I know a song that will get on your nerves…

They get inside your head and refuse to leave. It’s time to recognise the irritating, human genius of advert jingles.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Hands up anyone who would like to punch the Go Compare man in the face? Any takers? I fancy quite a few. I suspect the same would apply to the man who chants ‘we buy any car dot-com‘ and the lady who lilts that ‘washing machines live longer with Calgon‘, all of which have been cited in a survey of the UK’s Top 10 most memorable TV advertising jingles.

Unless you don’t watch British television, you will most likely have one of the above whirring in your brain now, and for this I apologise. According to the survey, carried out by the makers of Chicken Tonight (‘I feel like Chicken Tonight’ itself came fifth), 42 per cent of those questioned insisted they dislike these tunes, and that it takes an average of 17 minutes to dislodge one from your mind. Other respondents admitted to absentmindedly singing jingles in public while shopping, humming them in work meetings, or even being kept awake at night by them. Fourteen per cent said their children were singing or humming along to jingles before they could talk, and seven per cent admitted even having one on their mind during sex.

The only pleasing tune in the survey, to my ears, was ‘Just One Cornetto‘, the 1980s reworking of ‘O Sole Mio’, which topped the poll. Other notorious advertising earworms of past decades (which didn’t feature in the Top 10, but surely would have been contenders) include ‘Autoglass repair/ Autoglass replace‘, ‘You can’t get quicker than a Kwik Fit fitter‘ and, for Kellogg’s Bran Flakes: ‘They’re tasty, tasty, very very tasty/ They’re very tasty.’ If you have read this far, dear reader, this article has probably ruined your day.

It is therefore understandable that people grumble about these often-maddening jingles. They are, of course, designed to stick in our heads. ‘Music is one of the most powerful memory cues, because it is instantly attractive and easily adaptable’, explains the music psychologist, Dr Victoria Williamson, in response to the survey. ‘When incorporated with language, movement and images, it works to create a stronger memory trace than if a tune is heard in isolation. Factors such as the length of a song, repetition and dance accompaniment can turn a simple tune into “sticky music” – a form of involuntary memory. The kind of tunes that are most likely to trigger singalong behaviour are characterised by loudness and high energy, a male voice and a high register with lots of leaps.’ This would explain why so many retain a memory of ‘Just One Cornetto’, and the present indefatigability of ‘Go Compare’, which in 2009 and 2010 was awarded the dubious accolade of Britain’s most irritating advert.

Jingles are often derided as crass and dumb because advertising in general is regarded as such. It’s a view that traditionalists on the left and right share. The former see it as an insidious manifestation of capitalism, manufacturing demand among the poor for things they don’t need and can’t afford. High Tories sneer at vulgar ‘new money’ types trying to flog foreign cruises and frozen pizzas to stupid, ghastly proles. Personally, I have no problem with the aesthetics of adverts. We do get used to them, after all – remember in the 1980s when people actually made a fuss over football jerseys bearing sponsors’ names? Jingles can be infectious, but we should pay due respect to their creators for being so fiendishly clever.

The genre certainly has an illustrious heritage. In the era when tunes were disseminated by sheet music, one of the first industry-wide promotions was (ironically, in retrospect) for tobacco, including the 1836 song ‘Think & Smoke Tobacco’, by John Ashton and Pipe de Tabac. This was followed by endorsements for the postal service, in the ‘Post Card Galop’ (1864), the railroad, in ‘The Iron Horse’ (1870), while others promoted sports, the telephone and typewriters. These initially featured on the reverse side of regular scores, and one late-nineteenth-century example, ‘Oh You Spearmint Kiddo With The Wrigley Eyes’, included the strangulated line ‘Every kiss is loaded with bliss peptonised’. A ‘Vegetable Compound’ score from 1883 contains a similarly curious promise: ‘Mrs Brown had female weakness / She could have no children dear / Till she took two bottles of Compound / Now she has one every year’.

One of the first radio jingles, ‘Have You Tried Wheaties?’, broadcast in Minneapolis in 1926, went: ‘Have you tried Wheaties? They’re whole wheat with all of the bran/ Won’t you try Wheaties? For wheat is the best food of man / They’re crispy and crunchy / The whole year through / The kiddies never tire of them and neither will you / So just try Wheaties / The best breakfast food in the land.’ But as consumers subsequently became wary of boastful adverts, and sceptical of the factual claims made in them, advertisers responded by making poetic appeals to emotion rather than to logic. As long as the music stuck, that’s all that mattered. This is why an advert for insurance inexplicably features a Welsh man pretending to be Italian singing to the tune of a popular First World War song. Consider also recent Lynx deodorant adverts, which ironically mock the age-old conceit that a product will confer sexual prowess on the consumer. Both are signs of our knowing, postmodern times.

Music and advertising have a long association. Indeed, before printed sheet scores, street vendors hawked their goods to the tune of a melodic chant. There is nothing either inherently odd or novel about babies picking up advertising melodies. As Dr Williamson added: ‘Babies can process aspects of musical sounds such as rhythm and melody within hours of birth, and even while asleep. This natural awareness for music, and the preference of young babies and children to communicate with speech made up of exaggerated sounds, helps explain as to why some parents report that their children could sing along to a jingle from such a young age.’

In a 2000 essay, ‘The American Capitalist Initiative, Advertising in Music‘, Rick Reublin wrote: ‘The power of this form of advertising is formidable, just stop for a moment and think of how many of these jingles you can remember. It seems the musical ads are the ones that most stay with us.’ Professor David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University, concludes that ‘advertising music is perhaps the most meticulously crafted and most fretted-about music in history… television advertisements in particular may be considered among the most highly polished cultural artefacts ever created.’ I think these are just assessments. Like the atom bomb or the Nokia ringtone, the advertising jingle may be an unwelcome addition to civilisation, but it is still a testament to humanity’s creativity and genius.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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