The jingle used to be an important part of advertising that has lately become pretty uncool. As brands now try to wrestle with the impact of a growing audio landscape with the adoption of voice interfaces, Faris Yakob considers the fall and rise of one of the few aspects of advertising that people actually like.

Last month, Ma­stercard debuted their new sonic branding, which was developed with Mike Shinoda from the rock band Linkin Park. It is billed as “a comprehensive sound architecture that signifies the latest advancement for the brand”. Distinctive audio branding has always been powerful and companies have reached out to mainstream artists to help with development before.

Brian Eno famously created the Windows 95 start up chime, one of 84 variations he delivered. In an interview he explained the process with a somewhat familiar creative disparagement of the brief:

“The thing from the agency said, ‘We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,’ this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said ‘and it must be 3.25 seconds long.”

Renewed interest in audio branding has undoubtedly been precipitated by the emergence of voice interfaces like the Amazon Alexa, thanks to bullish projections about voice enabled shopping. Strategy consultancy OC&C claim it will hit $40bn in 2022 across UK and USA. Whether or not you believe that particular prediction, it’s undeniable that brands are trying to work out what to do about voice, especially in light of Amazon’s current grip on it. Professor Scott Galloway has suggested that the audio “technology kills brands” highlighting how when trying to buy batteries via Alexa, the only option available is from the Amazon Basics range.

Sonic Branding

For more on MasterCard’s sonic branding work, read the WARC Exclusive by MasterCard CMO, Raja Rajamannar.

In many ways, this is analogous to the threat originally presented by large retailers due to their direct relationship with consumers and their private label offerings. It should be remembered that much consumer package goods advertising is about balancing out the power of retailers with customer demand and expectations. Larger portions of the marketing budget still go to trade marketing as we discussed last month, and now the retailer to be tamed is Amazon. Whilst sonic stings can be useful, audio presents another creative opportunity, developed when audio was all there was.

In the 1930s radio was in its golden age and agencies produced radio programs for advertisers, learning how to sell with sounds, which birthed the first commercial jingles. Ask anyone to remember an ad from childhood and they will invariably recall a jingle. Being from the UK and of a certain age, I can still recite the jingle for Um-Bongo [“they drink it in the congo”], and the American Alka Seltzer, and plenty others. No doubt you can, too. Their incredible longevity is nodded to in the movie Demolition Man, in which there is an oldies radio station that only plays jingles. A catchy jingle is an earworm, a brief fragment of melody you can’t seem to get out of your head. In fact, jingles even predate radio, as I discovered at the Four Roses Bourbon distillery recently. They, like many brands, would distribute their jingles as sheet music in print ads.

However, despite their ability to create memories, an obvious aim of advertising, jingles have fallen from favor. In 1998 the American Association of Advertising Agencies surveyed television commercials and counted 153 jingles in a sample of 1,279 national, 30-second ads; by 2011, that had fallen to only eight original jingles out of 306 commercials, and the survey was discontinued. A new generation of advertising practitioners feared that jingles seemed old fashioned. It was cooler to commission pop stars or license pop songs, which took over the sonics of advertising.

Partially this was also a reaction to changing media contexts. It was much easier to get that earworm into consumers heads when you could reach most of them at high frequencies. Repetition is powerful. That became harder as media fragmented and, unused, the musical abilities of agencies began to atrophy. Agencies do not have music departments anymore and composing jingles has been called a dying art. Steve Karmen, the King of the Jingle and composer of the still running “Nationwide Is On Your Side” said “The industry that I was in is no more.”

In 2008, Wrigley decided to combine the trends and use current artists to breathe life back into their famous jingles. They offered Chris Brown full creative control and any producer he wanted to create a track incorporating the Double Mint tagline. The resulting song “Forever” was a massive global hit with 15 weeks on the Billboard charts, and a remixed version just for the ads — all of which led to a significant lift in sales for Wrigley. [Full Disclosure: my wife and partner, Rosie, worked on this campaign at Steve Stoute & Jay-Z’s Translation LLC].

Another generation has passed since jingles were uncool and now many lament their absence. Jingles were aspects of advertising that people actually seemed to like, and definitely remember, which seem like good qualities in an age of adblocking and predatory surveillance capitalism.

Advertisers are once again looking to collaborate with musicians to develop their brands in the aural arena, and that hints at least at the possibility that jingles will rise again, if audio interfaces become a fraction as important as predictions suggest. That would rock.