always dress for the job he wants, so why am I dressed up like a pirate in this restaurant?” So begins the most iconic of a string of FreeCreditReport.com commercials that, in late 2007, managed to singlehandedly bring the jingle back into fashion with their diabolical catchiness. Though the commercial doesn’t mention it, the actual answer to the musician-waiter-pirate’s question is, of course, “to sell you something.” In this case that something is a (debatably) *free* credit reporting service from Experian. And sell it they did. The sad tales of a musician with ruined credit were so effective they allegedly influenced certain sections of the Credit CARD Act, passed in 2009.
But our fascination with FreeCreditReport.com (now also FreeCreditScore.com) was always less with the dubious financial product than with the band. Were they even a real band? These guys had the gun-for-hire equivalent of a platinum record and yet we knew nothing about them or their music outside the world of credit reporting. Absolutely nothing. Had they gone out in a blaze of drugs and groupies? Were they Captain Murphy? Alright, well at least that theory has been dispelled. But on a more serious note, had their stint as America’s most lovehated jingle rockers helped or harmed their musical ambitions? To find the answers to these questions we first had to discover whether the band existed in real life, or whether it was merely a sweet lie concocted out of an advertiser’s fantasy. And for that, we tracked down the frontman in the spots, Eric Violette.
It’s impossible not to be charmed by Eric Violette. His infectious smile and slightly crooked teeth (which he says Hollywood casting agents hate), are just as powerful now as they were when his image first splashed across America’s televisions. But the first thing anyone who has seen the ads will notice is his voice, in particular his heavy French-Canadian accent. What? Yes, the first illusion from the ads Violette shatters is that he is the one singing.
The Montreal-based casting director had initially planned to have Violette sing, but his accent was simply too foreign for the “everyman” tone the ads were going for, so his voice ended up being dubbed. The person you actually hear in most of the commercials is the jingle writer himself, Dave Muhlenfeld of The Martin Agency (more on him later). Though Violette didn’t sing, it turns out he was hired partially because the casting director knew he had his own band. And in an odd twist, the runaway success of the ads has allowed him to focus most of his recent energy on his music career, and away from acting.
“Music is somehow more personal than acting,” Violette says, especially when he is singing his own lyrics as opposed to pantomiming about bad credit with a few other actors. His band, God Against God, is also a far cry from the one depicted in the “FCR” ads (as he calls them). Violette’s current obsession is industrial music, and he cites Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, and Rage Against The Machine as recent influences.
I always like artists that use their microphones and exposure to shake society. That’s why I’m very attracted to rock music.
Violette understands the strange disconnect between the type of music he gravitates towards and the reality that he is most famous for an advertising campaign, but he explains that what the FCR campaign really gave him was freedom. “Now I have a professional studio in my basement,” he says. “I’m a fucking lucky bastard. It allowed me to learn a lot. I would never have been able to do that on my own. The commercials were a way to push the band.” The road would have been especially difficult for Violette given Anglophone rock music’s lack of popularity in French-dominated Quebec, where he’s not even recognized on the street because the ads never aired on local television. “It’s hard to make a living at it here,” he says.
Violette toured the U.S. with God Against God a few years ago, and his goal is to bring the band back to the States (they’re currently looking for a good booking agent). Though he’s still recognized almost immediately upon crossing the border, it’s not the type of fame that automatically translates into a packed show, or something that will last indefinitely. “I think people will forget very quickly. I’ve only done a series of commercials. What I hope is that the band will have some recognition. That would make me very proud.” When Violette talks, it becomes apparent how central music is to his life, and how hard he has worked to turn the windfall from the FCR campaign into a sustainable music career. And when he tells the story behind the name “God Against God,” you begin to get a sense of how it all fits into his life philosophy.
“As human beings, we always project the power of God somewhere else,” he says. “But I think we have all the power we need. We are the gods on this planet. We have the power to decide whether we perceive good or bad things. For me, it is important that every human being feels like a god. Paradise is on this planet and we have to build it. There’s a lot of shit in this planet but we can decide how we deal with it.”
We are the gods on this planet. We have the power to decide whether we perceive good or bad things.
If Eric Violette is the endearing face of the FreeCreditReport.com advertising triumph, VP/Creative Director Dave Muhlenfeld of The Martin Agency is its strategist. “We thought of who is always broke,” he says in an all-too-familiar voice when describing how the idea for the campaign first blossomed. “Broke, hipster musicians were at the top of the list.” And the rest is history. Up until that time, Muhlenfeld hadn’t done much musical work since he’d put his synthesizer and keyboard in the closet on his way to college. But after he took the lead both writing and singing the FCR ads, that all changed.
Not only has Muhlenfeld become the go-to jingle writer at his company, but he’s also built a basement studio of his own where he does work under the name “English Major LLC,” both separate from and in conjunction with The Martin Agency. A recent spot for Oreo featuring Owl City was produced in his home studio, which has also seen less famous acts pass through. The basement is where Muhlenfeld nurtures his secret synth-pop career, recording music for his band, This Is Society Dance Music. “That’s the dream,” he jokes. “To move from 30 second pop songs to 3 minute 30 second pop songs.” In this quest he’s found inspiration in music from “brainless club music” to Bach, but says his sound is probably closest to The Killers.
“Jingles are pretty good training for pop music because you have to get your hook in really fast, and tell your whole story in 30 seconds,” Muhlenfeld explains. “The way a good pop song will work, you’ll be hooked within the first 15 seconds.” He’s certainly an expert in that, and his recent Oreo jingles have achieved a pop crossover of sorts, being sung by the likes of Tegan and Sara and Kacey Musgraves (for money, of course). Only time will tell if his success will cut the other way, but for now his band remains unsigned.
Unlike Violette, Muhlenfeld sees the jingles as a type of endgame in themselves, and not just as a way to further his musical career. He’s happy he’s been able to create a kind of greatness, even if it’s only in advertising. “The product is what it is, but suddenly you’ve created a universe of these characters,” he says. Even so, it seems the most positive aspect of the FCR commercials for Muhlenfeld was that they allowed him to reach a new level of involvement with music. The success of the campaign, and the demands of anonymous YouTube commenters that the band exist in real life (“these guys are better than Weezer!”), gave Muhlenfeld the confidence to try new things, and to eventually move his musical work beyond the confines of his agency.
Muhlenfeld says a great jingle always starts with the storyline. “Just a catchy melody is a waste of time.” There must be a backbone. When we began looking for the FreeCreditReport.com band that’s what we wanted, some story of how the explosive success of a few jingles had changed the lives of the people involved, for better or worse. What we ended up with was a reminder of just how important money and time can be to creating music. The success of one random advertising campaign allowed both Eric Violette and Dave Muhlenfeld to construct their own home studios, and to devote a large chunk of their time to making music. Sure, they had to shill for a company to get those things, but now they can record professional-grade audio in their basements, completely free of anyone else. And how many musicians can say that?
Listen to more of Eric Violette’s music here.