Rob Hardy on books


Article Comment 

The Sounds of Sales



Rob Hardy


I often have a tune running in my head, an "earworm" that may be playing in my mind for a while before I even tune in and listen to the music. (I find this such an interesting occurrence - it's an example of how I am not in charge of what goes on even inside my own cranium.) I usually don't mind this; the music will be a Bach cantata or a Gershwin tune, and those are not such a bad interior soundtrack. But every so often, against my will, whatever entity is pushing my cerebrum's jukebox buttons will pick a commercial jingle. Since I don't watch much commercial television these days, the inner DJ has to reach way back; not long ago I was hearing "Things go better with Coca-Cola," which was from over forty years ago. (I am worried now that mentioning it here will bring on a reprise.) Those advertising songwriters surely knew what they were doing. And they still do, although the role of music in commercials has changed a lot since those jingle days. That's part of the message of The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture (University of Chicago Press) by ethnomusicologist Timothy Taylor. While it is an academic work, with about a quarter of its pages devoted to footnotes and bibliography, Taylor has a jolly subject, and there are many surprises and funny events recounted here. There is, too, a distressing analysis that shows that advertising and popular music have merged so that it is hard to tell them apart. 




At the start of the radio age, no one knew about radio advertising, and people who made the programs were hesitant to have an auditory equivalent to the advertisements that were seen in print. Editorials warned that radio programs were like a guest invited into the family circle and that overt advertising would be out of place. There was a philosophy of goodwill; listeners would appreciate the contributions of sponsors of the sort of music programming favored in the 1920s and would show gratitude by buying their products. Hard sell was avoided, and indirect mention of products was made, perhaps in the program title ("The Dixie Circus" sponsored by the Dixie Cup Company). At least at first, goodwill sufficed. Then came the depression, when something had to be done about flagging sales. Judging a sponsor's influence by the amount of fan mail a program generated would no longer do. The goodwill concept was done in by polling and the idea of capturing a certain audience with a certain music. Pollsters went door to door, asking about music preferences: Religious? Mexican? Pipe organ? Hawaiian? Generally the consensus was that either jazz or classical was what was wanted, with sponsors left to determine which market they wanted to be associated with. And the sponsors got to call the shots. The violinist Jascha Heifetz remarked that in Europe, stations never asked him to alter the music he had chosen, but things were more calculated in America: "I have played - quite recently - in Italy, Germany and Russia. I had to come to the United States to find a dictatorship." (And he was saying this in 1937!) 




Some products had particular performers associated with them. If the announcer said, "Look out for the falling snow, for it's all mixed up with a lot of ginger, sparkle, and pep, barking dogs and jingling bells and there we have a crew of smiling Eskimos, none other than the Clicquot Club Eskimos tripping along to the tune of their own march - 'Clicquot,'" you could be sure you were listening to the Clicquot Club Eskimos program, plugging the "ginger, sparkle, and pep" you could find in the sponsor's ginger ale. The group, heavy on banjos, was the first to make a "trademark overture" for a show. Producers were concerned that music was fading into the background, and they started featuring radio stars, like Eddie Cantor, who was thought to be the best salesman on the airwaves. His "Cantor Cantata" was just the tune to celebrate Pebeco toothpaste. Rudy Vallée was originally a bandleader on The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour, but soon he was directing and announcing for the show; he was the first radio superstar, even though he had a reputation for "advertising anything and anybody," according to an NBC boss.  




The first real jingle seems to have been a heavy ditty from 1926 by the Wheaties Quartet ("They're crispy, and crunchy, the whole year through / The kiddies never tire of them and neither will you.") There were others, but the first jingle to have a life of its own (they didn't say "go viral" back then) was the "Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot" campaign of 1939. ("Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, / Twelve full ounces, that's a lot...") It was broadcast thousands of times, and a million phonograph records were made of it, and people actually selected the tune from jukeboxes. Kids sang it around home, a service provided to the advertiser at no charge, and one magazine wrote that there was the added benefit that "they are also much more difficult to turn off." The jingle was updated through the early fifties. The Chiquita Banana Song came out in 1944, and was so durable that it was last modernized in 1999. In the fifties, jingles were harnessed for the sort of consumerism that was supposed to show those commies how good we have it over here, and many of the tunes were marches, like the music for the 1953 Gillette ad "To Look Sharp", also known as the "Look Sharp March" ("To look sharp, every time you shave / To feel sharp, make your beard behave, / Just be sharp. Use Gillette Blue Blades / For the quickest slickest shave of all.") 




Fashions change in advertising, and by the 1980s, jingles were seen as too hard-sell and obvious. Rock and pop songs were thought to be purer and more authentic, and so what could advertisers do but make them impure and inauthentic? Most brands were initially leery of getting connected to rock music; one advertising agency's music director is quoted as saying, "We had a hard time convincing them that people who listened to rock 'n' roll weren't devil worshippers." What was accepted as rock music for commercials then sounds very tame now, like "Things go better with Coca-Cola," which was covered by Petula Clark, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and the Fifth Dimension. This brought retaliation from Pepsi, the "You've got a lot to live" campaign. It is ridiculous to read the ad-speak quoted on many pages here. Pepsi told its distributors about the campaign, "It's youth's bag and Pepsi-Cola is in it... With lyrics that make this generation's 'thing' our 'thing' like never before... It's a radio package that obliterates the generation gap and communicates like a guru." I know this is all advertising, and dated, but did smart people really think that stuff, or did they think other people were too stupid to snigger at it? 




That there were baby-boomers who would respond to the tugs of the heart from nostalgic songs was realized in 1984 by Ford, which put seventeen classic rock hits into advertisements for Lincoln-Mercury. It was known as the "Big Chill Campaign," from the movie with the same boomer theme. A creative director at the agency that made the commercials said, "The music... recalls their adolescence, the most exciting time of their life and it transfers some of those good feelings to Lincoln-Mercury." MTV sparked a language of fast pace and quick cuts; not only did video directors shoot commercials, the MTV videos might well be considered commercials themselves. Volkswagen concentrated on rock in its ads so much that it sold a CD, Street Mix: Music from Volkswagen Commercials, and you could hear the music on an online radio station at its website. One job title at agencies might be "Trend Analyst," and one firm recruits 3000 people "between the ages of eight and twenty-four to investigate what is cool and trendy." CD manufacturers affix stickers to CDs saying, "As heard on the _____ commercial."  




It's easy to get cynical looking at such blatant manipulation, but manipulation is the point. Remember what Lily Tomlin said, that without advertising, people would just wander the store aisles aimlessly, unable to act. The commercials described here sometimes didn't just influence our feelings toward a product, but influenced our feelings toward the whole world (remember "I'd like to teach the world to sing"?) And best of all, The Sounds of Capitalism has a website, where you can hear the commercials referred to in the text. It is a wonderful way of pairing print and internet, and I have listened to a lot of the ads there. Now someone tell me how to get "When you say Budweiser, you've said it all" out of my head.



back to top




Follow Us:

Follow Us on Facebook

Follow Us on Twitter

Follow Us via Email