A brief history of audio branding: How is commercial sound affecting our relationship to music and the environment?
Sound is just vibration. There is nothing in a sequence of notes themselves that generates powerful reactions, and yet music has the ability to directly influence emotion and action. Historically used as entertainment in a variety of settings, such as film and opera, the notion that commercial sound could influence purchasing decision was “pretty much ignored” .
Modern neurological and psychological investigations have provided new insights into how the brain processes sound, revealing the substantial power of music to influence and affect. Music is becoming the medium of choice for advertisers. It now plays a vital role in consumer influence and brand establishment. An overabundance of visual branding has diluted the power of sight as a commercial persuader and lead to the development of multisensory branding.
Commercial music is virtually inescapable. Commercial music has broad scope, encompassing any sound designed for specific effect, from the sound of a car door slamming to retail playlists. Sound advertising has moved far beyond the realm of traditional commercials, with new consumer habits creating fresh environments for its application.
Sound advertising within TV and radio commercials
Music’s first commercial purpose was simple. The earliest radio advertisements consisted purely of spoken words, which created an stark contrast between programme and advertising space. It was originally used as a background device to create a more pleasurable listening experience. As a result, advertisements became less of an unwanted intrusion. This approach was taken predominantly from early Vaudeville, where “music served to candy coat” a sales pitch .
By subtly making it harder to differentiate between programme and commercial, the listener receives the advertisements more naively, resulting in more effective selling. This simple us of music in advertising draws on the consumer’s existing relationship with an environment, and exploits it. Entertaining advertising experiences also result in positive connotations with the brand. Although language and music are closely related in terms of mental processing, music invokes far more neural regions and creates a more stimulating experience .
Music in advertising has also taken many techniques from film music. One of the most basic of these is to create greater continuity. By replicating simple, pre‐existing techniques and remaining as aural wallpaper, music was initially functional in its use, but failed to make a significant impact on the consumer.
Throughout the 1920s, the use of music grew in popularity, eventually evolving to become a freestanding element in the form of the jingle. As a combination of language and music, jingles are a very effective tool in aiding product recall and brand awareness. Quick and highly memorable, jingles suited both TV and radio.
“Surveys have revealed that it is rarely an entire song that gets stuck, but rather a piece of song”, explains Daniel Levitin . How and why these snippets get ‘stuck in our heads’ is explained most simply as the “neural circuits” getting “stuck in ‘playback mode’”. By lingering in the mind of the listener long after the commercial is over, jingles establish lasting familiarity between consumer and brand.
The influence of the jingle goes beyond the immediate. During an interview with composer Paul Hart, he told the following story:
“In the mid to late 1970s in the USA there was a Toyota advert jingle […] which went: “You [boink] asked for it, you got it. Toyota”. It was very annoying and completely unforgettable. In the late 1990s I asked an American advertiser if he remembered it. He told me that the advert only ran for four weeks and yet almost everyone who watched TV in the 1970s in America remembers it. Toyota’s market share in the USA has risen exponentially since that jingle was aired.” 
Jingles are still effective after a significant time period and outside the context of the original advertisement. I for one still remember the phone number of a small double glazing company after listening to their jingle on a local radio station over ten years ago. Through their long‐lasting recall‐ability, jingles infiltrate our memories and take audio branding identities outside of typical commercial environments.
Jingles were also aired outside of traditional advertising space. Historian Elizabeth McLeod believes their evolution was due in part to “NBC’s lingering restrictions on direct advertising in nighttime shows. During this time (1928 – 1930), the names of sponsors and specific product plugs were being inserted into the theme songs of many programs” . Music was used to influence unsuspecting viewers, once again blurring the commercial boundaries and exploiting the consumers’ naïve perception of music as a source of entertainment.
Jingles rely on cognitive processing habits present in all of mankind. As a result, their reach often extends beyond just their target audience. Vance Packard, author of The Hidden Persuaders, recalls hearing his eight‐year‐old daughter happily singing the cigarette jingle “Don’t miss the fun of smoking!” .
“Musical lingering may occur even when the mind is an unwilling host”, explains David Huron. Sometimes jingles are too good at their job - too memorable, too catchy. Our lack of control in the inability to forget these jingles changed our experience of music from a pleasure to an irritant. This growing negativity towards jingles and their irrepressible nature caused them to decline in popularity.
The jingle’s lack of subtle delivery also contributed to its “death”, as the Economist put it . Jingles peaked in popularity in the 1950s, but began to bring an aura of suspicion. As audiences became conscious of attempted maniuplation, advertisers were "forced to seek new techniques to overcome viewer skepticism” . The jingle became patronising and outdated as brands began to sell intangible ‘commodities’ such as lifestyles and values through emotional advertising.
Commercials used to be fact‐based, logical appeals. Their simple approach was reflected their rational use of music. But modern mass-production techniques led to there being very little actual differentiation between products. As a result, emotional appeals began to replace the previously rational approach to selling.
