Jingles PIc.png

This episode was written & produced by James Introcaso.

Odds are if we asked you sing your favorite advertising jingle from when you were a kid, you’d be able to recall every single lyric. Yet we don’t hear many advertising jingles these days. Why is that? This is the story of the rise, fall, and brain science of the jingle. In this episode we talk to UCLA’s Timothy D. Taylor, author of The Sounds of Capitalism, and Durham University’s Kelly Jakubowski.


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Twenty Thousand Hertz is hosted by Dallas Taylor and produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[SFX: start Kars4Kids commercial]

You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor.

[SFX: start Kars4Kids commercial continued]

I bet if you ask any adult what their favorite, or most hated advertising jingle is, they can give you an immediate response and.. probably... sing every word.

[SFX: start Kars4Kids commercial continued]

Jingles are part of our culture. They’ve sold everything from toys...

[SFX Music - My Buddy]

… to cleaning products.

[SFX: Music - Mr. Clean]

Jingles have been used in PSAs.

[SFX: Music - Don’t Cross the Street]

And they get made fun of by comedians.

[SFX: - Hot Pocket stand up clip]

[music in]

Our parents and grandparents may have been the first generation to hear modern jingles, but jingles go back all the way to the middle ages.

Tim: Music and lyrics have been used to sell something forever.

That’s Dr. Timothy D. Taylor. Dr. Taylor is an author and professor in UCLA’s ethnomusicology and musicology departments.

[music out]

Tim: There's a case of a medieval song writing in a jingle from a street vendor's cries. Street vendor was selling strawberries and raspberries…

[SFX: Music - On parole / A Paris / Frese nouvele]

What we think of as modern advertising jingles started around the 1920s. This was all because of the rising popularity of a brand new device called the radio. But, back then Advertisers were super skeptical that radio ads would even work. Because in those days, most advertisements were print advertisements.

Tim: At first, people didn't want to impose a lot of hard sell messages on the radio. Partly because of this print model, because they understood that, if you didn't like an ad in a newspaper or magazine, you could just turn the page. With radio, it's more like somebody coming to the door.

Broadcasters really wanted to avoid being too intrusive with advertising, but they also soon realized that they have bills to pay. So, in the early 20’s a few jingles started creeping onto the airwaves, but most of them were for local businesses. The first big-time jingle that aired nationally came in 1926… for Wheaties.

[SFX: Music - Wheaties]

Tim: Sort of a lugubrious barbershop quartet version of a chorus from a jazz song from 1919,sang the virtues of Wheaties. It didn't ignite a craze for jingles, either among advertising agency people or the public.

[SFX: Music - Wheaties continued]

While, it was the first nationally heard jingle, that Wheaties song doesn’t have the upbeat, catchy tune we expect from our commercial jingles. That was pioneered by Alan Bradley Kent and Austen Herbert Croom-Johnson in 1939, when they wrote this song for Pepsi.

[SFX: Music - Pepsi Cola]

Tim: They took this English folk song, they jazzed it up and wrote Pepsi lyrics, and they just walked into the office of the president of Pepsi, Walter Mack, they had a portable phonograph, and they played this song that they'd written that extolled the virtues of Pepsi, but also the price of Pepsi, because it was half the price of Coca-Cola. And that was 1939 during the Depression, so if you could buy the same amount of Pepsi for half the price of Coca-Cola that was a pretty good selling point.

And Walter Mack bought it on the spot.

Walter Mack probably didn’t know it then, but his decision would change the advertising industry forever.

Tim: In this era, you could not lease radio air time in increments less than five minutes.

If you have a jingle that's 60 seconds, what are you going to do with those four minutes? So, Walter Mack found a station that was down on its luck, and he made them an offer just to lease one minute of air time, so they could air the jingle, and they did. That really was the beginning of the short form commercial, which we're now inundated with, the 60-second or 30-second commercial.

Pepsi’s jingle exploded onto the radio with it’s bouncy melody and was played for years. The only reason it was pulled from the air was because eventually the company had to raise the price of their soft drink. But, that jingle started a craze. Suddenly jingles started advertising everything!

[Music - Brylcream]

[Music - Chiquita Banana]

[Music - See the USA in Chevrolet]

[Music - Pepsodent]

This new craze for jingles started a whole advertising music industry. Jingle houses, specializing in writing and producing commercial jingles, began to spring up all over the country and hired musicians to meet the demand.

