Why the worst song in the world might still be a great ad.
There are few words in the catalogue of marketing jargon that revile people more than ‘jingle’. Even before it was associated with advertising, the word had less-than-positive connotations when it was first coined to describe the random (not necessarily musical) clinking sound made by metallic objects. It didn’t take long before it was adapted to describe noise-making things that were just downright irritating: Georgians called a “wild, thoughtless, rattling fellow” (or ‘idiot who won’t shut up’) a ‘jingle-brains’.
The invention of radio – commercial radio specifically – led inevitably to the advent of ‘singing commercials’. Wheaties claims the dubious honour of launching the first jingle on Minnesota on Christmas Eve 1926, when The Wheaties Quartet dropped this Paleo-hostile floor-filler:
Have you tried Wheaties?
They’re the whole wheat with all of the bran.
Won’t you try Wheaties?
For wheat is the best food of man.
This, legend has it, started a great love-hate relationship with jingles. Advertisers loved them, and audiences hated them.
The Wheaties Quartet. Teeth that were made for radio…
Why do we hate jingles so much exactly? Most people already find advertising to be intolerable generally, but why is the addition of music make the output somehow so much more irritating? The problem most likely stems from the fact that jingles – unless we extend the definition to include branded content pieces, like Hamburger Helper’s surprising tasty mixtape – are typically restricted to 15 or 30-second radio or TV spots. And as it turns out, 15 to 30-seconds is the optimal length for a dreaded ‘earworm’ to do their horrible, irritating, repetitive, catchy work and get forever lodged in your brain.
This is why advertisers love a ‘good’ jingle: nothing beats free brand impressions. Those free impressions are even more value for money when they have lyrics that contain information that the brand wants us to recall. Luckily for advertisers, verbatim word recall is significantly improved when coupled with a simple melody – and jingles are more likely to stick when accompanied with lyrics. Give up, brain. Resistance is futile.
While jingles’ impressive prompting ability can’t convey lengthy marketing material, it is fantastic for getting people to remember simple, vital information like phone numbers. The fact I can tell you with absolute confidence that Lube Mobile’s number – despite having never called them – is 13 30 32 is testament to this. Sure, that particular information is becoming less crucial in an era of pocket-sized Googling machines, but the power and utility of that recall ability is undeniable.
Years, even decades, after an advertisement airs, most of us can still regurgitate the lyrics to classic jingle ads. We Australians seem to make a lot of them, and the classics are still on the tips of our tongues: ‘I Like Aeroplane Jelly’; ‘Happy Little Vegemite’; ‘Say Bye Bye To Louie The Fly’; ‘I Can Feel a Fourex Coming On’; ‘Chicken Tonight’… None of these tunes are on anybody’s Desert Island Discs list, but a little prompting and we can all sing along to these like they’re ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
And they work, too. We’ve known the formula was a winner right from the get-go: after that breakthrough Wheaties jingle was aired to Minnesotan radio listeners, the Minneapolis-St Paul market accounted for a full 75% of national sales in the next period. Manufacturer General Mills realised the connection, purchased national airtime for The Wheaties Quartet, and the jingle turned the brand into a national success.
You don’t have to like advertising jingles to respect their ability to do a job, or even to recognise that they’ve worked on you. Who knows, maybe the most irritating song you’ve ever heard will give you the number for a car mechanic who’ll rescue you from the side of an isolated country road on a dark and stormy night. Whether that’s worth the years of irritation is your call.