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Soundings: oiling the wheels…jingles in the TV jungle

by Michael Spencer on Thursday 2nd of April 2009

Oiling the wheels – Andrew Peggie on music as an essential lubricant.
Jingles in the TV jungle – the traditional format still has much to offer, argues Michael Spencer.

Oiling the wheels

The music business is never slow off the mark when it comes to making claims for the marketing benefits of sound and music. However, there is little disagreement about the fact that music matters in marketing.

All very well, but few managers or creatives seem to know how to make music matter better.

Think of it like an essential lubricant, oiling the mechanism of the marketing machine. Any old lubricant would probably do the job well enough, but if you believe your marketing machine deserves to be in the Formula 1 class then getting the mechanic to buy a can of cheap engine oil off the shelf in a supermarket is unlikely to increase your winning chances. Yet that is often how otherwise high production value commercial productions treat the music elements.

Why should this be? One reason could be that brand team members and their creative counterparts are lacking in knowledge of lubricant technology (to extend the metaphor) and therefore unaware of the possibilities – or perhaps just too embarrassed to admit to ignorance.

Yet when they do finally ask themselves ‘how can we make sound work better for us?’ the route to enlightenment is neither long nor complex. Just as we do not need to have a PhD in chemistry to make choices about engine oil, we do not need conservatoire music training to be aware of the many ways sound and music can enhance a marketing campaign.

Sound Strategies’ Breaking the Sound Barrier sessions bring brand managers and creatives up to speed on the essential functions of music and sound within an advertising context in just a few days. Here’s what the Galaxy UK Segment Leader said about a recent Sound Strategies course:

‘Our two-stage Music Workshop truly was “eye and ear opening”, both as a team engagement activity and to reframe our entire approach to sound in advertising. I would recommend it to any marketer who wants to make an emotional connection with consumers!’

Andrew Peggie


Jingles in the TV jungle

Education theorists have long known that melody and lyrics make for a powerful memorising tool. The activity employs both right and left brain hemispheres simultaneously, promoting large amounts of trans-hemisphere activity in the corpus callosum – the part of the brain which joins the two sections. Melody and other musical elements are processed in the right hemisphere along with intuitive reasoning and other synthesising processes, while certain language functions (including writing), logic and analysis are the concern of the left brain. Both hemispheres working in tandem ensure deeply embedded memory and enhanced understanding.

Natalie Angier, writing recently in The New York Times, expands on the mechanism:

‘Welcome to the human brain, your three-pound throne of wisdom with the whoopee cushion on the seat.
In understanding human memory and its tics, Scott A. Small, a neurologist and memory researcher at Columbia, suggests the familiar analogy with computer memory.

We have our version of a buffer, he said, a short-term working memory of limited scope and fast turnover rate. We have our equivalent of a save button: the hippocampus, deep in the forebrain is essential for translating short-term memories into a more permanent form.

Our frontal lobes perform the find function, retrieving saved files to embellish as needed. And though scientists used to believe that short- and long-term memories were stored in different parts of the brain, they have discovered that what really distinguishes the lasting from the transient is how strongly the memory is engraved in the brain, and the thickness and complexity of the connections linking large populations of brain cells. The deeper the memory, the more readily and robustly an ensemble of like-minded neurons will fire.

This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life’s offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. “The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an over-structured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”

A simple melody with a simple rhythm and repetition can be a tremendous mnemonic device. “It would be a virtually impossible task for young children to memorize a sequence of 26 separate letters if you just gave it to them as a string of information,” Dr. Thaut said. But when the alphabet is set to the tune of the ABC song with its four melodic phrases, preschoolers can learn it with ease.

And what are the most insidious jingles or sitcom themes but cunning variations on twinkle twinkle ABC?’

It is not hard to recall jingles of ten, twenty or even thirty years ago and if the product name is included in the lyrics then you can expect almost 100% recognition. Jingles cleverly internalise the product name along with it advertised qualities with a potent combination of rhythm, melody, lyrics and images. And once internalised, the jingle pops back into the short-term memory whenever a reference to the product is required or encountered.

Think of a UK newsagent’s and the shelves stacked with confectionary. Which of the myriad brands come to mind most readily? Think perhaps of Mars or Opal Fruits… (especially if you are over forty).

Why has the jingle all but died out, particularly in UK and USA TV advertising? In fact, it has not completely disappeared. It is still relatively common within its traditional product constituency, but the total range of products being advertised has increased considerably.

One of the problems with a jingle is also its benefit: a propensity to simple catch-phrases and perky melodies, reminiscent of infant school songs. So perhaps it is not surprising if agencies tend to avoid advertising content which might appear to infantilise the brand. This factor, coupled with agencies’ increasing fondness for allusion, metaphor, cultural/demographic references and cinematic effects in commercial creation, leaves the humble jingle often out in the cold.

But it is worth remembering why it can be so effective. One quality is that it tends to attract a wide demographic due to its inclusive nature and product-focused content. Everyone feels drawn to a brand promoted by accessible and non-threatening musicalised copy. Jingles can effectively cross age, social, cultural and gender divides because they do not attempt to reflect or reinforce certain stereotypes while (very often) humanising the brand itself.

Another is that the combination of lyrics and music allows for the dissemination of factual knowledge about a product which, if delivered by a voice-over or on-screen character, would require the viewer to exercise enhanced levels of cognitive attention, preferably without the distraction of a soundtrack or complex visuals. Such commercials can have high success rates with consumers already predisposed to buying a version of the product concerned, but will have little impact on those for whom the product is irrelevant at the time of viewing.

Does this matter? A current example from French television suggests it does. The commercial functions as an interactive ‘yellow pages’, alerting the viewer to a car window replacement/repair service which offers an insurance subscription with free
emergency replacement. The lyrics run: ‘Carglass répare, Carglass remplace’. [Carglass repairs, Carglass replaces.] Embedded in the Carglass jingle (as well as the brand name) is an information message which is unlikely to be of immediate use to anyone watching. However, the moment a cracked windscreen appears we can be certain that the jingle will pop into the mind. And doubtless the emergency call-out for that malfunction will lead to a subscription to cover future problems. All thanks to a simple jingle.

It is also worth remembering that television jingles are relatively widespread amongst other cultures, where can be heard advertising a much wider variety of products such as insurance (France), telecoms and pressure cookers (India) and instant noodles (Japan). The child-like repetitiveness seems not to be an issue elsewhere, or it is often employed with a tongue-in-cheek sense of irony. And perhaps it would be fair to suggest that the jingle imparts a sense of down-to-earth reality to the whole advertising business by deflating any pretensions to profundity or artistic pretension. The jingle says simply and effectively: ‘I’m here: buy me’.

Michael Spencer

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