How Commercial Jingles Work

A man writing down music while using a musical keyboard.
Corporations have been using jingles to promote their products for years. Bill Varie / Getty Images

Does this sound familiar? It's the middle of the day, you're at work, you've long since eaten lunch, and nothing out of the ordinary is happening. Then, all of a sudden, you hear a voice in your head singing "bah-da-ba-ba-bah, I'm lovin' it" over and over, and it won't go away. And now you're craving French fries. That's what a good jingle does; it gets in your head and won't leave.

A jingle is a radio or TV advertising slogan set to a (hopefully) memorable melody. Jingles are written explicitly about a product -- they can be original works designed to describe a product or service, or to help consumers remember information about a product. As long as the slogan is instantly catchy -- and hard to forget -- there's almost no limit to what advertisers can say in a jingle. It can be a slogan, a phone number, a radio or TV station's call letters, a business's name or even the benefits of a certain product. In this article, we'll take a look at this unique advertising technique to find out how commercial jingles worm their way into our psyches.


Jingle History

Jingles have been around since the advent of commercial radio in the early 1920s, when advertisers used musical, flowery language in their ads. But it was on Christmas Eve, 1926 in Minneapolis, Minn., that the modern commercial jingle was born when an a cappella group called the Wheaties Quartet sang out in praise of a General Mills breakfast cereal. Executives at General Mills were actually about to discontinue Wheaties when they noticed a spike in its popularity in the regions where the jingle aired. So the company decided to air the jingle nationally, and sales went through the roof. Eighty years later, Wheaties is a staple in kitchens across the globe.

There is some debate about this historical tidbit, though. Some point to a 1905 song called "In My Merry Oldsmobile," by Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan, as the world's first jingle. But the song itself predates commercial radio -- Oldsmobile appropriated it for radio in the late 1920s. So, we could probably more accurately call it the world's first pop song licensed for advertising.


In the early 1930s radio was enjoying a golden age, but there were strict advertising rules. Direct advertising during prime-time hours was prohibited, so advertisers started using a clever loophole -- the jingle. Jingles could mention a company or product's name without explicitly shilling that product. For example, the introduction to "The Adventures of the Jenkins Family" program began with a sing-songy "Oh, my! It's Eskimo Pie!"

A good jingle can do wonders for business -- it can save a dying brand, introduce a new item to a broader audience and rejuvenate a lackluster product. The histories of the jingle and commercial radio are inextricably entwined. Prior to the popularization of radio, products were sold on a one-on-one basis (at the store, or by a traveling salesman), and advertisements from those days reflect that. They are very direct, matter-of-factly describing the benefits of their product over their competitor's. But as the radio audience grew, advertisers had to convince the public of the superiority of a product they couldn't see -- for this purpose, jingles were ideal.

In the 1950s, jingles reached their commercial and artistic peak. Famous songwriters penned slogans, and the copyrights were granted to jingle composers rather than the manufacturing company.

But why were jingles so effective? What is it about them that gets into your head and refuses to leave? Find out on the next page.


Why are jingles so catchy?

"The most refreshing taste around... the one that never lets you down."
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jingles are written to be as easy to remember as nursery rhymes. The shorter the better, the more repetition the better, the more rhymes the better. If you're being indecisive in the deodorant aisle and you suddenly hear a voice in your head singing "by … Mennen," you might drop a Speed Stick (manufactured by Mennen) into your basket without a second thought.

Jingles are designed to infiltrate your memory and stay there for years, sometimes popping up from out of nowhere. You probably fondly remember all of the words to the Oscar Mayer B-O-L-O-G-N-A song, the "plop plop fizz fizz" chorus of the Alka-Seltzer jingle, and countless other melodies from your childhood.


Psychologists and neurologists who study the effects of music on the brain have found that music with a strong emotional connection to the listener is difficult to forget. It was this discovery that led marketers to license pop songs for advertising instead of commissioning original jingles. It turns out that some pop songs contain earworms: pleasantly melodic, easy-to-remember "hooks" that have the attributes of a typical jingle.

Earworms, also known by their German name, "ohrwurm," are those tiny, 15- to 30-second pieces of music that you can't get out of your head no matter how hard you try (the phenomenon is also called Song Stuck Syndrome, repetuneitis, the Jukebox Virus and melodymania). The word "earworm" was popularized by James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati, who has done a great deal (for better or worse) to bring this phenomenon to the forefront of the study of advertising techniques.

We don't know much about what causes earworms, but it could be the repeating of the neural circuits that represent the melody in our brains. It might also have to do with some of the findings of researchers Alan Baddely and Graham Hitch, and the model of working memory, the part of the brain that practices and repeats verbal information [source: Models of Working Memory]. In 1974 Baddely and Hitch discovered what they called the phonological loop, which is composed of the phonological store (your "inner ear," which remembers sounds in chronological order) and the articulatory rehearsal system (your "inner voice," which repeats these sounds in order to remember them). This area of the brain is vital in early childhood for developing vocabulary and in adulthood for learning new languages.

