By Sylvia C. ’21
When my brain begins to register consciousness in the mornings, the first thing I hear is the murmuring static of my radio alarm. I keep it on one music station, and let whatever is on slowly bring me to alertness. Typically I shut it off immediately, too drowsy to bear the pounding beats and lovesick belts that constitute trashy radio mainstream pop. However, there is one sound that I will always listen through, my guilty pleasure and secret energizer: commercial jingles.
My attitude wasn’t always so accepting. Like most people, when my source of entertainment was interrupted by an ad with the latest catchy jingle, I’d groan with disgust and ridicule whatever opera-singers-turned-mindless-elves crew of jubilant, middle-aged men and women currently serenading me. They seemed inescapable, the tunes spontaneously popping up in my head long after the morning’s broadcast.
But one morning, after hearing a shrill chorus of “1-877-KARS4KIDS” for the first time in years, I found myself happily lip-syncing along. For those couple seconds, I’d been doused with a secure sense of familiarity and comfort like I felt when I was little. I channeled the souls of wide-eyed, heavily-autotuned tweens who wanted nothing more than pure generosity (my nonexistent car). My animosity towards the jingle during the period it had been played incessantly had vanished, and I gave into the four-note bop.
As The Atlantic reports, advertisement jingles shot to popularity in 1926, when General Mills’ “Wheaties” tune became a nationwide sensation. Soon, children and adults alike were humming eccentric branding phrases such as “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner!” and “Liberty, liberty, Liiiiberty! Liiiiberty!” Jingles were novel, recognizable, and memorable. Advertisements have only been further integrated into daily life since then, as new mediums such as television and YouTube were normalized. Gwenna Laithland in her article “What Happened to the Jingle” observes that the most successful jingles seemed to even transcend the actual product and industry — these earworms became a part of the community culture, and lasted throughout generations.
Merriam-Webster states that the word “earworm” is derived from the German word “ohrwurm,” and refers to short musical clips that dig into the brain and play on loop. The German language adapted “ohrwurm” from “earwig,” an insect with the false reputation of crawling into human ears. From “How Stuff Works,” Professor James Kellaris, widely credited for normalizing the term, lists the most popular earworms:
- The “Baby Back Ribs” Chili’s jingle
- Baha Men: “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
- Queen: “We Will Rock You”
- The “Give Me a Break” Kit-Kat jingle
- Lalo Schifrin: “Mission: Impossible Theme”
- The Village People: “YMCA”
- Tag Team: “Whoomp, There It Is”
- The Tokens: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
- Richard Sherman: “It’s a Small World”
We’re now in an era of being constantly plugged in, expected to respond immediately to someone or complete a task with our smart devices. In turn, we’ve become impatient, greedy, spoiled, and intolerant of any interruptions that disrupt modern life’s hyperspeed. Mere seconds of loading unavoidably annoy us; the most alluring methods of procrastination, as brain-dead as TikTok, FoxNews and Youtube binges can be, intelligently capitalize on our generations’ incredibly tiny attention spans. How dare melodious ads air for more than five seconds! I’ve realized the key to appeasing this reflex of vexation is simple: Stop. Breathe. Ask yourself, is it really that bad?
Recently, I’ve been hearing the McDonald’s urban “I’m Lovin’ It — ba-da-ba-ba-ba” ad very frequently. However, due to cookies (how companies spy on your clicks and preferences and anticipate your next moves by selling your data) and a strange rabbit-hole of searches I went down about idioms in various languages, they’ve largely been in French, Spanish and Korean. The jingle stays the same, though there are slight accented variations with inflection and tone. After listening to one of these particular foreign ads for the umpteenth time, I found myself thinking of the people from these countries who are listening just as I am. We already have something common in our lives, something we both understand and laugh about — albeit corny and mildly obnoxious. It’s a sweet thought, and a reminder of how small we individuals are on a global scale.
Alas, the jingle appears to be dying. Instead, the melodies of overplayed pop songs are being repurposed to sing about insurance rates and car models, causing people to lose respect for the original song’s heartfelt lyrics. These new kinds of earworms are, in my opinion, a complete abomination, swapping light-hearted creativity for the outreach of a desperate wannabe. They ruin the delicate balance between appropriate marketing and human pleasure, invoking feelings of distaste and exhaustion rather than hope and cheer. There is no originality to break up the monotony of whatever mind-leeching joyride you’re on.
I once overheard my friend subconsciously singing a jingle under her breath for a “Farmers Only” dating service. I gleefully finished the phrase, and to her embarrassment, proceeded to question her on her love life. When others joined the conversation, they were surprisingly eager to prove they knew the tune as well — there was some bizarre mix of shame and pride, culminating in a highly entertaining conversation. Their reactions were very similar to participants in React Channel’s “Try Not To Sing Challenge” episode on commercial jingles. Young adults to baby boomers enthusiastically and hilariously jammed out to old favorites, saying things like “The flavor! The immaculate flavor…I haven’t felt this much serotonin in so long.” and, “You know what? Sometimes you gotta put your pride down, pay your respects…” or, “I deserve respect and appreciation for being able to know [these jingles].” While not subject to the restlessness and stress of everyday life, people actually revel in the culture of jingles.
Maybe jingles do have slight brainwashing, Pavlovian-esque characteristics. Maybe they are overplayed, their covert presence involuntarily invading my thoughts and dreams. But take a moment to indulge in these groovy, optimistic and nostalgic tunes. I get this weirdly affectionate feeling when I do, suppressed by the pressure of society clawing at me to get a move on. Try letting that go for a change. Relax to the Barnes Firm (“Injury attorneys, call 1-800 8, million!”) and rest assured that “Nationwide is on your side.”
Jingles are a target of parodies and satirical humor, but they bind us together culturally across language barriers and through a common thread. People crave connections, emotions and meaningful experiences; even if you don’t care about car donations, cereal, bologna, soft drinks, fast food, attorneys, or insurance — I certainly don’t — jingles can provide a small relief in this warp-speed world if you let them.