The most recent John Lewis campaign surprised everyone by featuring the memorable refrain: “Don’t be foolish / Cos it’s the coolest / All you gotta do is / Shop in John Le-wis!” This follows Apple’s latest commercial, sung in the Buddy Holly style: “Well, Apple be the phone that I buy / Yes, Apple be the phone that begins with an ‘i’ / You say I’ll buy another, but you know it’s a lie / Cos Apple be the ph-o-one that I buy!”
Of course, I’m making this up. But that’s how both brands might conceivably have been advertised a few generations ago. And who’s to say it wouldn’t have worked? One of the first jingles was for an ailing US cereal brand called Wheaties and included the immortal lyrics: “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.” The radio ad aired on Christmas Eve 1926 and was credited with a dramatic turnaround in sales, while (in a prescient twist) the four male singers achieved a degree of celebrity as the Wheaties Quartet.
It’s not surprising that jingles were originally a radio form. When the spoken word is all you have to sell your product, it doesn’t take a great leap to realise that a tune might help lodge it in the mind. There has been research into exactly how ‘earworms’ take hold and why they are so hard to shake – the theory is that it plays into the way our neural networks use repetition in order to learn. Jingles are like a commercial nursery rhyme, riding the same neural networks that were forged by Humpty Dumpty and Little Bo Peep when we were babies, but now adapted to carry commercial messages to the heart of our adult brains as we stare vacantly at the screen. Not so jolly when you put it like that.
The question is: if jingles are so powerful, why don’t we use them more these days? It’s partly a matter of fashion. However much advertising claims to be about effectiveness, the people who create it can’t help wanting to be ground-breaking and sophisticated. And there is something maddeningly unsophisticated about jingles. They don’t win respect in the boardroom. No one ever Shook n’ Vac’d (is that the past tense?) themselves to a Cannes Lion.
Two of the first jingles that came to mind when researching this article were ‘For mash get Smash’, with its Close Encounters-esque major key refrain, and the more recent Go Compare, which did for opera what [insert something terrible] did for [insert something good]. Reading about both, I was surprised to find the same copywriter mentioned. Chris Wilkins was part of the team that worked on the most famous Smash commercials (although the jingle preceded his involvement) and later worked with his partner Sîan Wilkins on Go Compare, Sheilas’ Wheels and the Direct Line campaign with the bugle call and the red phone on wheels (younger readers, you had to be there).
So what was the thinking behind Go Compare? “The brief was to make the brand front-of-mind in a competitive market,” says Wilkins. “We were lucky, because the brand name was already a call to action, so we hit on the idea of using another call to action from the First World War – the song Over There about US troops coming to the rescue in Europe. We unearthed an old recording of Enrico Caruso singing the song, which inspired the notion of using an Italian operatic tenor. We originally planned to have an actor mime, but we were lucky to find Wynne Evans, then principal tenor at The Welsh National Opera, who could not only sing, but was a great physical comic.”
How does it feel to create a campaign that annoyed so many people? “Yes, it was voted Most Annoying Campaign in the marketing press for two years running. But the year before the campaign broke, Go Compare posted a loss of £4m. At the end of the campaign’s first year, they posted a profit of £12m. Similarly, our campaign for Direct Line was voted Most Annoying, but the client grew to become the country’s leading car insurer. It’s funny how much you can achieve when you stop checking over your shoulder for the D&AD jury, and just start working out how to make your clients rich.”
Wilkins points to a vital quality in a good jingle: a clear association between the tune and the brand. “You can’t mentally sing along with Sheilas’ Wheels or Go Compare without mentioning the brand name. A lot of current advertising starts with a ‘borrowed’ song which is grafted arbitrarily onto whatever product message happens to be next on the creative to-do list. That’s just lazy.”
Few brands will own up to producing ‘jingles’ these days, but many talk about ‘audio branding’. Intel has its five-note sting, created by a former member of Austrian synth outfit Edelweiss. More recently, McDonald’s borrowed ‘I’m lovin’ it’ from a Justin Timberlake song. Other brands, like John Lewis, don’t go in for jingles but use music to serious commercial effect through ‘sync’ deals with recording artists. The latest Tom Odell cover version of John Lennon’s Real Love might not directly mention the brand, but the association is firmly lodged in the public mind. The Wheaties Quartet has a lot to answer for.
However much the creative industry may feel it has moved on from jingles, there remains something magically powerful about the intersection of two systems: language and music. For as long as that’s the case, there will always be a creative team out there pondering the next Chicken Tonight or webuyanycar.com. (Apologies for any earworms caused by this article.)
