A History of the Jingles That Won’t Quit Jangling

While it’s frightening to admit, some of us know the numbers to Luna (773-202-LUNA) and Empire (800-588-2300) better than our own phone numbers. In fact, you probably just read those numbers in the tune of their jingles.

But why are they so compelling? Why do jingles stick with us long past most pop songs (Call Me Maybe excluded, for the time being)? That questions is tackled in a new books The Sounds of Capitalism, and the secret, it seems, is the co-opting of Motown and other sounds. Originally, these songs would recall the positive feelings of one’s childhood. But for those that grew up during or after the golden age of the TV and radio jingle, they might have been the first introduction to song, sound, style. James Hughes for Slate covers a summary of the book and its findings.

Though it’s easy to be cynical about the swindles examined in The Sounds of Capitalism—the closing chapters on gray-flannel advertisers going hip provide plenty of ammo—there is actually much to admire, or at least concede, about the industry’s triumphs. Perhaps the greatest attribute of Taylor’s exhaustive research is that it awakens the reader to the ingenuity of jingle writers, especially in the frontier days of radio. Tracing their patterns of speech and melody to distant precursors like the “verse without music” that peppered print advertising in the Victorian era and the sung advertisements of wandering street merchants, Taylor shows that jingle writers of the 20th century managed to create a new, potent language of their own. As far back as 1896, a book on advertising noted, “It is astonishing how some of the things we think the silliest will stick in our minds for years.”

One commercial that couldn’t be avoided, even by those who didn’t own radios, was the“Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot” campaign of 1939. Arguably the first jingle to go viral, long before the company torched Michael Jackson, the tune achieved saturation not just over the airwaves; more than a million phonograph records were pressed for distribution in jukeboxes across the country. Kids everywhere sang it at home, at no charge to the advertiser (and “with the added benefit,” Taylor writes, quoting a Nation article, that children “are also much more difficult to turn off”). At the Pepsi headquarters in Long Island, the proud boss even installed a set of electronic chimes on top of the plant to play the first seven notes of the jingle every half hour. (I suppose that generation of workers didn’t have much of a choice.)

Taylor astutely targets the “conquest of cool” phenomenon and chronicles the erosion of the sell-out stigma, explaining, for example, how the once-untouchable Beatles catalog has since become commercial wallpaper, with the controversial appropriation of “Revolution” in a 1987 ad for Nike serving as Trojan horse. I also liked being reminded of the day we all rushed to snap up that Nick Drake song from the Volkswagen commercial, pretending we’d owned it all along. But it’s less fun to read about Moby’s grandma-friendly techno and the millions of dollars it reaped in licensing than it is to discover a scrappy character like the banjo player Harry Reser, who created “sparkling” music for the Clicquot Club Eskimos radio show in 1929, which in turn made listeners think of sparkling ginger ale.

Whatever you think about these jingles, you have to respect their insidious infectiousness.


You can purchase The Sounds of Capitalism here.

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