Singing the praises of jingles

I grew up with a head full of advertising ghosts: the spectres of long-dead campaigns so embedded in my brain that it only takes the mention of a similar phrase, or a few notes of music at the right intervals, to summon them immediately and involuntarily to the forefront of my mind.

Circling apparently endlessly in my subconscious — waiting to be triggered by the sight of an ice cream cabinet, or even the mention of a “members club”, are these jingles:

If you like a lotta chocolate on your biscuit, join our club… (McVitie’s Club biscuits, 1975)

Just one Cornetto… (Wall’s Cornetto, 1982)

Everyone’s a fruit and nut case… (Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut, 1976)

(And quite a few more.)

Note those dates, because I was born in 1987.


When I was tiny, my mother loved, as most mums do, to sing to me — not a full-throated, multi-verse performance, but little crooned lines here or there, as she picked me up, put me to bed, bathed me, dandled me. She has a beautiful voice and I’m sure she sung some of the classic lullabies and nursery rhymes, but she also sung — because they were so embedded in her brain — a lot of jingles.

These phrase were mere nonsense to me as a child — remember, I had never seen the campaigns — but as I grew older, and eventually came to take a professional interest in advertising, I took proper note of them, wrote them down, Googled them, identified them for what they were.

My mum didn’t work in advertising, I stress. She was a primary school teacher, but she grew up in an age when brands excelled at lodging themselves in people’s minds in this way. I’m sure she didn’t plan to pass these earworms onto me — but the point is that she didn’t have much of a choice. Things like this worm their way into your mind, then insist on coming to mind in all manner of situations, whether you like it or not.

What is at work here is involuntary memory — the very same phenomenon most famously described by Proust with his madeleine dipped in tea — when a chance encounter with a word, object, taste, smell, sound or situation brings something else flooding back to you in a way you cannot control.

It’s incredibly powerful.


The techniques used to achieve this phenomenon through advertising don’t necessarily have to be musical — although there is much more to music than pitch, and phrases that are particularly sonorous or rhythmic can have a similarly memorable quality, without being set to a tune.

I will never forget the time when, waiting in an airport lounge aged 8, a total stranger opposite me uttered the phrase “The future’s bright” and, involuntarily and irrepressibly, I opened my mouth and said, “The future’s orange”. I literally could not help it. (I then blushed bright scarlet and wished I could fall through the floor into the soothing darkness of oblivion.)

Our brains do not operate a perfectly logical filing system, and one of the most important jobs of advertising is to make sure that the files containing our brand are snuck into it in as many ways, next to as many other files, as possible.

This way, when the librarian of our subconscious goes to fetch the file we’ve consciously called for, our brand gets scooped up and delivered along with it.

Some of the situations in which this will happen will have no relation to any situation in which you might feasibly buy the brand. (That bloody airport lounge, for instance.)

But crucially, some do.


This is when it pays to remember the original meaning of “branding”. To brand [livestock] is to leave a permanent and indelible mark.

There is absolutely no doubt that catchy jingles or endlines are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for achieving this fundamental goal. The fact that I have advertising jingles that predate my birth by over 10 years engraved, indelibly and across a generation, on my mind, is evidence of this.

And yet in my experience, there is a huge and, to me, baffling reluctance to use jingles, or even sonorous endlines, that could engrave our brand forever onto people’s brains.

I think this reluctance comes from two sides:

  1. Modern branding theory

Modern marketing / branding is highly focused on what Byron Sharp and his pals at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute call “differentiation” — the idea that our brand needs to occupy some unique emotional territory. (Sharp and co. are famously dismissive about the value of this way of thinking). We therefore spend a lot of time worrying about communicating this emotional territory/brand purpose/whatever, at the expense of worrying about engraving ourselves onto people’s memories.

You can present an endline to a client who is struggling with a serious misattribution problem — an endline that will, with sufficient investment, leave everyone exposed to the campaign utterly unable to forget or confuse their brand name ever again — and be told that it is not buyable because it does not capture what their brand “stands for”. The fact is that nobody can know what you stand for if they don’t remember who you are.

2. Agency egos

There seems to be a real aversion (in every function of an agency) to anything obviously designed to make the brand name or some other key asset memorable — whether because it rhymes, has a catchy tune, or uses repetition / other rhetorical techniques. (“Have a break, have a Kit-Kat” is a great example of this, as is the Orange example above, but so is “You’re sooooo Moneysupermarket.com”, “Beanz Meanz Heinz”, “Don’t just do it, B&Q it”, and so on and so on.)

Why? I’m not totally sure, but the best interpretation I have so far is that we don’t think it’s very cool — we think jingles or other similar impossible-to-forget techniques are old-fashioned, outdated, naff.

The public are clear that they don’t like jingles, which doesn’t help the case for them. But then, the public also don’t like advertising full stop. Hell, the public don’t like income tax. But these things serve a purpose, and a lot of what makes them irritating isn’t a bug, but a feature. If you remove the things that people don’t like about advertising, or income tax, they may become more popular… but they may also fail to serve their founding purpose.

I fear we are far too obsessed with being cool, and not nearly obsessed enough with being unforgettable.

It’s nice to be cool, sure. But there’s nothing cool about being forgotten.


So what is to be done to ensure that the consumers of today are as imprinted with the brands we work on as my mum was with McVitie’s, Cadbury’s and Wall’s, way back in the 1970s and 80s?

After all, as planners, it’s our job to make sure we get to the right answer for brand and business, not the right thing for our egos. It’s our job to challenge what has become orthodoxy, and to bring the deepest understanding to our agencies of how communications and the human mind actually work.

That means learning to love jingles again — not always, but certainly sometimes.

How?

We can help clients to understand the theory and practice of memory in branding. That means not only crafting things that are more likely to be remembered, but understanding the ways in which we can make them multidimensionally memorable — written, spoken, and, yes, sung. This also means we will create branding assets that meet that most important of 21st century needs — integration. An audio asset can link together your radio with your AV creative, which in turn should link to your digital display/print/social…

We can foster relationships with creatives that help us become the champions of things that aren’t super cool, but which work. By all means do both. But we should only progress to cool if we have done memorable, not the other way around.

And we can be a lot more open-minded ourselves. What if we made the test of our next brief, “Are people singing our ad in the shower?”

With apologies to the families of tone-deaf individuals everywhere, I’d love to see us try.