[music in]

Tim: These musicians were trained composers. They would have to demo a jingle for their clients, the ad agency clients, and usually, some sort of brand manager, president in the room too. They show up and play the piano, which would be there in the room at the ad agency and sing the jingle, and try to sell it that way.

Back then being a jingle writer wasn’t very glamorous.

Tim: Most people didn't set out to be jingle composers. A lot of them wanted to be film music composers, or later television music composers. It wasn’t seen as prestigious and you didn't get paid very well.

However, composers did find a creative way to make their job a bit more lucrative.

Tim: A lot of composers would actually sing on their own commercials, because then they got paid through the actors' unions instead of the musicians' union, which paid much less well.

[music out]

But not just anyone could be a jingle singer.

Tim: Jingle singers could walk into a studio and sight sing without having seen it before they also had to have the incredible diction, so that these crafted lyrics that sang the virtues of the product would be clear

[SFX: Music - Valley of the Jolly Green Giant]

Some singers became famous for their diction, Linda November, who was really the queen of jingle singers, in the 60s and 70s, and into the 80s. She could walk in and sight sing anything.

[SFX: Music - Meow Mix]

And Tim really means anything. All these meows were all Linda.

[SFX: Music - Coke and a Smile]

...and here she is telling Mean Joe Greene to have a Coke and a smile during a 1979 Superbowl commercial.

[SFX: Music - Coke and a Smile continued]

Advertising music was now officially commanding big dollars. Because of this, it began to attract bigger and bigger talent to write and perform jingles. In 1964 even the Rolling Stones sold their soul to Rice Krispies for the big money of advertising.

[SFX: Music - Rice Krispies]

Another famous jingle back in the day was written by Randy Newman and Barry Manilow for Dr. Pepper.

[SFX: Music - Dr. Pepper]

In fact, no celebrity has more all-time jingle hits than Barry Manilow [SFX: Coco Cabana song]. Most famous people who worked on jingles try to keep their involvement as quiet as possible, but Manilow plays his on stage as part of what he calls his VSM.

[Music - VSM Barry Manilow at :12 “VSM stands for our very strange medley. And for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, is a medley of songs that you probably know, but you probably don’t know that I had something to do with it.”]

[SFX: “Get a bucket of chicken, fingering-licking good…”]

[SFX: “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”]

[SFX: “Give your face something to smile about with Stridex. Doo doo doo.”]

[SFX: “I am stuck on the bandaid and bandaid’s stuck on me.”]

In the late 60’s jingles were becoming pretty popular. But, up until that point, they were still really practical and utilitarian. No one in ad music were really talking about their emotions or feelings. But, all that changed with this 1971 commercial for Coca Cola.

[SFX: Music - Hilltop Coke Ad]

This is one of the most famous commercials in the world. It features a diverse group of young people all singing together in a sun-kissed field, and, of course, they’re all holding bottles of Coke. It celebrated our common bond as humans… and…

[SFX: music sudden stop]

um… you know… spend your money on Coca Cola obviously.

Tim: Pepsi and Coke were in long running battles. Pepsi's strategy was to say, if you're cool, you'll drink Pepsi.

[SFX: Music - Pepsi “You’ve got a lot to live and Pepsi’s got a lot to give.”]

Pepsi and Cokes jingle war was so popular that it lit a fire for jingles in the advertising industry.

Tim: Things took off with respect to using emotion to sell throughout the 80s. A lot of them really attempted to speak directly to consumers, using the second person.

[SFX: Music - Reach Out and Touch Someone]

[SFX: Music - The Jordache Look.]

[SFX: Music - Be All that You Can Be ARMY]

The jingle war between two soft drink companies led to other jingle wars between toys, board games, and even chewing gum. The 80’s and 90’s were an absolute gold mine for over the top jingles trying to one up each other.

[SFX: Music - Crossfire]

[SFX: Music - Mouse Trap]

[SFX: Music - Connect Four]

[SFX: Music - Discovery Zone]

[SFX: Music - Dragon Flyz]

[SFX: Music - Perfection]

[SFX: Music - Juicy Fruit]

You get the idea. Jingles were everywhere. Until they weren’t.

[music in]

Starting in the late 90’s, jingles began disappearing from the airwaves. They were being replaced by popular music tracks. Ad executives now believed in the power of music. They also had plenty of money to throw around, which meant that pop songs were in and old-fashioned jingles were out.

Tim: The jingle fairly quickly fell into disuse. When baby boomers started to get into positions of power in the advertising industry, they just started to think all these jingles are really trite. They didn't have a problem of trying to use their own music from their youth in commercials. Sometimes it was expensive, but it didn't bother them. They wanted to try to do something more sophisticated or what they thought was more sophisticated.

