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The Unforgettable Sound of Branding with Music

I was a kid in the 1970s. Despite there being just one commercial TV station on air, I can still remember the catchy advertising slogans from countless products that I never used – indeed, many are from products that no longer even exist.

There’s “For Mash Get Smash” (cute robots peddling revolting powdered potato); “Is She, or Isn’t She?” (using sexism to sell hairspray); “I’m a Secret Lemonade Drinker” (written and performed by Elvis Costello’s dad, fact fans), and the bizarre “Watch out, there’s a Humphrey about” (a surrealist fever-dream about drinking straws that could steal milk).

All of these, and many others, live rent-free in the back of my head 40 years after I first heard them.

The Magic Recipe for Memorability

And that’s because slogans, especially rhyming ones, are extremely good at making brands stick in people’s minds.

Take another – “Beanz Meanz Heinz” is a phrase practically everyone knows. In fact, in 2012, it was voted the best advertising slogan of all time.

Add music to a slogan, and you get an advertising jingle. A catchy tune, with or without a rhyming slogan, is an advertiser’s idea of heaven.

Advertising jingles, so the theory goes, are powerful tools for building brand identity. By conveying their message in a fun, succinct way, jingles help advertisers differentiate their brands.

Advertisers use jingles to create an emotional connection with their products. Whether that’s through nostalgia (“Hands that do dishes”), optimism (“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”) or humorous cartoons (“They drink it in the Congo”), an effective jingle can make a brand seem more relatable and memorable.

That’s the theory.

Crossing the Line: When Jingles Become Earworms

But in advertising, the line between getting someone’s attention and irritating them is remarkably thin. And this is the case when a jolly jingle turns into an earworm.

An earworm, if you didn’t know, is a memorable, catchy piece of music that plays repeatedly in your mind long after you’ve heard it. Another term for it is ‘stuck song syndrome’. And a stuck song can be intensely annoying.

I don’t know anybody who enjoys having a syndrome. In fact, many people would consider having a maddening song stuck in their brains as a form of torture.

Most earworms share the same characteristics: short, simple, and repetitive. Perfect for advertisers, in fact.

The Ethics of Earworms in Advertising

Any brand setting out to create an annoying earworm crosses a boundary. Turning an effective marketing strategy into an auditory imposition can be described, at best, as bad manners and, at worst, as a mild form of abuse.

Advertising, by its nature, interrupts your day. However, there’s an unspoken agreement that this interruption is part of a beneficial exchange of information between the advertiser and the listener.

Brands placing their “audio brand assets” in people’s minds without permission – to play on involuntary repeat against their will – is manipulative and shabby. It’s an intrusion into your personal mental space.

Advertisers that utilise earworms demonstrate a cynical lack of respect for their audience – prioritising brand recall over the well-being and preferences of their listeners.

This strategy not only disrespects the audience but can ultimately be counterproductive, turning potential customers away rather than attracting them.

A Tale of Two Strategies: A Comparative Look

In the long term, brands that rely on annoying earworms risk damaging their reputation and eroding trust with their audience. While their goal might be increased brand recall, the negative association created can lead to aversion and resentment. I’m looking at you, WeBuyAnyCar.

Compare their campaign with the competing motoring brand Cinch. Both use jingles in their advertising; one is repetitive, inane and intensely irritating, and the other is a short 5-note whistle. Both brands sponsor major UK sports. Only one of these brands makes me actively switch off the TV or radio as soon as I sense their ads coming, sometimes with the added encouragement to “f*** right off”.

I doubt that was the intention in the agency planning meeting. But it is the reality for me and, I suspect, many other people who object to having banal marketing messaging rattling around inside their heads all day.

The Emotional Power of Music in Advertising

Music touches our brains in a profoundly emotional way, sparking a strong connection for many of us. Advertisers know this and seek to exploit our emotional attachment to music by adhering their brands to it.

When the emotions are happy, nostalgic, romantic or sexy, then advertisers can benefit from those associations.

However, the emotions evoked can be negative as well as positive. Advertisers attempting to insert their messaging into people’s heads risk tying their brands to some powerfully unfavourable emotions.

Reflecting on the nostalgia of 1970s advertising jingles that linger in my mind, it’s clear the power of music in branding cannot be underestimated. Yet, as I’ve explored, the fine line between a catchy tune and an irritating earworm is one that advertisers need to tread carefully.

Employing jingles that resonate positively, rather than imposing unwelcome earworms, respects the listener’s mental space and fosters a healthy brand relationship.

Just as those memorable slogans from decades past have a fond place in our recollections, today’s brands have the opportunity to craft their own legacy – hopefully, one that’s remembered for the right reasons.

The ads from the 1970s seem, with my rose-tinted specs on, to be considerably better than today’s. Judge for yourself with this selection.

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author avatar
Keith Barker Designer & Marketing Consultant
I'm Keith, the driving force behind Keefomatic Marketing & Design. With a career spanning over 35 years in marketing, design and advertising, I offer a comprehensive, results-driven service tailored to the needs of small business owners.