jingle knells

Ad jingles and copywriters.

jingle knells
Hastings. Photo by Kai Bossom on Unsplash.

Today's topic: Part I: what happened to ad jingles? Part II: we hear from an ad copywriter (10-minute read)

part I

What do people miss about the past?

Children playing in the street? Unlocked doors? A nightingale's song? Social democracy? Lard?

What about advertising jingles? What happened to them? We haven't heard many since the great jingle revival of the late 2000s ("0800 00 1066", Autoglass, GoCompare). And that revival was fleeting, a post-death spasm that gave the appearance of renewed life.

There are loads of reasons for this. A big one: we now primarily consume adverts on the internet rather than on TV.

solitude and social justice

When we consume adverts online, that consumption becomes a solitary experience. Offline adverts always contained an element of shared experience. You either consumed the offline advert next to somebody else (watching TV together, walking past a billboard together), or you consumed the offline advert alone, but with the confidence that other people you knew were having the same experience ("did you see that advert on TV / in the paper yesterday?").

For the most part, neither of these share-y things are true when it comes to online adverts. The adverts on your phone or computer are for your eyes only.

Social networks try and simulate a shared ad consumption experience. They put comments sections underneath adverts. They allow you to share adverts among your network. But these are ersatz solutions: the consumer has to do the work to create a shared advertising experience amongst their network.

This goes some way to explaining the death of the jingle. Advertisers want the user to feel compelled to share the advert among their social network. People need to be inspired into that sharing activity. Hearing the Hastings 1066 jingle does not inspire a consumer into spreading the good news of Hastings's low, low prices. It's a lame thing to share!

How might an advertiser inspire us into sharing an advert among our networks? Well, at root, this a question about rhetoric. It's not surprising then that advertisers adopt the rhetorical techniques of politicians, who face the same dilemma re. inspiration. And so advertisers call us to action by placing their advert in a debate about justice and injustice. And before you know it, Autoglass is talking about its commitment to fix the cracks within our society, and investors are getting annoyed at Unilever for talking about the purpose and values of Hellmann's mayonnaise. Don't be cross with Unilever/Hellmann's, they've got to do this stuff!


Photo by K8 on Unsplash. Purposeful mayonnaise.

"senator, we run ads" [1]

The mega online platforms make money by a single innovation: they have combined the solitary nature of the online ad experience with the data that they collect about us - who we are and what we enjoy. When you know a lot about a user, and you are confident that this user will be using your platform alone, then you can tailor the adverts the user sees, and only show them stuff that you think they might like.

Before the internet, companies/advertisers were shouting at crowds of people. Now, they take you aside and whisper in your ear: "Hey, I know you. You're a man in his mid-40s that spends longer than most people watching cycling videos. Why don't you watch this Peloton advert?"

I suspect that advertising jingles aren't suited to this style of advertising. A jingle is pretty inoffensive. It's designed for the mass of people at whom advertisers were previously shouting; you throw it into the crowd and hope that it lodges itself in someone's brain, and then you wait for the passive sharing effects of old-world advertising to spread it around until it reaches your target market.

Facebook: connecting the world but killing the nation?

Roland Barthes, the French critic, wrote a number of essays in which he interpreted adverts. These essays were collected in his 1957 work, Mythologies.

There is a central insight throughout these essays: that the power of an advert lies in the way it uses the signs/symbols contained within it (say, an image of a mother using detergent to clean a child's Sunday best) to project meaning (the people that use this soap are godly and correspond to an idealised Christian motherhood), and that cultural norms are both reflected and strengthened through this projection of meaning.

The more the advert is shown, the more that women have a sense of what an ideal mother should be.

This, like all good ideas, now seems kind of obvious. Nevertheless, it's useful to think about this in the context of social media.

Before targeted adverts, we all saw pretty similar adverts. When people in Britain learned about parenthood, the nation, work, relationships, and windscreen repair, there was a common body of source material: advertising campaigns that were broadcast nationally. This shared body of references must, in some way, have contributed to a national mass culture.

Since adverts became targeted, the adverts that we consume in common with others are no longer defined by national or local boundaries, but by other things: a particular combination of our age, hobbies, gender, sexual preferences etc..

We acquire a basket of cultural references and norms from this bespoke package of adverts. There's a kind of potential energy in these references. We connect with one another when we find that we share a reference (think of in-jokes). The trouble is that this potential energy is never realised. Our basket of references looks different to everybody else's, and it's harder to find people that might share some of our references.

Adverts must, then, play less of a role in our relationships with others. Where adverts may have contributed to some sense of national or local community, now they don't. Not really. This is probably good: adverts designed to appeal to the majority often exclude the minority. Targeted ads can make everyone feel represented. And if our national community was held together by the ideas of the advertising industry, then the nation was probably doomed anyway.

Part II: ad man

What's it like to work in advertising in this brave new world? - where advertising people have fearsome new powers: knowledge about each consumer, and the ability to tailor adverts according to that knowledge.

I interviewed a copywriter before Christmas, so I'll let him take over.

the ad process

The account and strategy team will prepare a brief. And we're then given that brief, we then argue with the brief (often), and try and change it sometimes if the thinking is not sound, or if some of the strategy feels flawed, then we'll challenge it.
It [the brief] is incredibly fleshed out...And then they'll create what's called a single-minded proposition, a brand proposition, which could be for example, "try something unexpected today" or something - that's rubbish.
But the famous one I love is "Tango: lager for kids."...
I love "lager for kids", because that's what led to the happy slap Tango ad. And you really see then how that is lager for kids, right? All the executions they did off the back of that afterwards... They dropped a giant Apple from a crane or something. It's really weird and fun. That's when you know you have really good creative work, when you've got a unique proposition, that couldn't really be used for another brand, executed in a fun, exciting and unexpected way."

