In defence of the advertising jingle – (almost) gone but not forgotten

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Jingles may not be cool, but they sure are catchy.

When I first suggested doing a short history of sonic branding that would include a history of jingles, my colleagues responded that jingles were naff, childish and not at all the serious business that they’re involved with.

Quite frankly, I was amazed. Who doesn’t love a jingle? And how boring would school have been without running around the playground singing "whoa Bodyform"?

So here I am hoping that you, the reader, feel differently. And that I can convince my colleagues that the origins of the humble jingle can teach us some important facts about sonic branding.

Jingles arrived around the same time as commercial radio started in America, with the first jingle airing on Christmas Eve 1923. The soon-to-be famous 'Have You Tried Wheaties?' was sung by four male singers known as 'The Wheaties Quartet'. Direct marketing wasn't allowed on radio at that time, so the singers simply asked (to the tune of the then-popular 'She's a Jazz Baby'):

"Have you tried Wheaties? "They're whole wheat with all of the bran. "Won't you try Wheaties? "For wheat is the best food of man."

Prior to the jingle’s release, execs at General Mills were intending to discontinue the product due to poor sales. Then they noticed a sudden rise in popularity in the location the jingle played. Instead of pulling the product, they decided to play the jingle nationally. Sales went through the roof and the jingle was born.

Given this, it’s no wonder many others brands followed suit.

As a young boy much of my education came from jingles. I had no idea what made carpets clean and fresh, “You do the Shake and Vac….” I didn’t know that some drinks were too orangey for Crows, “It’s just for me and my dog!” And I guess more importantly I didn’t know how to count backwards from five until this little gem:

54321 - 80s Advert

You see, the 80s were a jingle-fest and the jingles I heard as a kid still pop in to my head to this day without warning. But why?

Jingles are written to be as easy to remember as a nursery rhyme. The shorter and more repetitive they are, the better they work. Many jingles become earworms –a catchy piece of music that repeats in a person's mind long after it’s stopped playing. Interestingly, earworms tend to occur more often in musicians than non-musicians and in women more than men.

But why do they stay with us? Some scientists say that the 'inner voice', which repeats sounds in order to remember them, is an area of the brain that is vital in early childhood for developing vocabulary and in adulthood for learning new languages. It always makes me laugh to hear my kids repeat jingles or memorable phrases they hear on TV. Often they present these to me as facts they’ve learned that day: “Daddy did you know that Coco Pops are so chocolatey they even turn the milk brown?”

So if in the 80s jingles were an advertiser's dream, why are there so few of them on radio and TV now? Well, as with most things in life, the more exposure you have to something, the less effect it has on you. The widespread use of jingles caused consumers to see them, as my colleagues still do, as a joke.

But you can’t just throw out a sonic tool that’s tried and tested to give brand recall like never before, can you? What replaced them?

Well several things happened and one of them was the birth of the mnemonic – a memory aid, just like a jingle, only now without words. Everyone’s familiar with the Intel four note mnemonic. You’re in another room making a cup of tea, you hear “Bong - - Bong-Bong-Bong-Bong” and a little voice in your head says “Intel!” You hear the chimes of Big Ben, and you know News at Ten is on.

With the technology boom in the 90s, it seemed everyone wanted a signature sound. In 1994 Microsoft asked Brian Eno to write a short piece of music for the Windows 95 operating system. An endorsement that would have worked well for Microsoft, had Eno not said in a BBC 4 Radio interview: “I wrote it on a Mac, I’ve never used a PC in my life, I don’t like them.” Brands still commission mnemonics today but, much like jingles, people find them irritating – and there was a bigger problem marketers needed to solve.

Brands more than ever needed to gain and retain consumers. Good products were no longer enough. So they began to focus on forging deeper, more emotive connections with customers. One method of achieving this was through a medium that everyone already had a strong emotional connection with – music.

So in the late 80s, brands started licensing commercial music.

Commercial music in ads became somewhat of an arms race in the late 80s. Labels demanded huge fees for the rights to use their songs and some artists refused to have their tracks used for artistic reasons. Many of the bands who did agree though were catapulted to stardom and gained a whole new audience. One brand that really stood out in the late 80s for the music it partnered its ads with was Levi's. Every ad sold tons more jeans and the tracks used to promote them shot up the charts.

Music licensing (or 'sync') for ads became a very happy marriage – brands looked cooler, gained the emotional connection they were searching for and major labels made money in a market that was fast losing it. In today’s market, the sync department in a label or publisher has an increasingly important role in helping to break a band, and a band’s suitability for sync can help them get that elusive deal.

This has now gone further with 'brand partnership' departments within labels – they specifically look for opportunities to tie their artists into brand-funded events, or content. Some bands have their gigs branded and stream them live via their website.

So commercial music was the answer? Well yes and no. Famous tracks are expensive and brands usually license them for a year. If you want another year you pay again, but they’ll never have control of the music – which is especially important for long-running campaigns. Lloyds TSB used Eliza’s Aria composed by Elena Kats-Chernin for almost seven years and it was a very successful, but eventually repetition became annoying.

And if you want to change the track to fit your brand or the advert better, it’s unlikely a well-known artist is going to let you. There’s not much flexibility, you’ve spent a lot of money for something you don’t control and then when the next campaign comes around you have to find another track.

Due to the limitations of using existing music, many brands search for new and emerging artists, people who’ll be more flexible. And there can be great kudos for discovering the next big thing.

For others the answer is to have music composed specifically for their brand; this way all ads use the same track and consumers will know just by hearing the music that the ad is for X. But are all your ads going to work with the same track? Upbeat, downbeat, fast-paced, slow-paced? Probably not, so it’s important to compose a track that’s versatile.

So what’s the answer? Well that’s up to you. Jingles, mnemonics and brand music ultimately irritate the consumer but are a great way to achieve brand recall. So do you risk irritating the consumer? These brands did and they made a fortune:

My top 20 advertising jingles:

1. Kia Ora Kia-Ora

2. Dr. Pepper Dr. Pepper - What's the worst that could happen?

3. Bodyform Bodyform - Whoooa Bodyform For You - UK Advert

4. Um Bongo Um Bongo Orginal Advert

5. Cornetto Wall's Cornetto Advert 2

6. Shake n Vac 1980 - Shake n Vac TV Ad With Jenny Logan

7. Green Giant 'Ho ho ho, Green Giant'

8. Flake Cadbury's Flake advert - 1985

9. Chicken Tonight Chicken Tonight (UK) advert 1993

10. Milky Bar Kid The Milky Bar Kid

11. Trio Jacob's Trio - Suzy (1984, UK)

12. R Whites R Whites Secret Lemonade Drinker

13. Smash Smash Mash Potatoes Advert

14. Coco Pops Kelloggs CoCo Pops Advert

15. Fairy Liquid Fairy Liquid - 1991 UK Advert

16. Toys R Us Toys R Us UK Advert - Magical Place

17. Haribo Haribo - She's Tangfastic (2012, UK)

18. Birdseye Bird's Eye - Potato Waffles

19. Mars Mars Advert

20. McDonald's Justin Timberlake - I'm Lovin' It

Article originally published by The Drum


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