New way to tout cars: a musical road

Times Staff Writer

Ken Gibson can tell you that it’s a little eerie to hear the “William Tell” overture float through your bedroom window at 2 in the morning.

He first thought the noise was a neighbor playing a xylophone. His neighbor was convinced it was a ghost. Across West Avenue K in Lancaster, where the flat brown desert rises up into purple mountains, two others thought the noise was the high school marching band.

They all soon learned that the tune was coming from a musical road installed by Honda Motor Co. designed to play the overture when Honda Civics and other cars drove over it, as part of a marketing campaign targeting younger folks. The first musical road in the U.S. is featured in Honda commercials that began Sunday.


Musical roads are new to Lancaster residents, but there are already a few “melody roads” in Japan. One plays a pop song. A musical road in South Korea plays “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

The roads feature intermittent grooves similar to rumble strips on highways. The grooves are spaced so that a series of pitches play when a car drives over them: Honda’s road was designed for a Honda Civic driving 55 mph but made a noise resembling Rossini’s famous opera overture when other cars rumbled over it as well.

In Lancaster, the road attracted tourists from across the country and inspired dozens of YouTube videos, some filmed in the dark. People drove on it repeatedly to hear the noise, which sounded like the distant warbling of horns. Some even drove in reverse to see whether the song would play backward. (It did not.)

“My kids loved it,” said Michael Beck, an aircraft engineer who lives near the road. “They kept making me drive over it again and again.”

For Honda, the idea behind the musical road was simple: The company wanted its ads to stand out against the other car commercials that pushed fuel efficiency, gas mileage and other standard features ad nauseam.

“We saw that the industry was getting really congested in this segment with fuel efficiency advertising,” said Jeff Moohr, management supervisor of the Honda account at Santa Monica ad agency RPA. “We challenged the creative team to do something different, and something youthful that only a Civic could do.”


But constant repetition of the overture -- the music associated with “The Lone Ranger” radio and TV series -- can become irksome. Although some residents of the (usually) quiet neighborhood thought the music was great, others thought it got old quickly.

“It was ridiculous. It kept me up half the night,” said Terry Roth, whose backyard faces West Avenue K. Particularly annoying were drivers who parked near his house just to watch other cars play the tune. People were yoyo-ing back and forth, making U-turns and generally annoying the residents and endangering themselves and others, he said.

“For us to pay what we pay for our homes and be affected by a noise like that -- it was asinine,” Roth said.

After getting complaints, the city a few weeks ago covered over the grooves, ridges and spaces that made the road sing -- just 18 days after it was installed.

Which is not to say that the experiment is over. Lancaster officials liked the attention and are considering bids from Wal-Mart and other potential sponsors to build another musical road in a different location. This time, they’re hoping to get more revenue out of it.

“Cities, because of the world economy, are going to have to get aggressive in alternative means of funding,” said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris. The mayor, an attorney who says he welcomes controversy, envisions a Lancaster in which roads play a number of corporate jingles, and the city cashes in on the advertising fees.

“People say, ‘Should we be selling advertising like that? Is that the proper role of the city?’ ” Parris said. “But you have billboards in cities.”

For Honda, the possibilities of making a commercial that could also become part of the cultural moment -- spreading through YouTube videos and cellphone recordings -- was irresistible. The company aimed to attract young car buyers with the ad, but marketing to youth is tricky.

“If you say you’re youthful, Generation Y is going to call you on it,” said Laura Hauseman, RPA’s art director. “We had to prove it and do something iconic,” she said.

The company and filmmaking partner Park Pictures put out feelers to various cities and chose Lancaster because of its proximity to Los Angeles and other tourist attractions such as the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. In Lancaster, they’d hit on a town not shy about doing business with corporate sponsors. Lancaster didn’t charge Honda anything beyond the cost of normal filming and construction permits, although the city closed a mile-long stretch of road during construction and filming for five days.

Parris hopes to have the new version built in the next four weeks. He says corporations are jockeying to sponsor it, and the city is choosing carefully. Officials are planning to put it by the airport, on a wider road that won’t cause so many traffic jams.

Parris thinks the musical road will make Lancaster more of a tourist destination. He also dreams of making the high desert city the solar energy capital of the world, and says he will drive alt-energy bigwigs over the sonorous street as a way to showcase Lancaster’s technological prowess.

The new road will also play the “William Tell” overture, because it’s costly to figure out how to design the grooves to play something new.

Which could be annoying.

“It was cool, but it was the same thing over and over,” said Gibson’s son, 12-year-old Destin Custard, pausing to sing the first few notes of the song. “After a while I just wished it would play something else.”