The holidays are just around the corner, and we all know what that means: Christmas songs on the radio and holiday jingles in just about every store. But there’s one kind of traditional jingle we aren’t as likely to hear these days: the commercial jingle. If you used to wish you were an Oscar Mayer wiener, if the best part of waking up was Folgers in your cup, if you were ever stuck on Band-Aid brands because Band-Aid’s stuck on you, then you probably grew up in the heyday of advertising jingles. So, whatever happened to those jingles? Do they still have a place in audio branding, or have the Toys R Us kids all grown up?
In many ways, jingles were the first step in the history of audio branding, and they’re much older than you might think. If you know the Muffin Man or can sing along to Hot Cross Buns, then you’re already familiar with the jingles of the colonial era. Those rhymes started with vendors in the Middle Ages who had to find ways to make their street cries stand out and get people’s attention. That meant short, simple phrases often set to music, and the fact that we can still recite some of those rhymes today shows just how well they worked.
With the invention of radio came the modern jingle. Now vendors had to grab and hold the attention of millions of people, and General Mills did just that in 1926 with a barbershop song called “Have you Tried Wheaties.” That one commercial turned Wheaties sales completely around in the Twin Cities market, and when the company aired the song nationwide the following year, Wheaties went from a failing brand to a household name.
Want to hear the jingle that started it all? Here’s a link to the original ad:
Other companies quickly caught on and started coming up with their own musical numbers, and the jingle era was born. From radio to television to the internet, jingles became pretty much synonymous with audio branding. Promoting a brand meant giving it a jingle, whether it’s the Chiquita banana song, the singing Meow Mix cats or Coca Cola teaching the world to sing. But things began to change around the turn of the millennium. Those catchy earworm jingles started to disappear. In 1998, 12% of television ads featured jingles; by 2011 it was just 2.5%. But if commercials weren’t using jingles, what were they using?
For the most part, they were now using licensed songs. This wasn’t a completely new development; those medieval street cries were often set to popular folk songs of the era, and the “Have You Tried Wheaties” jingle borrowed its tune from the 1919 song “Jazz Baby.” Michael Jackson ushered in a whole new era of melding pop music and advertising with his “Pepsi Generation” commercials set to the tune of “Billy Jean,” and ten years later Microsoft borrowed the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” as its anthem for Windows 95.
What did change is that advertisers were no longer relying on famous musicians and recognizable songs. More and more often, the commercials featured smaller artists and songs that many viewers hadn’t heard before. With DVR and streaming content rendering the old 30-second TV spots obsolete, the focus shifted to simply engaging the viewers and convincing them to keep watching the ad. Without a captive TV audience, advertisers needed those viewers to like and share their commercials. One way to do that is by promoting new music that might get people talking and, more importantly, watching.
For a great discussion of the rise and fall of jingles, check out this Cheddar Explains video “The Unexpected Death of the Ad Jingle”:
But as new media continues to evolve, jingles are making a surprising comeback. Online ads, often just a few seconds long, have allowed companies to create musical brands that immediately stand out despite their length. Just think of McDonald’s and its wildly successful “I’m Lovin’ It” theme, or how State Farm’s “Like a Good Neighbor” jingle has returned as the bumper for each commercial. Unlike past jingles, these songs aren’t trying to tell the listener about the product so much as they’re trying to create an instant connection with the brand. As audio branding continues to expand, moving out of the traditional TV and radio spots and into our daily lives, that sort of connection is becoming more important than ever.
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