What Killed the Jingle?

Marketing ditties once had a distinctive, hokey sound, but today’s advertisers have ditched them for standard pop songs.

Diane Bondareff / AP

Most Americans can recite their share of jingles. Perhaps they can’t remember their partner’s cell phone number, but they know every digit required to reach Empire carpet. Or every word of “I’m a Toys ‘R Us Kid.” Or that the best part of waking up is Folgers in their cup.

And yet, despite its effectiveness, the jingle has become a relic of the mid-20th-century commercials it once dominated. Today’s pop songs and yesterday’s classics have effectively replaced the jingle: A Kanye West song plays in an ad for Bud Light Platinum, Lady Gaga’s “Applause” is a party anthem for the Kia Soul’s spokeshamsters, and a Bob Dylan track helps advertise Victoria’s Secret. Amid all this, Oscar Mayer decided to retire two of the most popular jingles of all time, “My Bologna Has a First Name” and “I Wish I Was an Oscar Mayer Weiner.” In 2010, the company announced a new ad campaign, sans the old tunes. “What we did not want to do was write jingles,” an ad exec told The New York Times.

The decline of jingles does not stop with a few big-name brands: A 1998 survey of television commercials by the American Association of Advertising Agencies counted 153 jingles in a sample of 1,279 national, 30-second ads; by 2011, the last year the survey was produced, those numbers had dropped to only eight original jingles out of 306 commercials. (Between 1998 and 2011, the survey’s sample size shrunk as national, 30-second ads became rarer.) Meanwhile, marketers are focusing their efforts on licensing existing music from recording artists. Last year, the revenue from such deals reached a high of $355 million, according to the recording-industry trade group IFPI.

This is what advertising music means today: Instead of jingles, we have singles.

“The industry that I was in is no more,” says Steve Karmen, who has been nicknamed “The King of the Jingle” and whose greatest hits include the long-running “Nationwide Is On Your Side” and the state song “I Love New York.” At 79, Karmen, a lifelong composer and show-business veteran, laments, “There are no jingles.”

What killed the jingle? It owes its demise not only to shifts in the advertising business but also changes in the music business, and how the two industries became more entwined than ever.

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The first documented use of the word “jingle” dates back to 1600, but it took a couple hundred years before the term gained a commercial connotation. It first referred to the sound of clinking metal, and then it came to denote a repetitive short verse, but without musical accompaniment. By the time music had become a handy tool for American pitchmen of all stripes, from politicians to preachers, it was no wonder that early advertisers seized upon the idea of selling with sound: Before radio was widespread, some companies put out printed sheet music that included ads for their products.

Though there is some debate, credit for the first commercial jingle usually goes to a Wheaties spot in 1926. The company that made Wheaties, the Minnesota-based Washburn Crosby (the predecessor of General Mills), tried to resurrect the flagging cereal on the radio with a song from a local barbershop quartet. It went like this:

Have you tried Wheaties?

They're whole wheat with all of the bran.

Won't you try Wheaties?

For wheat is the best food of man.

They're crispy and crunchy

The whole year through,

The kiddies never tire of them

and neither will you.

So just try Wheaties,

The best breakfast food in the land.

It was straightforward, and sounded more like a dirge than the upbeat ditties that would come in the following decades. But the promo worked spectacularly, and the jingle made its way around the national market. It was a new way to advertise: The jingle was a natural fit for radio, and later television, both mediums well-suited to audio.

Jingles soon developed into a distinctive musical genre. “If you heard a jingle, you wouldn’t mistake it for any other kind of music,” says Timothy Taylor, an ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture. “People talked about the ‘Madison Avenue choir,’ the sound of lots of voices singing together in praise of something and a soft jazz or light orchestral background.” What resulted was as effervescent as a nursery rhyme, whether or not the product was aimed at kids.

These jingles didn’t sound like pop songs, but as their popularity grew, a few found crossover appeal. 1939’s “Pepsi Cola Hits the Spot” became a hit in its own right, and Pepsi released more than a million recordings of the song. The “Chiquita Banana” jingle, first broadcast in 1944, taught American listeners how to store and eat the tropical fruit (Don’t refrigerate! Brown spots are good!). At its height, the song was played, on average, 376 times a day on the radio, according to the company, and a number of popular artists covered it.

The zenith of jingles came during the postwar period, when the booming American economy spurred tremendous growth in consumption and, in turn, the advertising sector. “In its heyday it was a very, very lucrative business,” says Eric Korte, a former music director at the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and now the head of music production at the marketing firm Mixtape Club. “The top jingle writers and top jingle singers made fortunes,” Korte says. Peter Bell, a producer, started a jingle-writing studio in Boston in the early 1980s. “I was living like a king,” he says. “And I left every day at 4 to go play squash.”

