How Commercial Jingles Work

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.