Where's the beef?

When it comes to advertising jingles, the beef is in their ability to stick in your mind

Greg Haymes, Albany Times Union

April 7, 2004

Last month, Warren Pfaff died at the age of 74, and his death might also signal the demise of one of the great American art forms.

Pfaff was a former minor-league baseball player. He was also a summer-stock actor and a Navy lieutenant in the Korean War.

But his real claim to fame -- his ultimate legacy -- is that he was the lyricist who penned those immortal words, "You deserve a break today, so get up and get away to McDonald's."

Ah, the power of the humble advertising jingle.

Jingles -- those irresistibly catchy little ditties that form the musical foundation of radio and television commercials -- have been selling us candy bars, automobiles, cleaning detergents and all other manner of goods and services since, well, since radio and television first hit the airwaves.

A good commercial jingle becomes a kind of soundtrack for your life, just like the ever-evolving hit records on the top 10 pop charts. It sticks in your head for years.

James J. Kellaris, a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, coined the term "earworms" for those melodies that burrow into your head and won't leave. According to Kellaris, the key characteristics of earworms are that they're "simple, repetitive, catchy and have enjoyed high exposure levels over a period of many years."

That describes a number of pop hit records, but it's also a fair definition of a jingle.

Earworm warning: If you find yourself susceptible to earworms, do not read any further. We will not be held responsible for whatever insidious, sanity-threatening melody gets lodged in your head if you continue reading.

Who can forget these others:

- "You'll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent."

- "N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle's makes the very best chocolate."

- "Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat."

What makes a good jingle?

"The purpose of a jingle is to capture the viewers' attention and keep it for 60 seconds," says Ray Rettig, president and chief engineer of the Cotton Hill Studios in Albany, N.Y. "It has to be very precisely composed, and it also has to portray the proper image of the client."

According to Steve Karmen, "It's a memorable melody married to that perfect phrase -- the lyric that rolls off your tongue without any effort, the tune that you whistle as you walk down the street."

A veteran jingle writer and author, Karmen has created some of the most memorable jingles in broadcast history, including "Weekends Were Made for Michelob," "You Can Take Salem Out of the Country, But . . .," "This Bud's for You" and "I Love New York."

Karmen continues, "It's the job of the jingle to provide an arresting sound that will grab immediate attention and hold the audience -- at least until the next commercial."

But where have all the jingles gone?

Turn on the television, and it seems as though the music for 90 percent of the commercials features old rock 'n' roll songs rather than custom-written jingles:

- David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel" rakes it in for Audi.

- Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" is, however incongruously, the soundtrack for a Cadillac campaign.

- Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" pumps it out for Tropicana orange juice.

- J.C. Penny's pitches its spring fashion line with Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy."

Of course, it's not exactly a new trend.

Elmer Bernstein's "Theme From the Magnificent Seven," originally penned as a movie theme, was licensed to Marlboro cigarettes for its commercials for years. And Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" has been pitching for Chevy trucks for 14 years and counting.

But now music licensing has reached such proportions that it has all but killed off the jingle business.

"The national trend certainly does seem to be music licensing, and we've felt that here on a local level as well. We definitely didn't do as many jingles last year as we did the year the before," admits Rettig, citing a 30 percent to 40 percent drop-off.

Woodstock jingle writer and musician Kevin Bartlett echoes Rettig, saying, "I think that the economy has scared everybody during the past couple of years. . . . There sure used to be a lot of jingle work around the Capital Region. Every studio was doing them every day, but now there's not much custom stuff going on."

Victim of cutbacks

"Advertising is one of the first places that businesses look to cut back, financially," Rettig says. "And if they are going to do advertising on radio or television, they're looking to keep those costs down as much as possible too."

A number of variables affect the cost of creating a jingle: whether it airs locally or nationally; whether the client owns the copyright or licenses it; how long a license lasts; and the number of musicians and singers who are required in the studio.

For a local jingle package licensed for a two-year term and recorded with just a couple of musicians, Rettig estimates starting costs begin at $3,500. A newly composed jingle usually would cost more.

On the other hand, it's not always cheaper to use a piece of pre-existing, "needle-drop music." Only the folks at General Motors and Led Zeppelin know how much the car company paid to license the 1971 anthem "Rock and Roll" for the Cadillac campaign. Estimates range from the high six figures to several million dollars. Even Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant called it a "ridiculous" amount of money.

Licensing costs are based on usage. Bartlett recalls a Merrill Lynch spot he worked on a few years ago. "We wanted to license `Uptown Girl' by Billy Joel, but apparently, at that time, nobody had used it yet. They wanted $150,000 so that we could do a cover of it," he says.

Instead, they replaced it with a Mary Wells tune that had already been used quite a bit in advertising. Says Bartlett, "That cost about $100."

If the Joel song had been previously licensed, its value would have dropped, and the price would have come down. However, if a piece of music is overused by a number of different clients -- the Romantics' "What I Like About You" is currently heard on commercials for both Toyota and TGI Friday's, for example -- its power of brand identification is diluted.

Getting added value

Of course, by incorporating a familiar bit of pop music into their advertisement, the client also banks on the added value of instant recognition with listeners -- whether it's Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" advertising a carefree Carnival Cruise or the late Roy Orbison crooning "You Got It" for Target.

With a background in progressive rock and electronic music, Bartlett never thought that he'd do commercials.

"Initially, I swore that I'd never do a jingle," Bartlett says. "I thought that the whole jingle process was pretty cheesy, especially in the local markets, where they don't give you a lot of room, and they're worried about being too edgy. As a composer and musician, you're handcuffed.

"But I did a couple starting in 1982, and they won awards. More jingles started coming my way, and they were paying the bills. So, I suddenly found myself doing jingles."

And he got very good at it.

While some musicians still consider jingles to be second-rate music, Bartlett disagrees. Much of what he learned making jingles he was able to apply to his new electronic music CD, "Near-Life Experience," recently released on his Aural Gratification label.

"Doing jingles, I got to work with a lot of great singers," he says. "And there was definitely an educational aspect to it as well for me. I learned a lot about harmony and phrasing. Basically, I learned how to compose while I was working for other people.

- - -

M'm, m'm, memorable

Here, according to Advertising Age, are the top 10 jingles of the 20th Century:

1. "You deserve a break today" (McDonald's)

2. "Be all that you can be" (U.S. Army)

3. "Pepsi-Cola hits the spot"

4. "M'm, m'm, good" (Campbell's Soup)

5. "See the USA in your Chevrolet" (General Motors)

6. "I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner"

7. "Double your pleasure, double your fun" (Wrigley's Doublemint Gum)

8. "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should"

9. "It's the real thing" (Coca-Cola)

10. "Brylcreem -- a little dab'll do ya"


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