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Tu-dums and ba-da-ba-baa-baas: How the jingle got usurped by the ‘sonic logo’

With music’s powerful link to memory, advertisers would be crazy to let the jingle die – and that’s why they haven’t, they’ve just repacked it, writes Anna Moloney

In 2003, the Economist pronounced the jingle dead. Corny, dated and no longer considered effective, p-p-p-p-pick up a penguin, just one cornetto, and the crumbliest, flakiest milk chocolate were packed up in their coffins and rolled away to the underworld. The consumer had simply become too sophisticated.

“It’s depressing, isn’t it?,” Tony Satchell, then boss of Candle Music, a British commercial music company that pumped out thousands of jingles through the 80s and 90s, told the magazine. But beyond jingle composers, perhaps only a few wept.

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Jingles, after all, are an easy target for derision: a 15 second soundbite for the most rudimentary form of modern capitalism, whose writers have almost become totemic of the failed artist (think Two and a Half Men, Full House, Friends). Buy this toothpaste! Choose our insurance! Use this hoover! All packaged up in a tinkling, twinkling tra-la-la-la, that you won’t be getting out of your head for years.

And that, of course, is the point. From learning the alphabet to music therapy for dementia patients, music can conjure up images with just a few notes.

My father for one can (and often does) reel off dozens of 70s jingles pitch perfect, despite the fact many of them haven’t been aired now for going on 30 years – absolute gold from a marketing perspective. I’d like to think we were above it, but Club biscuits are a staple in the Moloney household, not only because we like a lot of chocolate on our biscuits, but we like singing that we do as we get them out the cupboard.

It’s a phenomenon that advertisers would be crazy to let die, which is why they haven’t – they’ve just repackaged it. Welcome to ‘sonic branding’.

A new era: meet the ‘sogo’

Max De Lucia, who heads up DLMDD, a creative audio branding agency based in London, tells me there’s been a “huge shift” in the way sound has crept up the agendas of brands globally, with jingles making way for the ‘sonic logo’ (sometimes referred to as the ‘sogo’). Unlike the jingles of yore, a sonic logo can be comprised from just a couple notes, often without any words. Think the Netflix tu-DUM, for example, it’s something that “defines the brand if you’ve got your eyes shut,” De Lucia says.

“People think that the jingle is dead, it’s not dead, it’s just that it’s become self aware”

And marketing executives are going in on it. In 2021 there was a 22 per cent increase in brands launching sonic identities, while a recent Ipsos study showed sonic branding cues were eight and a half times more powerful than visual logos, and even more powerful than celebrity ambassadors. Mastercard’s launch of its ‘sonic DNA’ in 2019, the same year it dropped the text from its logo in favour of just two circles, is considered the industry gold standard. ‘Sonic at checkout’ – the ditty that rings out accompanied with an orange checkmark animation when you tap a Mastercard – has been claimed by the brand to boost consumer trust by 3.4X.

So though the jingle as we knew it in the 70s may have gone, its central tenet – sound can sell – has gone nowhere. Just now, instead of big numbers sung by camp heroes and heroines, we’ve got ta-dums and doo-doos whirred out by computers.

For some, it’s a sad scene. Charlie Spencer, who composed over 3,500 jingles (including the iconic ‘here comes the Lilt man’) in his 36-year stint as creative director at Candle Music, told me the standard of advertising in terms of artistic merit had become “incredibly low”. Much of this, he said, can be attributed to the increased fragmentation of media, which has in turn cut into budgets for frills such as jingles, while licensing music has also become far easier and cheaper than commissioning original composition.

The jingle grows ashamed

But there’s also a degree of snobbery a play; a shame that shrouds the jingle. Freelance jingle writer Adam Blotner tells me those who work in sonic branding often “turn up their nose” at his campy songs for pet food and plumbing companies.

“People think that the jingle is dead, it’s not dead, it’s just that it’s become self aware,” he tells me. It’s a sentiment jingle veteran Spencer agrees with. Instead of resisting their innate “naffness”, good jingles lean in, “the sort of ‘hey guys, we don’t really mean this seriously’”. Spencer tells me this is far from a new phenomenon, however, with this becoming a popular ploy in the 90s as way to get over the embarrassment the jingle had developed through the 70s and 80s. His company Candle Music was also rebranded from a ‘jingle company’ to a ‘commercial music company’ around this time.

So, while the consumer may have become more sophisticated, so too has the advertiser. The Go Compare adverts are a good example of this more tongue-in-cheek breed of jingle while last year’s Whopper Whopper phenomenon, a jingle that Burger King developed for its ads aired during the NFL, demonstrates an even more updated form of such irony. The Burger King jingle (which goes whopper whopper whopper whopper) quickly became an internet sensation, with the track gaining over 10m listens on Spotify and memes heralding the song as a meta-commentary on the ultimate meaninglessness of sport. It’s unlikely this was the intended reading, but I suspect Burger King, which afterwards reported a surge in whopper sales, cared not. And all while the consumer felt awfully clever about it as they tapped their Mastercard at the Burger King checkout.

So is the jingle dead? It would appear not. But, as Spencer told me, “we never took it very seriously”. And I was glad to hear it. Enough with the tu-dums I say, if we must be pelted with advertisements, let them be kitsch and camp and spectacular and musical. Let’s get over ourselves, and sing along.