Because jingles promised a reliable cash flow, a number of stars got their start writing them. Barry Manilow, for one, is to thank for “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there,” and “I am stuck on Band-Aid Brand, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me!” At some of his shows, Manilow has played medleys of his most popular jingles, which he once called “these obnoxious little melodies that won’t leave you alone.”

But eventually, the advertising industry started leaving jingles alone. Beginning in the 1960s, critiques of conformity and mass consumption were coming into vogue. Enterprising advertising executives realized they could exploit these trends and capitalize on what appealed to a new, more skeptical generation of young people, as well as anyone who wanted to feel young. Jingles did not jibe with this new aesthetic. “They sounded old-fashioned to a younger audience,” says Karmen, “and the young audience is what the advertisers want.” A jingle wasn’t subtle. It tried too hard—the opposite of cool.

It became a lot cooler to commission promotional music that sounded like a pop hit. In 1971, advertisers produced “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” which sounded enough like a pop song that it was eventually released as one (not once but twice, and both times it climbed the charts). Resurrected recently in the series finale of Mad Men, the jingle still has that “Madison Avenue choir” feel, though with a more diverse cast. Less evident is the fact that it was then the most expensive commercial ever made.

But if there needs to be an individual to blame—or thank—for the death of the jingle, Michael Jackson would be a good candidate. His 1984 Pepsi campaign pioneered the complete melding of pop stardom and product promotion. For one ad, Jackson eschewed singing a traditional jingle and instead adapted his hit single “Billie Jean”—an innovation that was his idea—by revising the chorus to “You're the Pepsi generation, guzzle down and taste the thrill of the day, and feel the Pepsi way.” “We tried hard to hide our glee,” Pepsi’s former CEO once said of the rewrite. (Jackson, though, reportedly didn’t even drink Pepsi.)

That campaign inspired a deluge of celebrity partnerships. In 1986, Run-DMC released “My Adidas,” pop music and product placement rolled up in one, and a boon for the athletic-wear company. In 1989, Madonna launched an entire album, Like a Prayer, as one big Pepsi-sponsored commercial. She told Rolling Stone, “I like the challenge of merging art and commerce. As far as I’m concerned, making a [music] video is also a commercial.”

Sure, there was some backlash: In 1988 Neil Young recorded a parody song, “This Note’s For You,” mocking his contemporaries for selling out. “Ain’t singin’ for Pepsi, ain’t singin’ for Coke. I don’t sing for nobody, makes me look like a joke,” he crooned. For his efforts he ended up with Video of the Year at the 1989 Video Music Awards, but, for those keeping score, it was hard to miss the fact that Madonna also won an award for her Pepsi-promoted single that night, and that the sponsor of the VMAs was none other than Pepsi.

In the ‘80s, many advertisers wondered: Why stop at present-day hits? As Baby Boomers became corporate admen—and, as a generation, started families and ramped up their consumption—songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s took on a new life in commercials. Their interest in mining nostalgia led them to see that a Motown classic like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” could be revived to sell raisins. In the realm of licensing old music, again, Michael Jackson had a role. In 1985 he bought the publishing rights to the Beatles’ catalog for $47.5 million. When the band’s song “Revolution” appeared in a 1987 Nike ad, thanks in part to Jackson, some diehard fans were indignant, and the surviving Beatles sued Nike. An undisclosed settlement was reached, but the signal was clear: Not even the most sacrosanct counterculture bands of one’s youth were safe from advertisers.

It’s no coincidence that black artists—who created much of the blueprint for American music—were the pioneers when it came to advertising partnerships, unapologetically leveraging their musical success. “This idea of selling out was very specific to white, middle-class, male rockers,” who wanted the public to think “they were apart from commerce,” Taylor, the UCLA ethnomusicologist, says. “But there are plenty of black musicians who were happy to have their music used in commercials because for them it signified mainstream success.” Take Russell Simmons, the Def Jam co-founder and Run-DMC producer, who dismissed the notion that selling out was shameful for black hip-hop artists. He told The New York Times in 1992, “Black kids want to be sold out, as in there ain't no more records left, no more tickets for your concert.” He added, “Being a starving artist is not that cool in the ghetto.”

