AUSTIN, TEXAS — Like houses and people, advertising jingles have undergone a makeover. Those catchy little tunes that promote everything from soft drinks to appliances are now called "audio logos" and "short songs."
Advertisers have become more sophisticated in their choice of music to convey mood and appeal to consumers. Tunes are still being used to sell soap and establish brand identity, but they are far subtler than the voices we used to hear (cue Barry Manilow) singing, "You deserve a break today, so get up and get away to McDonaaaaald's!"
The jingle as we know it - an often inane, repetitive melody that drills itself into your head - has been declared almost dead by Wally Williams, CEO and creative director of Tequila Mockingbird Studio in Austin.
A major factor in its decline is age - of both targeted audiences and those creating the ads. Younger people in the advertising industry regard jingles as something from their parents' - or grandparents' - generation. The consumers they're trying to reach are nearly always the younger and hipper crowd (or maybe not so young, but still hip, having grown up with rock 'n' roll).
Mr. Williams's clients still request original music - but not too original. They often want it to sound as if it were lifted from a hit music radio station. The idea is to make it blend in with popular culture, not make it stand out like a neon sign.
The reason advertisers are not all simply purchasing those radio hits - and the reason commercial composers still have jobs - is that licensing existing music is often prohibitively expensive.
Although prices have come down considerably since Bill Gates paid the Rolling Stones a record $4 million to use "Start Me Up" for the Microsoft Windows 95 launch, a recognizable rock hit in a national TV spot can cost more than $100,000, as opposed to $15,000 to $40,000 for original music.
And hit tunes can sometimes work against the advertiser's objective.
For example, advertisers don't necessarily want their products to be considered hip and cool if they're targeting retirees, selling insurance, or trying to create a touching moment, says Gabriel Mann, a musician in Los Angeles who produced the music for Cool Whip's "Cool Jerk" commercials. "Often a song is not appropriate - especially a known song."
Music is still integral in those cases, but it's used as more subtle underscoring, just as it is in feature films. The reason we think all car ads use rock songs, says Bill Bodine, a commercial composer in Los Angeles, is that underscoring is supportive, not obtrusive, so it doesn't lodge in our thought the way a conventional melody does.
But a recognizable song can be extremely valuable - that is why they cost so much to get, says Mr. Mann. He points out that the Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" has become so identified with Chevy trucks that one can't hear the song anymore without envisioning a pickup. The company's investment in an already-known song, in Chevrolet's case, was worth every dime.
Plenty of compositions are still being written to have the same effect as a jingle, but with a far more contemporary-sound. Williams calls them "short songs." Rick Witkowski, owner of Studio L in Weirton, W.Va., likes to call them "audio logos," and says they serve the same identifying function as a visual logo or sign.
Commercial music writers are often as good as those writing pop songs, but they're not as well known, says Mr. Bodine. "They are writing for a living, they're able to write on demand, on short notice, in different styles, and with different expressions of emotions," he says.
Though an already-popular tune can instantly tell consumers what age or ethnic group an advertiser is trying to reach, most people involved with producing commercial music prefer customized sounds - and not just because it provides income for composers (though Mr. Witkowski says creating music even for local ads is far more lucrative than his other studio work, which includes producing albums).
Says Williams, "Just taking an existing piece of music and putting it on your spot, if there's not a concept there, an idea, then it's just borrowing interest, and it doesn't say much for your company in terms of originality."
Mr. Bodine says slapping a piece of popular music onto visual images isn't a good idea because it can't enhance a product the way an original score can.
"On its best day, it's a mismatch," he says. "The guy who wrote that pop song had a different 'movie' playing in his head than you running down the street in Nikes ... I can guarantee you that."
Another reason jingles became unpopular, according to Mike Connell of the Small Army ad agency in Boston, is that they were often "gratuitous add-ons," an attempt to create a memorable hook because the ad designer hadn't come up with a more creative way to make an imprint on the viewer.
"The most powerful tool to manipulate emotion in your storytelling is the music," says Mr. Connell. "The most powerful way to use music in the spot is for the music to be invisible."