[music out]

In a way, it strikes me as odd that licensing, the use of a popular song to use in a commercial, or a TV show, or a film, that that has become so dominant, because wouldn't it be better to have music composed especially for your commercial, or your TV show, or your film?

Even though there are way less jingles now then there were twenty years ago, it doesn’t mean the medium is totally extinct. We still hear some national jingles on air, but they’re usually just rehashes of the past jingles.

[SFX: Music - Empire Carpet]

...and sorry to burst your bubble, but that Empire Carpet ad is not a local ad. It plays everywhere. You just think it only plays in your town.

[music in]

Anyway, since jingles aren’t completely dead are they ever going to make a comeback?

Tim: I'm not in the business of predicting the future, so I don't know. It does seem reasonable that as they say a custom song made just for you is a pretty good ideal, so maybe it will come back.

It does seem reasonable that jingles would have a comeback, especially because so many effectively got stuck in our heads. But why are jingles so catchy in the first place? We’ll find out after this.

[music out]



No! (deep breath)

Odds are after listening to this episode, you’ll have at least one of these jingles stuck in your head for days, or weeks, or months. Sorry about that.

So, what’s happening in our brain? For that, here’s Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist at Durham University. Among other things, she studies earworms.

Kelly: An earworm is a piece of music that comes to mind spontaneously. We don't make any sort of effort to recall music, it just pops into our mind [SFX: music loop], and plays incessantly on a loop. We can get earworms for just a few minutes, but some people might get a song stuck in their head for hours or even a day on end, for instance.

One large survey found that around 90% of people experience earworms at least once a week, and around a third of people experience them at least once per day.

Creating a jingle that can get stuck in someone’s head is a great way to make sure your brand sticks with them.

Kelly: So when we've recently heard a piece of music that can sort of activate it in our minds, and it can play back spontaneously over and over.

From the 50s well into the 90s, jingles were being played on every radio and television. If you were alive then, you heard the same songs over and over again, making it easier for them to recall spontaneously.

Kelly: Even songs that we haven't heard in years can be activated by a lot of different cues. For instance, like if you see a person that reminds you of a song. When Michael Jackson died we had quite a lot of people reporting Michael Jackson earworms, which were sometimes related to them listening back to the songs, but sometimes it was just them thinking about the news story, thinking about memories of Michael Jackson or going to concerts.

Another trigger than can cue an earworm is seeing or hearing some of the words in a song. For instance, when I say, “The best part of waking up,” you think of this:

[SFX: Music - Folgers]

And if I were to simply say, “Gimme a break,”

[SFX: Music - Kit Kat]

Most of us hear a lot of songs each day and we can’t recall each one at the drop of a hat. Earworms have some common qualities that make them easy for our brains to remember.

Kelly: In addition to being upbeat songs, we also found that earworm melodies tended comprise generic melodic contours. By the melodic contour I mean, the ups and downs in pitches in the melody. So they tended to be simple melodies in terms of the way the pitch goes up and down, which probably makes them fairly easy to remember spontaneously. You don't want to have a sort of overall too complex melody that is really hard for someone to remember [SFX: complex piano melody].

This description also fits commercial jingles. Most have melodies simple enough that kids can sing them without any trouble.

[SFX: Music - Oscar Mayer Bologna]

When it comes to earworms, jingles might even be catchier than pop songs.

Kelly: Pop songs can kind of unfold over two or three minutes, or even longer. Whereas, jingles really have to cut to your attention in a few seconds. That can also probably add to the ear-wormy nature of them.

Jingles can be very short. Many don’t even take up the entirety of a 30-second commercial.

[SFX: Music - Klondike Bar]

When a song is upbeat, simple, and quick, it’s almost guaranteed to get stuck in our heads, even if it’s annoying. In fact some of the same qualities that make earworms also have the potential to drive us mad.

[music in]

Kelly: A song might have these earworm qualities, the upbeatness or the easy to sing along melodies, and it can still be something that we don't like. And I think part of that might be the melody is too simple to us. It has to meet that sweet spot. If it's too simple or generic song it gets irritating more easily.

[music out]

The balance of complexity is important to a jingle and a jingle’s target audience. For example, this old Toys R’ Us jingle is great for kids, but most adults want to rip their ears off.

[SFX: Music - Toys R’ Us Kid]

...and here’s an example of a slightly more complex jingle that’s designed to appeal to adults.

