Britain's ice cream vans 'Spice' up their tunes

Hits by Spice Girls, Vanilla Ice to replace those familiar jingles

A loudspeaker aboard the open-sided ice cream van parked at the gates of London's Richmond Park blares out "Yankee Doodle Dandy" played on chimes. But if planned changes go ahead, it could be the strains of "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls, that bring neighborhood children running.

The sooner the better, as far as one vendor is concerned.

Despite the hot July sunshine, he is staring at rows of empty cones and full bins of raspberry ripple, chocolate chip special, and other child-oriented delicacies. "Not much happening," he mutters, picking up a copy of yesterday's newspaper.

There are some 6,000 ice-cream vans prowling the streets of England, but business is not as brisk as it used to be, and some salesmen are blaming the music. David Cowen, another London ice-cream vendor, notes that the tunes he plays are out of whack with present-day TV and newspaper advertising for ice-cream.

"The ads are sophisticated and inventive," he says. "Playing all those jingles is just embarrassing."

Britain's biggest ice-cream manufacturer, Birds Eye Wall's, apparently agrees. While the company says overall sales remain steady, ice cream vans appear to have lost their touch with the younger crowd. So a spokesman says the company, which has 75 percent of the market, plans on "bringing ourselves up-to-date by playing music kids will recognize and respond to."

The idea is to replace traditional standards such as "O Sole Mio," and the occasional military march with more modern tunes like "Ice, Ice Baby," by Vanilla Ice, and "Wonderwall" by Oasis.

A spokesman for the Ice-cream Alliance, which represents 750 van driver members, says new tunes would "reflect the market's changing image."

Despite their indifferent climate, the British adore ice-cream, consuming an average of about nine quarts of ice cream per person annually. Of course, their infatuation isn't unique. Italians devour their gelati. The French routinely add frosty fruit sorbets to their menus in the summer months. Even in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, everyone likes to lick a cornetto.

Americans, however, are the world's biggest consumers of frozen dairy products, putting away 23 quarts per person annually. The US ice cream industry produces enough each year to fill the Grand Canyon.

But as with much else, the English have their own special approach. They, after all, are the people who like to have their milk delivered by milkmen driving battery-powered (therefore fairly quiet) vans, known as floats. For the residents, very convenient. For the rush-hour commuter stuck behind a milk float with a top speed of 15 m.p.h, it can be a source of frustration.

Like the milk float, the peripatetic van has long held a prominent place in ice-cream marketing in England.

Fifty years ago salesmen would ring hand bells to attract customers. Then in the 1950s electronics took over and, perhaps confirming what Pavlov had to say about the effects of sound stimuli, recorded jingles worked their magic on the young fry.

Love for those old familiar sounds, and general resistance to change, is sparking debate over the planned changes.

Peter Tivnan, a fleet driver for Bird's Eye Wall's since 1977, says, "The traditional chimes represent a rallying call. They are instantly recognizable, and customers know that second it's the ice cream man coming their way.... If they were replaced, it would lose its magic."

A writer in the London Times pointed out that ice-cream sellers playing modern hit tunes would have to pay royalties to singers and bands.

The English spirit of compromise is rearing its head. There's no need to junk jingles entirely, according to Chris Lister, who supplies recorded music for ice-cream vans. "We can now use tremulo effects and drum rhythms," he says. "You should hear our version of [the] William Tell [Overture]."

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