Once the proposition is done, it's down to the copywriters and art-directors to come up with ideas for the campaign.

...You don't know when you're gonna have a great idea. It could be in the brief, where you're fresh to it. Or it could be like, "fuck, I'm stressing. I've got nothing to show. I don't like any of this work." And boom. It's such an inexact science.

data and the brief

A lot of work is done to produce data. And a lot of work is done to make data look useful when it's not. I can't remember who said this: "it's much harder to make something difficult sound simple than it is to make something simple sound difficult". What's happening a lot of the time is that simple things are being said in very difficult ways through jargon and data. The outcome of it is: "people are on their phones more." I could have told you that. Look [gestures around the room]. Just look around. We're too busy looking down to look up.
Bill Bernbach, one of the great ad men, said, "humans have been evolving for 100,000 years, they're not going to change now": we still want the same things, we want to be happy, successful, loved. We still aspire to be better. We want to chill out and be in our pyjamas and not speak to anyone. We've always wanted the same things. And I think a lot of modern ways of collecting data and using data is just so we can not think about that, and not think that it's so simple, because it would put a lot of people out of a job. There's a lot of pointless jobs out there now.
In the modern world of advertising, data is tearing creativity apart. Because you can't test the value of a great new idea [against historic data]. It doesn't exist yet. You can look at similar case studies maybe, but you can't you can't test [it].

The data puts another hurdle in front of the creative team. If they have a good idea, the strategy team and the client will only give it the thumbs up if it accords with the strategy team's previously-collected data.

Also: you can't just have one idea anymore. If you're running a number of different adverts in a number of different media, then you need loads of ideas. For example, you've got to have different copy to appeal to different demographics.

And as a copywriter, to have to work in an Excel spreadsheet is a nightmare. Testing this message, that message that message. This audience, that audience, that audience. [All] leaning on different things, and all different aspects of the product. One might lean on the fact that it's new product news, one might lean on the fact that it's a new in the category, one might lean on the fact that is a new format of [say] food. We had this recently, and I challenged it, and I said, "what if the most effective way of advertising this product is none of these things? Isn't this our job? To recommend? What are they paying us for? Because surely their marketing team can do this?" Not in a rude way.
... You've got nothing to hide behind if there's one idea. All the great ad campaigns, you can see the strategy. You can see the thinking. You can see the genius of a copywriter, the genius of the art director, or whoever and whatever has made that ad great. You can see it's not come from testing. Maybe there are great pieces of work that a fucking robot made or whatever. But I'm yet to see [it]...
A great insight can come from anywhere. It could be a human insight, it could be cultural insight... and yeah, maybe that does come from research; great planners and great account managers and strategists will do just that: they'll know how to find that kernel of brilliance.
There's one really famous ad for Rolls Royce. And the headline was, "at 60 miles an hour, the only thing you'll hear in the new Rolls Royce is the clock." Right? It tingles. I still get tingles from it now. That didn't come from data, that came from going to the factory and speaking to someone who makes the car. That's human beings. That's the people who are involved in doing this, who live and breathe the brand. And that is just a beautiful insight that makes a wonderful headline. It writes itself, it's lovely.
Data gives people a licence to not be creative. And I think it's ruining the industry. And maybe there'll be a change, but I think it's a real race to the bottom now for a lot of agencies, where they're just pitching on price rather than creative work...
If you're a CMO [Chief Marketing Officer] of a big business and you're not too fussed about the long term success of your brand, you can go cheaper and get the same stuff and keep plugging away and getting your 10% year on year or whatever you need in order to hit your hit your numbers. I've read recently, the average lifespan of a FTSE100 company is 18 years. I was shocked by that. So short...It's all up for grabs...If you really want to invest in the long term success of your brand, it's about understanding where your place is in the world, knowing where you want to play, and playing it well.

Alfred Mainzer (no dates). Times Square, ca. 1980. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.33.149


Three thoughts:

First: In some ways these technological changes have made working in advertising easier. You don't have to commit to a single killer idea that taps into some universal human trait. You can try several ideas and tinker as you go along.

Also: advertising is about persuasion. And persuasion is often about empathy. It's easier to be empathetic when you have huge amounts of data about the nature of your audience.

Second: In other ways the job is harder: there are more agencies producing more content for less money. Quality (and salary) invariably declines. Also: working in an excel spreadsheet isn't very Don Draper. Those looking to make a lot of money on the back of not much work should look somewhere else other than advertising. It ain't what it used to be!

Third: After talking to this copywriter, I read this 1947 letter by Bill Bernbach, the great ad man mentioned by my interviewee. There was a great deal of similarity between my interviewee's thoughts about data and the scientification of advertising and Bill Bernbach's thoughts about the rise of the advertising technician:

"There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this sort or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art."

That's all from me. Have an excellent week, dear readers.


Contact me: charlie@re-working.co.uk

If you've enjoyed this newsletter, please forward it on.

And if you aren't yet subscribed, please subscribe to receive the weekly newsletter. Thanks!

  1. Zuckerberg in those 2018 Senate hearings. ↩︎