[SFX: Music - Chili’s Baby Back Ribs]

Interestingly, the same techniques that are used to teach children about the the alphabet are also used to sell detergent…

[SFX: Music - Sesame Street Alphabet]

[SFX: Music - All Detergent]

This could also explain why so many kids toy commercials used jingles. Kids were already used to learning through song, so it was a good way to market to them.

[SFX: Music - Skip It]

Earworms aren’t just an American thing.

Kelly: One of the top songs that we had reported in that study was this Australian commercial that was made for the Metro Trains company in Melbourne, Australia, and it's called Dumb Ways To Die. It's basically teaching people about public safety on trains, but it's a really catchy, catchy little song and it has a little video to go along with it on Youtube.

[SFX: Music - Dumb Ways to Die]

[music in]

Earworms are powerful. As we get older, we can have trouble remembering important dates and details, but can often remember every single word to a jingle from our childhood.

Kelly: The way that we remember music. as an earworm, it's an involuntary retrieval process. The way that we retrieve the memory is different to when we're deliberately recalling information, like a fact, or someone's birthday.

We know that actually these involuntary retrieval processes tend to be sort of preserved longer as we age than deliberate retrieval processes, which can actually deteriorate as people get older. Their frontal lobes in their brain, and these areas that are implicated in deliberate retrieval can start to wear out.

[music out]

You now certainly have a few earworms stuck in your brain just by listening to this episode. So is there anything you can do to get these voices out of your head?

Kelly: One of the things that people can find annoying about the earworm is that you get this loop over and over, and you don't get the full song.

[SFX: Music - Kars 4 Kids, just the 1-8-7-7 Kars for Kids, K-A-R-S Kars 4 loop]

One of the most effective strategies was to actually engage with the earworm song itself. To look up a recording of the song and listen to the whole song all the way through to sort of get rid of the loop. Some people found that if they find out something about the song or get some sort of closure, that can sort of help them to get rid of the experience.

The other thing that people tend to do, is they tend to distract themselves with some sort of other auditory material, so that could be just thinking of a different song that they like better, playing some different music, listening to talk radio, and so on. So trying to engage their auditory cortex in a different way basically because you can't really have a song stuck in your head when you're listening to something else, or thinking of some sort of other song.

[music in]

Jingles seem so simple, but they’re tapping into the deepest parts of our psyche. Of course, some are super annoying, but others truly represent a product in a way that visuals just can’t. ...and I, for one, miss them. I think they need to make a comeback! So, to all you ad execs listening right now, it’s up to you to lead that charge.

[music out]

[music in]


Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. Go check out defactosound dot com. This episode was written and produced by James Introcaso… and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger.

Thanks to our guest, Dr. Timothy D. Taylor. You can check out Tim’s book, The Sounds of Capitalism, about the history of music in the advertising industry at thesoundsofcapitalism.com. Tim also has lots of other books about music that you can find at timothydtaylor.com.

Thanks also to Kelly Jakubowski. Kelly is a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at Durham University in the Department of Music. You can find out more about Kelly’s work at dur.ac.uk/music.

The music in this episode is from our friends at Musicbed. Musicbed is a full-service licensing company that makes better music accessible to everyone. To listen to the music we use, visit music.20k.org.

You can engage with me and the rest of the 20 kay team through our website, facebook, twitter or by writing hi at 20 kay dot org. Finally, if you’d like to help us financially, I’d be extremely grateful. This show costs a lot of money to make and if you’d like to hear the show for years to come, consider setting up a recurring monthly donation at 20k.org/donate.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

When we sat down to make this show, we had a giant comprehensive list of jingles we had to share. This list got so long that even in this packed episode, we weren’t able to bring you all our favorites. So in the spirit of Barry Manilow, we bring you our own very strange medley.

[SFX: Music - Double Mint Gum]

[SFX: Music - Goldfish]

[SFX: Music - Free Credit Report.com]

[SFX: Music - Mentos]

[SFX: Music - JG Wentworth]

[SFX: Music - Mounds and Almond Joy]

[SFX: Music - Lite Brite]

[SFX: Music - Huggies]

[SFX: Music - Fanta]

[SFX: Music - Glade Plug ins]

[SFX: Music - Alka Seltzer]

[SFX: Music - Lifesavers]

[SFX: Music - Nestle]

[SFX: Music - Mattress Giant]

[SFX: Music - Zest]

[SFX: Kars4Kids]

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