Q&A with Chris Wilkins
Chris Wilkins began his career as a copywriter at JWT in the 1970s and went on to be joint creative director with John Webster at BMP. While there he won D&AD Silvers for his work for Cresta, Smash and Pepsi’s ‘Lipsmackin’…’ campaign, created with Dave Trott. In 1985 he founded Davis Wilkins with Siân Davis and later sold the company to TBWA. Since 2005 the pair have worked as creative partnership Chris & Siân Wilkins
NA: Why do you think jingles work?
CW: I think they can work in a couple of ways. They can act simply as an ID badge for the brand – a role which goes back to radio when music could add a distinctive ‘colour’ in a non-visual medium. Jingles act most powerfully as mnemonic devices. Just ask yourself – how much Victorian religious poetry can you recite from memory? Not so much. Now ask the question in a different way – how many Christmas carols can you sing along to? The music makes the words memorable, particularly through repetition.
NA: What makes a good jingle?
CW: There’s a phenomenon known in the neurology trade as an ‘earworm’ which refers to a piece of music that gets stuck in your head and no amount of conscious voluntary effort can banish it. Good jingles take up residence in your brain. They are ‘catchy’ with all that word’s association with contagion.
NA: Do jingles work better for a particular type of brief?
CW: Jingles work most happily when there is a simple, single-minded message to be communicated. There is some research which suggests that people don’t take in rational sales messages that are sung to them, but there is also research suggesting that people don’t respond much to rational sales messages anyway. It’s an emotional business, and music has always been pretty good at stirring emotions.
NA: ‘For mash get Smash’ was already a great line without the music. How did the jingle come about?
CW: When I moved to BMP in the early 1970s to work with John Webster, the Smash campaign already had its musical pay-off. You’re right, it is a strong line, so why set it to music? Well, times were different then and I think we were still very much under the spell of the Americans. The Mad Men tended to sign off their films with a little musical ‘sting’ – almost as a parting gift to the viewer. John Webster, in his own account, remembers briefing the composer Cliff Adams, who happened to be sitting at his piano. Cliff said, “You mean something like this…?” and played the four notes which, it is rumoured, were to earn him more in royalties than the rest of his TV work put together. When I wrote the first of the Martians scripts, the jingle was already a household property.
NA: Why did you choose a jingle-led route for Sheilas’ Wheels? Did the client come to you with that in mind, or was the direction your idea?
CW: The client brief for what became Sheilas’ Wheels was simply to create a car insurance brand aimed at women. The name, the brand, the idea of a jingle was ours. Even the big pink ‘Sheilamobile’ was designed by Siân Wilkins, my art-director partner. During our 35-year-long careers in advertising, neither Siân nor I had ever done a full-on jingle campaign. We wanted to devise a brand with ‘Girl Power’ (echoes of the Spice Girls) which led to our creating a ‘real’ singing group, styled on the 1960s Motown sound. We cast three brilliant session singers and – on the back of the advertising success – they actually toured the country as an act. The spin-off for the client was terrific. When one commercial asked women to post online videos of themselves dressed up and performing as our ‘Sheilas’ we had over 11,000 responses (some 240 from men) just for the prize of a guest spot in a commercial.
NA: Would you say you have a musical ear? How important is it for copywriters to have a sense of rhythm and the ‘sound’ of words?
CW: Siân and I are not particularly musical but we’ve been wonderfully well-served by the musicians we’ve worked with – particular the guys at Yellow Boat Music whose ingenuity created a whole raft of musical styles for Go Compare, ranging from Baroque Chamber to Moroccan Folk. We’ve also evolved a secret trick for writing lyrics which composers can work with. If you want to write a great jingle, write it to an existing tune. That way, it will have an inbuilt ‘lyrical’ structure to it. Then, when you hand the words over to a composer – and here’s the secret bit – don’t tell him what your tune was. That’s what we did with Sheilas’ Wheels and the legendary film music composer, John Altman, took it from there.
NA: Do you have any favourite jingles (either your own or someone else’s)?
CW: Of my own stuff, I’m quite proud of rhymes like “With just a few clicks/Save your spondulicks” and “It’s where you go ter/Insure your motor” for GoCompare. And I was also pretty happy with “If you had a name like Florence/And you needed car insurance” for Sheilas’ Wheels. Dave Trott knows how it’s done – his “Gertcha” spot for Courage beer and “Ariston … and on” were classics. But my all-time favourite has to be “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent”. That was written in 1948. 1
Nick Asbury is a writer for branding and design and one half of creative partnership, Asbury & Asbury. More of their work is at asburyandasbury.com