Historians tell us that the world’s first jingle was written by the minstrel Bartholomew the Profitable in 986 CE. Hired by Percival of Shropshire to help sell chicken-bone dice, Bart traversed the countryside playing to captive audiences, replacing his traditional opener “The Tale of Sir Ywain the Bastard” with a ballad of 652 stanzas in praise of Percival’s dice. The memorable chorus was permanently planted in the ears of all English men:
Across the streams and valleys
Of our flushing island home
Much finer dice you’ll narry find
Than Percival’s chicken-bone!
Subsequently, Percy’s sales increased to such an extent that he nearly altogether rid the British isles of barnyard fowl. His example was adapted by all merchants who heard tell. Soon the dales were swollen with contracted bards peddling epic commercials with the help of their road-worn lutes.
Moving forward a thousand years, we find that the jingle has blossomed into a virtual necessity for market-men in every market. And while sing-along slogans have always adhered to the musical zeitgeist to ensure their memorability, this continuity of spirit entails a critical divergence of form. Advertisements measured in stanzas would naturally have been considered on par with the other merry tunes of a jongleur, but a modern critic would never lump catchy mercantile melodies in with radio pop.
Yet what is the difference between, say, the $5 Footlong song from Subway commercials and the latest Rihanna single? The latter shows little novelty from one iteration to the next, just as the former is presented from spot to spot as variations on a theme, and neither one consists of more than ten seconds of original material.
I don’t mean to belittle the condition of the mainstream here; on the contrary, I wish to extol the substance of the modern jingle. Chronically overlooked or perennially belittled, the songs that fill the gap between 7-minute stretches of primetime television are never given a chance, but gosh darn it if they aren’t music just the same as what plays between traffic reports on evening rush-hour radio.
Earworm moves product in any domain. Miley Cyrus wants kids to keep singing her song until they can’t help but pay for her whole cd. State Farm made their slogan (“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there”) more memorable by putting it to a tune so that insurance shoppers will think of them first and check them out more often. From an irregular perspective, we could say that mainstream songs are 200-second jingles advertising themselves as the product – and that notion has some merit!
It inspires me that we have reached a point in television advertising when some companies have abandoned mere sung slogans in favor of developed 30-second tunes that convey their message less succinctly, if at all. Consider, for instance, this favorite Dunkin’ Donuts spot of mine. Approachable melody, diverse percussion, thoughtful arrangement – a recipe for success! – and yet nothing in the lyrics pointing to breakfast. Visuals and a voice-over draw your attention to the product. If the song is part of the commercial but doesn’t advertise by itself, do you feel less dirty thinking of it both as a jingle and as music?
Let me focus now on a true paragon of melodic marketing: the Free Credit Report Band. Their namesake website has elevated the art of music in advertisement by employing those rarest of performers, the live-action virtual band. Honoring the tradition of Alvin and the Chipmunks and, more recently, Gorillaz and Dethklok, the Free Credit Report Band consists of characters not truly responsible for the sounds you hear. When I search my trivia lobe for non-animated virtual bands, I can only offer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, who would fit the bill if they ever played before an audience, or the Partridge Family, who maintained a thin veil between who its members were in fact and in fiction.
From their start in a pirate-themed restaurant, the Free Credit Report Band has managed to explore a dynamic set of rhythms and styles without reinventing their sound. That is, the classic triumvirate of rock instrumentation appears across the boys’ takes on pop, 80’s synth, porch-front acoustic, western, and more. Each of these genres is so firmly established as to allow a formulaic approach, of which these singing salesmen take shameless advantage.
As I implied earlier, cranking out a “new” hit need not require more than a chorus’s length of freshly-minted melodies. When verses can be modified versions of the chorus or even three raw chords and a drum tick, it truly is that simple. That much novel songwriting is regularly featured in FreeCreditReport.com ads.
I’ve said it enough, then: jingle artists who do a common thing well give us plentiful cause to label them musicians.
Beyond earning credit as artists, there is something more I hope to see commercial singers accomplish in the near future. Just as Billy Mays earned America’s trust and spent a decade and a half coaching our purchases with his charismatic assurance, I want one marketing artist to perform their merchant ditties for a slew of reputable endorsers.
The Free Credit Report Band plays commercial-length songs that tell stories of misfortune that could be prevented by paying for the product at hand. If only they would show up on a Sears commercial overriding my appliance price-comparison work! How wonderful if they would caterwaul about a competitor’s weak 3G coverage! That is my dream for the future.
If that goes through, only one step will remain for us to reach jingle perfection: imagine the Free Credit Report Band… then imagine Bartholomew… then imagine them together, backing the same company. The jingle artist cross-over: coming by 2025. Mark my words.