Some of the biggest advertisements in recent decades involve music, and not just in the form of jingles.

Take John Lewis, for example, whose Christmas adverts are just as well known for their sentimental song choice as their storylines. There’s also Vodafone which, in the early noughties, catapulted The Dandy Warhol’s ‘Bohemian Like You’ into the UK’s top five (when it had previously failed to chart).

Ever since the early days of advertising, music and TV ads have gone hand in hand. So, why exactly does music work so well, and how can advertisers make the most of it? 

Emotional impact and memory

We’ve all got those songs that remind us of a certain place or time in our lives. This is because, in order to process music, studies show that we use the same parts of the brain that are also responsible for emotion and memory. 

Because of the emotional response elicited from a piece of music (which can be either positive or negative depending on the context and sound) – the associated memory also tends to be strong. 

This theory doesn’t only apply to moments in everyday life, but also a song in a film, on the radio, or a TV advert.

It’s not just any type of music, of course. One study – which measured the reactions of 1,000 Australian consumers to a series of audio clips – found different types of music can produce strong but very different emotional reactions.

Different melodies, chords, or key changes in songs can elicit responses. For example, strings playing short and sharp notes in a major key were found to elicit feelings of happiness and excitement in 87% of respondents. Meanwhile, a shift from major to minor keys provoked a sense of sadness or melancholy in 83%, and 90% found acoustic guitar sounds to be caring, calm and sophisticated.

This shows how important it is for advertisers to have a clear idea of the emotion they want to evoke in viewers – and the type of music that might create it. 

Driving a story

While music on its own can be a powerful tool, it becomes far more effective when it highlights or corresponds to a story or narrative arc. 

A study by Neurosight, which analysed over 150 ads to identify which ones are most strongly correlated with long-term memory encoding (LTME), backs up the fact that music in TV ads becomes more memorable when it drives the action of the ad. For example, when the lyrics or the tempo matches what is happening on screen.

Sony’s 2005 ‘Balls’ advert is a great example of this. Created to promote the brand’s high-definition LCD televisions – the concept of the ad was to be a visual celebration of colour. It created this by hurling 250,000 coloured balls down the rolling hills of San Francisco, accompanied by the soundtrack of ‘Heartbeats’ by Jose Gonzalez. 

The visual itself is striking enough, however, it was made far more impactful by the melodic music, which combined with the slow-motion effects, gives the ad an hypnotic and engaging quality.

John Lewis is also a dab hand at matching music with emotional action on screen. Instead of tempo, however, it focuses far more on the lyrics of the song (and how they match with the ad’s storyline).

Its 2013 story, which involved an animated tale of friendship between a bear and a hare, was a great match with the heartfelt nature of Lily Allen singing ‘Somewhere Only We Know’.

In a more general sense, music can also set the tone for a brand’s personality, as well as to target a specific type of audience demographic. 

Nike is a brand that typically targets a younger audience, specifically when it comes to its athleisurewear and clothing verticals. Its recent ad, ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ (now pulled because of a dispute over the use of ‘LDNR’) took this targeting one step further by featuring young people from the capital city, and a message that champions sport, diversity, and youth culture in the area. 

It also ensured this message would resonate by including an instrumental version of Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ – a song that would likely pique the interest of and resonate with a young audience. 

Artist influence

This brings us on to another factor that can increase the memorableness of music in advertising – the artists or musicians themselves. Celebrity or ‘expert’ influence is of course a factor here, with adverts featuring a well-known song or artist being able to draw from existing popularity. 

This might depend on how recognisable (or entrenched in the public’s consciousness) a song is in the first place. One effective example is Microsoft’s ‘Start Me Up’ ad, which featured the iconic and instantly recognisable Rolling Stones song of the same name.

Microsoft reportedly paid the band millions in order to use their song, realising that it would add clout and bring further visibility to the campaign.

On the other hand, unknown or less-successful bands can also reap the benefits of advertising. As I mentioned earlier, the Dandy Warhol’s found renewed success after their song was used in a Vodafone commercial.

It has to be said, there is also the accusation that musicians ‘sell out’ by affiliating themselves with a big corporate brand. However, the exposure and money that comes from ads can also give brands the freedom and ability to continue making music, which can be an overriding motivation. 

For advertisers, it’s even better if the musician actually features in the ad (rather than just being heard in the background). Neurosight’s study also found that if a celebrity was involved in an ad’s final call to action, viewers showed 13% higher levels of memory encoding.

Brand creations

Many advertisers specifically choose existing songs from artists they want to feature, however, others choose a strategy of deliberately creating music for new adverts. This often involves a mention of the brand in some way, or is more directly associated with the brand’s product or service – much like a jingle. 

McDonald’s did this in 2003 when it enlisted the Neptunes to produce, and Justin Timberlake to record, its new song ‘I’m Lovin’ It’. While the campaign itself generated buzz due to Timberlake’s involvement, the campaign was particularly clever in how it used the title as the slogan for both TV ads and billboards.

It also did this after Timberlake’s song was recorded and released onto radio, ensuring that it had already embedded itself into the public’s consciousness (with seemingly no brand involvement). Other brands have also taken a similar tack. Last year, Oreo’s asked Adam Young from the band Owl City to sing its original song ‘Wonderfilled’, as part of its latest ad campaign. 

The music in question doesn’t have to be sung by a well-known artist, either. ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ – written for an ad for Melbourne Trains – was sung by Tangerine Kitty, a fairly unknown folk singer. On the back of the ad’s popularity, the song itself was released and charted in the Top 10 in six countries. 

With its hugely catchy chorus, pertinent lyrics, and emotional impact – it’s a great example of how to harness the power of music to convey a message.

For more on brand and creative, get down to the incomparable Festival of Marketing 2018, October 10-11, London.