Faris Yakob on music as ‘memory candy’, and its use as the ultimate shorthand of emotion.

In 1967 United Airlines launched a campaign that would become one of the most famous ads of that decade – and even inspire its own urban legend. The commercial opens with a group of businessmen, identically dressed in grey suits and hats, one puffing on a cheroot, heading purposefully towards a United check-in desk. The men are pursued by their wives, pleading to go with them on the business trip. They are fobbed off with explanations that “it’s business” and the men will “be back before you know it”. The women use the power of song to make their case and break out into a big musical number called “Take Me Along”. It opens with a few repetitions of “Take me along! (If you love-a me!)” before the smoking man interjects with “I love you, little cutie, but the office is my duty!”.

The promotion offered a one third discount on companion flights and this is what inspired the urban legend. It was rumored that United sent thank you letters to the wives of the businessmen that used the promotion, but many of them reacted in surprise because the men had taken their mistresses instead. This is likely apocryphal. United ran print ads in women’s magazines as part of the campaign with the music and lyrics, headlined “Our Song. (To be sung to your husband before his next business trip).” United repeated the campaign the following year, presumably because it was successful, and it drove the highest awareness scores of any United campaign for at least a decade, according to the New York Times.

Despite being awkwardly dubbed a trend in 2022 as “bleisure” (author’s note: bluuurgh!), clearly the business trip with an added dash of subsidized vacation has been around for a long time.

Despite the campaign being very much of its time in its representation of gender roles and style, the tune is still undeniably catchy. It attracts the ear and sticks in the mind. United had recently appointed Leo Burnett and they produced a run of successful musical ads in the late 1960s.

They used famous songs, including John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me,” and re-arranged them to include the United slogan “Fly the Friendly Skies”. Despite proclaiming that “Take Me Along” was “Our Song” in the print, it was adapted from the title song of a popular 1959 musical. By leveraging something that is well known and giving it a twist, the advertisements take advantage of the audiences’ familiarity, which makes it easier to process, and then makes it interesting while linking it back to the brand.

In his excellent book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson points out this interplay of familiarity and surprise is at the heart of all popular music (and popular ideas broadly).

Repetition is the key device in rhetoric and music, used to create emphasis and structure. “More than an illusive trick, repetition is the God particle of music” because the term ‘sing’, even in the animal kingdom, is only applied to specific sounds that repeat at regular intervals. Music is fractal, with repeating rhythms building a hook, repeated hooks a chorus, and songs themselves built around repeated choruses.

We like things we have heard before, so much so that ninety percent of the time people listen to music it is to something they have already heard. “This very entanglement – the pull of repetition and the push of anticipation – defines the catchiest songs”, Thompson writes.

Repetition is powerful. Repetition is powerful. Repetition… you get it. We tend to like things we have encountered before (mere exposure effect) and to believe things are true when we hear them often enough (illusory truth effect).

Perhaps even more usefully for advertising, repetition creates fluency and builds memory structures. The repetitions of poetry and music are a “prosthetic memory”, as the historian of memory Alison Landsberg terms it, because we find it easier to remember words when attached to rhyme, rhythm and melody. “Music is like memory candy,” Thompson adds. “Musical language helps people remember words and it signals to people that some words are worth remembering.”

Musicals perhaps don’t have the same cultural cache they once did (although arguably Hamilton is the biggest musical of all time) but the tunes are both story and song and thus in some ways ideal for advertisements. Taco Bell announced the return of the Mexican Pizza with a twelve-minute musical that premiered on TikTok in September. The influence of Hamilton and other Broadway classics are obvious and it features Dolly Parton and Doja Cat.

While Doja Cat gives the work salience for a younger audience, Dolly Parton, or “Queen Dolly P” as they call her, is the inspired choice here. She is on record saying she loves Taco Bell and the Mexican Pizza specifically, but more importantly she is known and loved by everyone. Her first single came out only a couple of years after the Queen’s coronation. She has been actively famous and embraced by each generation since, and, uniquely in pop culture figures, her appeal straddles all groups in the USA, across genders, sexualities and politics. She is familiar, plays both to and against stereotypical gender representations, and thus can take everyone along with her.

Many commercials use covers of songs to create that familiarity/surprise feeling and attach it to a brand: Sony Bravia’s acoustic cover of Heartbeats; Perfect Day sung by the good and the great for the BBC. Seemingly every Christmas ad in the UK had a downbeat cover of an 80s hit for a few years until the public began to notice and it became cliche.

We like to hear things we’ve heard before but once we become too aware of the repetition it begins to grate. Modern pop songs understand this, using ‘interpolations’ in which a hook or sample from an old song is used in a new one, with a different set of repetitions, a new song, built around them.

This is why music is so useful in advertising, especially music that is somewhat familiar with an element of surprise. It attracts attention, builds mental availability, and is the “shorthand of emotion,” as Tolstoy pointed out – all of which can help “take [us] along” to the brands.