It didn’t take long for most recording artists to come around to commercial licensing, especially as the market for recorded music tanked. In time, album sales dropped with the rise of digital downloads and streaming services, which last year started bringing in more revenue than physical recordings. As it got harder to gain exposure and make money, many more stars allowed their music to be licensed in commercials. “We were Baby Boomer hippies and we would never have allowed our music to be sullied by being used in a TV or radio commercial,” says Bell, the squash-playing jingle producer. “That all changed when everybody grew up.”

And no longer is licensing just about placing top-40 hits and classics in commercials. Since the early aughts, advertisers wanting to cultivate a sense of authenticity—and perhaps wanting to save some money on licensing fees, too—have sought out obscure and undiscovered songs. In contrast to the maligned, corny jingle writer, today’s music advisor is a gatekeeper and talent scout. The electronic musician Moby kick-started that trend when he licensed every single on his 1999 album Play for brands like American Express and Nissan, a move which had the added bonus of making his album go double-platinum. Feist’s “1234” was also catapulted after it appeared in an iPod Nano commercial in 2007, and Apple has continued to boost breakout acts with its advertising.

Once maligned as selling out, licensing singles is now an accepted part of making money as a musician. “It’s no longer a bad move for an artist to license a song or partner with a brand,” says Chris Clark, the director of music at the advertising agency Leo Burnett. “It’s become more of an essential move.”

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Of course, the music industry is only half of the story: The advertising industry has undergone a number of shifts that, combined with the changes in the music industry, have solidified the decline of the jingle. Ad campaigns with jingles worked best with repetition, which was well-suited to an era when there were three main TV channels and advertisers could reliably reach the same viewers over and over again. But today’s viewers are not quite the captive audiences they used to be. By 2013, there were 189 channels in the average cable package. That audience fragmentation has multiplied with the rise of streaming services and digital recording devices. Now viewers may watch few commercials, if any at all.

Ad agencies have changed their tack accordingly. They started borrowing techniques from the film industry for commercials, including story arcs and background music that evokes a feeling or mood. Jingles, by contrast, are preachier and more instructional. The inclusion of pop music has made commercials even more aspirational, but the sell more subtle. It’s about the brand experience, and not just the product.

So last fall, after 31 years with Saatchi & Saatchi New York, Eric Korte was let go from the company’s music department, along with the rest of his team. His new job, in keeping with current advertising music trends, includes overseeing a music library available for commercial licensing. Up in Boston, after Bell’s jingle work slowed, he started teaching students how to write jingles at his alma mater, Berklee College of Music, but, he says, “I certainly don’t encourage them to count on making a living with it.”

Where does that leave jingles? For now, they live on through online “best of” lists and YouTube videos, for the nostalgic benefit of anyone born before, say, the new millennium. Local advertisers still employ them, mostly in third-rate spots for car dealerships and discount stores.

Occasionally a legacy brand will resurrect a jingle, or at least a remnant of it, in an attempt to capitalize on any residual sound recognition. But even when this happens, jingles are usually played with a wink: In a string of State Farm ads, actors conjure up insurance agents out of thin air simply by reciting the old line, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” In one ad, a man explains the source of his magic to his amazed friends—“It’s the jingle,” he says—and they take turns reciting it and summoning a sandwich and a hot tub. Meanwhile, the actual jingle’s melody is relegated to a pared-down synth number that plays over the State Farm logo at the end of the commercial.

At least one ad agency tried to resurrect the jingle, as sung by pop stars, but the results were mixed, to say the least. In 2008, after Chris Brown’s song “Forever” became a top-10 hit, the gum company Wrigley revealed it had sponsored the song as an ad for its Doublemint Gum. Translation Advertising, a firm co-founded by Jay-Z, had brokered the deal, along with jingle-single hybrids for Justin Timberlake and Neyo. But even before Brown’s eventual criminal charges ended the campaign, the marketing sleight of hand provoked outrage. Under the headline “Boycott Wrigley If You Ever Want To Hear Real Music Again,” Gawker warned that the promotion could “be the first of many” and that soon “kids won't see any problem with the fact that all of their favorite songs are ads for one company or another.”

And yet, musicians have always been selling something—if not their corporate sponsors, then at least their sounds, their looks, their labels, or themselves. The revenue source may have changed, but artists still need to make money. So who can blame them for using commercial exposure to support themselves? The lines blur between selling out and getting by.

Still, all this can make one miss the lowly, old-fashioned jingle, which, despite its commercial origins, has come to represent a kind of wholesomeness: It was simple and straightforward,  advertising that sounded like advertising. The days of the jingle as a distinct, easily identifiable genre are over. But its spirit lives on, in a way that’s getting ever harder to detect.