Researchers have noted that the shorter and simpler the melody, the more likely it is to get stuck in your head -- this is why some of the most common earworms are jingles and the choruses of pop songs. Earworms tend to occur more often in musicians than nonmusicians and in women more than men. Those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder can be particularly irritated by earworms. Sometimes, actually hearing the offending refrain (or replacing it with something equally infectious) can clear an earworm from the mind, but, unfortunately, there is no surefire way to get rid of them.

But now that jingles have been largely supplanted in advertising by pop songs, do they still have a future? Before we can answer that, we'll look more closely at their decline in popularity.


The Future of Jingles

"A little dab'll do ya"
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Jingles were an advertiser's dream for the same reason the public can grow to hate them: You can't get them out of your head. But, as with most other stimuli, the more you experience them, the less of an effect they have on you. The widespread use of jingles on radio and TV has caused the newest generation of consumers to see them as hokey.

As we've mentioned, the commercial licensing of pop songs caused the decline of the jingle. In 1987, the Beatles tune "Revolution" was licensed for a Nike shoe campaign, which would prove to be the start of a revolution in advertising. As markets became increasingly clogged with indistinguishable products, it was no longer possible (or relevant) to tout the absolute supremacy of a product. To gain a loyal brand following, a good product was simply not enough -- a company now had to represent a lifestyle or an identity. Piggybacking on emotional and cultural experience became the most effective way to sell products. It's widely known that most humans have a deep emotional connection to music -- so instead of trying to form a new connection with consumers, why not let the Rolling Stones, Mike and the Mechanics, Fall Out Boy or Bob Seger do it for you?


Music purists derided the commercialization of their favorite tunes, and musicians who wanted to be considered "serious artists" vowed never to allow their songs to be used in a marketing campaign. In the 1980s, Sting famously rebuffed an offer to use the Police song "Don't Stand So Close To Me" in a deodorant commercial (but he and his music later went on to star in a Jaguar campaign in 2000). But for all the cries of ruination, these ad campaigns have significantly helped revive the music of several critically acclaimed but widely unknown musicians -- like Nick Drake, Stereolab and Spiritualized. In fact, marketers are quick to point out that much of the hype surrounding the licensing of pop songs for commercials comes from major record labels. Major labels are in crisis mode, desperately seeking new ways to promote their albums. Deals with advertisers -- and prime-time shows like "Grey's Anatomy" -- have helped record companies find new ways to promote their music and create additional revenue streams.

Product placement, the conspicuous inclusion of name-brand products in TV shows and movies, has also gained hold in recent years. With the invention of the digital video recorder (DVR), viewers can now fast-forward through commercials, forcing companies to find more clever ways to advertise their products.

Fashion is cyclical, though, and advertising is no exception to the rule. The ubiquity that led to the demise of jingles and the rise of licensed music is causing the pendulum to swing the other way. The cost of licensing music is getting higher as it becomes more popular, and jingles are being rediscovered for their promotional value in small and local markets. There may never be another "I'm stuck on Band-Aid, 'cause Band-Aid's stuck on me," but the jingle has proven itself as a tried-and-true technique for advertisers trying to worm their way into our brains.

To learn more about jingles, take a look through the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "The Visitor in Your Living Room: Radio Advertising in the 1930s:The Structure of Advertising."
  • Ad Age.Com: The Advertising Century; Top 10 Jingles.
  • Anderman, Joan. "The Irresistible, Singable, Stick-in-your-Mindable Jingle is Dead." Boston Globe, Jan. 9.2005.
  • Butler, Susan and Sexton, Paul. "The Beatles for Sale." Hollywood Reporter, Jan. 3. 2008.
  • "Army Retires 'Be All That You Can Be' Jingle."
  • Collision Detection: Earworms.
  • Jingle Brokers. "What is a Jingle, Really?"
  • Jingle: Totally Explained.
  • Journal of Applied Psychology. "Memory in a Jingle Jungle."
  • Kal Aaj Kal. "What Constitutes a Successful Jingle Campaign?"
  • LePage, Mark. "Who Doesn't Sell Out?" Montreal Gazette, Nov. 24, 2007.­74b2e3e0-b781-42fb-8df3-5f76e18d5ab8
  • Levitan, Daniel J. "This is Your Brain on Music." Penguin, 2006.
  • Marketing Playbook. "I'd Like to Teach the World to Jingle."
  • Metro Washington Old Time Radio Club: Ask the Expert.
  • Miyake, Akira, and Shah, Priti. "Models of Working Memory." Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • News "Tagline Releases List of Most Influential Taglines & Jingles in the TV & Internet Era."
  • The Jingle Hall of Fame.
  • Pop Songs in Advertising.
  • University of Cincinnati School of Business: Earworms.