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“If you want sales to grow and spines to tingle, get yourself a catchy jingle”

Jingles fell out of favour but the growth of new media platforms like TikTok make them more relevant than ever

By Jeremy Lee

At the turn of the twentieth century the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov developed the theory of “conditional reflex” after experimenting on the rates of salivation amongst dogs.

Having noticed that his laboratory dogs also salivated in the presence of a technician who fed them rather than just in the presence of food, he introduced a buzzer that would sound before feeding time. The dogs then associated that sound with food and would salivate in the presence of that stimulus alone. Pavlov’s dogs were therefore, arguably, the earliest recipients of scientific sonic branding — more commonly known as jingles.

As an advertising technique, jingles have waxed and waned in popularity. While they were an early form of word-of-mouth advertising at the turn of the last century, their growth was accelerated by the launch of commercial radio in the US in the 1920s and they became a mainstay of TV advertising in the 1970s. Indeed, most people can still remember an ad jingle from their youth.

Tim Riley, head of copy at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says: “I was a kid in the 1970s which, in retrospect, was a golden age for the jingle. They cropped up in every ad break – and we would all sing them in the playground. (Entertainment was in short supply in those days.)"

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"Even the cool agencies used jingles. The Cadbury’s Smash ‘Martians’ campaign ends with honeyed voices trilling: For mash get Smash. And, just like memes today, we would create our own versions. One of the most famous jingles of the time ran: 'Trebor Mints are a minty bit stronger!'"

"To which every schoolkid in the country would supply the coda: 'Stick ‘em up your arse and they last a bit longer'”.

But jingles have never been seen as a particularly sophisticated technique – in fact, some see them as irredeemably naff. “Jingles fell out of favour years ago as they were seen as old-fashioned, clumsy and overly commercial. Plus the fragmentation of media made it harder to get your ear worm into everybody’s lugholes”, says Andy Nairn, founder of Lucky Generals.

Tom Drew, executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson, agrees. "They became uncool, I guess. Yes, we wanted our ads to be remembered, but remembered for the wit of our writing or the brilliance of our visual metaphors. Anybody could do a cheap rhyme, we thought. But maybe that was the issue – anybody couldn’t. Terrible jingles were made and forced upon us. They ruined the party. So, as an industry, we made a calculation that the annoyance of something that enters the memory uninvited will ultimately damage the brand. And, more pertinently, our careers."

However they appear to be making something of a comeback. Thanks to the growth in new forms of listening such as Spotify and Alexa, the increasing uptake in gaming and as well as the likes of social media channels like TikTok, sonic branding has become a powerful tool again.

Camila Toro, a planner at VCCP, points out that previously social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook could only be used in silent mode – all content was sound-off. However the development of new platforms and formats reintroduced audio into the mix. “TikTok, gaming, and podcasts are opening a huge opportunity for brands to have a presence and connect with their audience through a different sense,” she says. “For example, last year we opened The O2 arena in Fortnite and collaborated with the UK band Easy Life to create an in-game exclusive track.”

Camila continues: “There is no doubt the rise of TikTok impacted the use of audio and its power to travel far and wide, and quickly at that. This can’t be only attributed to TikTok as there are other factors to consider like wireless headphones allowing people to be always connected. TikTok influenced users to turn up their volume of phones again. Simply put, TikTok makes audio memes which people remix, recreate and rejig over and over again,”

So if media fragmentation was partly the cause of the demise of jingles, as Andy Nairn says, it could also now be its saviour. Equally the growth of audio mnemonics could also be due to the expansion of small businesses, many of which favour radio advertising as an entry point. Emma de la Fosse, the chief creative officer at Digitas, says: “Since 2000 to 2019 the number of small businesses has increased by 70 per cent; from around 3.5 million to almost 5 million. Radio ad spend has roughly tracked the rise of SMEs, growing to £703 million, pre-pandemic. No coincidence there. Radio is a very popular medium for smaller companies as it is relatively low cost and can be hyper targeted, especially digital and programmatic radio. Digital radio, played on various apps and platforms, fits in well with a modern marketing mix as a part of a connected digital experience,” she says.

Christopher Joyce, associate creative director at VMLY&R, describes jingles as “the original viral advertising”. He says: “A catchy earworm carrying a message that danced its merry way into your consciousness. Before you knew it you’d be singing ‘wAsHiNG maChiNEs liVe lOngER wITh CaLGon’ in the shower, and so were several other unfortunate souls who’d come into contact with you that day. All this was by careful design, too. You can share words, you can hum a tune, you can pass on the message. You can’t do that with a billboard.”

And Alan Young, chief creative officer at St Luke’s, points out that words put to music is one of the oldest ways to get people to remember information. “It’s as effective today as ever – as kids we learn times tables rhythmically, sang the colours of the rainbow. We made a song of our ABCs", he says. “Music sets the tone, targets demographics and appeals to emotions, and a memorable melody can take all of that and set it in our minds so we remember it for a lifetime. Words set to music are the easiest for our brains to remember. The effect is so pronounced that we might also remember where we were when we heard it or what time in our lives a jingle was popular.”

Jingles may be rooted in childhood learning – the combination of words and music and acquiring knowledge through repetition but more modern neurological research that bears out Pavlov’s original research proves their scientific value. Andy Nairn says: “They’re backed by neuroscience and supported by research showing the need to build long-term memory structures through repetition. In fact, these new jingles are required to play a much bigger role than previously – we’re increasingly being asked to create sonic devices that work as well in-store or on opening an app as at the end of a telly ad.”

While there are now more opportunities and platforms upon which creatives can use audio devices in general and jingles in particular, it seems we might have some way to go before any emerge that are as famous as those that originated from the earliest days of their use.

Wunderman Thompson's Tom Drew concludes: "Maybe now is the time to reclaim the jingle from those who abused them. If we put as much love into them as we do the rest of the creative process, could we create ads as sticky as those still squatting in my mind? There’s an inch of room available in the back of my memory cupboard between Kellogg’s Coco-Pops and Bran Flakes — they’re catchy, catchy — very, very catchy, they’re very catchy."

My favourite jingle

Andy Nairn

Sorry to pick such an obvious one, but I can’t see past McDonald’s famous sting. Five notes — ba da da da daaa — is all it takes to tell us the brand, get us salivating and let our minds fill in the missing words. It’s almost 20 years old now and has run all over the world, building consistent expectations in a market where that’s crucial. I’m lovin’ it.

Emma de la Fosse

Even writing this now I can think of loads of really irritating ones that will be with me for the rest of the day. But my faves have to be those I remember from when I was a wee tot: P-P-Pick up a Penguin. For mash get smash. I’d rather have a bowl of Coco Pops.

Christopher Joyce

'wAsHiNG maChiNEs liVe lOngER wITh CaLGon’


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