Giving a brand a character allows us as consumers to define and communicate who we through the products we choose. Advertisements began situating themselves within the lives of consumers to great effect: “Campaigns with purely emotional content performed about twice as well […] as those with only rational content” .
Music is well suited to emotional advertising. it has the ability to generate the required mood, which can in turn influence action and purchasing decision.
It is first worth remembering the extraordinary subconscious analysis that takes place before your brain ‘understands’ what it is hearing. Sounds signals are deconstructed and analysed by pitch, timbre, contour and rhythm. Regions in the frontal lobe then regroup these elements to assess the temporal pattering. The hippocampus – the memory centre of our brain –, the frontal lobes ‘ask’ our memory bank if we have heard this pattern before, where we’ve heard it, and what it meant .
Learning these patterns begins in the womb. Twenty weeks after conception, a fetus’ auditory system is fully functional, and “a year after they are born, children recognise and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb” . During childhood, new neural connections are rapidly formed, based on our experiences with music. These “become the basis for our understanding of music, and ultimately the basis for what we like in music, what music moves us, and how it moves us” . Although we can still appreciate and enjoy new music as adults, the “basic structural elements are incorporated into the very wiring of our brains when we listen to music in our early lives” . One of the simplest examples of learning this ‘musical grammar’ is through tonality - "the authority of the fundamental code of the West" . For example, listening to a minor composition in conjunction with a sad film or sad lyrics creates a neurochemical tag with this memory, this sound and this emotion.
Nowadays, we tend to differentiate emotion from action, but, due to the experiences of our ancient hominid ancestors, emotions evolved as a “neurochemical state that served to motivate us to act, generally for survival purposes” . Not all emotional states lead to direct action, but the most important ones do.
The fact that emotion directly influences motor reflex means that this survival instinct can be used by advertisers to prompt action. For example, “several studies have shown that negative affect serves as a motivator to mood improvement through the performance of positive, prosaic acts” . Music in advertising is often not even designed to make the consumer feel good. In emotional advertising, it has moved far away from its original role as a simple, satisfying underlay.
Music in emotional advertising is delivered through two closely related formats: pre‐existing music and custom-composed music that draws on genre and our predisposition to categorise. Both of these rely on our musical memories. Also, “musical styles have long been identified with various social and demographic groups” . So, music has the ability to 1) control the mood of its viewers in order to initiate action, and 2) bringing social and historical connotations to a brand or product, based on our cultural experiences of the music.
Pre-existing music in advertising
The use of carefully chosen pre‐existing music in advertising can evoke strong, beneficial associations for a brand. Music we are already familiar with is pleasing to listen to. And we don't need to hear much of it. Due to a strong perceptual system evolved by our ancestors to quickly “restore missing information” , we can recognise an existing song almost instantaneously. Pre‐existing music recalls an emotional association with something you’ve already encountered and ‘takes you back there’.
However, “nobody would claim that it means the same thing in its original role” . When used commercially, music takes on a new meaning and purpose. By taking music out of its original context and applying it to another, our associations are still intact, but they are now applied to the product or brand.
Different music can mean different things to different audiences. As sound designer Donald O’Neill explained, “A short while back we were looking for a type of music that would sound classical to people who like popular music and popular to people who prefer classics. So we decided to record themes from movies […] We received a lot of favourable response” .
The neurochemical tags that connect pre‐existing songs with memories are marked for emotional importance. Music that we encounter in adolescence plays a large part in our preferences and memories because "those years were times of self‐discovery, and as consequence, they were emotionally charged” . Hostility towards advertisements can occur when a significant song is used tactlessly. Fans may feel as if their associations have been undermined or even destroyed. There is a risk in attempting to transfer people's special relationships with music into a commercial environment.
Custom-composed music in advertising
It's not just pre-existing tunes that have significant impact in advertising. Memory and categorisation are neurologically linked. Therefore, "a song can access not just specific memories, but more general, categorical memories” . By learning the cultural grammar of music, we use our experiences to easily differentiate between genre. We can quickly recognise when a new song uses genre cues through instrumentation, timbre, texture, melody, harmony, pitch, dynamics, tempo, rhythm, articulation and expression.
Composing by genre is an easy method of evocation because listeners can “recognise all kinds of deformations” of tunes  our musical categories “have fuzzy boundaries” . By bringing established categorical associations, a new piece of music can still have a powerful effect on consumers.
The musical patterns of genres have been under investigation for thousands of years, dating as far back as the Ancient Greeks, for whom each musical mode was “linked to a coded expression” . Contemporary work includes David Cope’s Experiments In Musical Intelligence software, which can create original, authentic‐sounding works in the styles of hundreds of composers. Our understanding of musical codes and the repurposing of music in advertising for communication has led to an abundance of music in advertising music that attempts to simulate an emotion and produce unambiguous emotional intelligibility.
The reliance on these patterns is often taken to the extreme, verging on the cusp of plagiarism. For example, the ‘Perle De Lait: For Ladies Who Lunch’ advert soundtrack could easily be mistaken for the ‘Sex And The City’ theme tune because the musical patterns match so closely.
Both pieces use similar light syncopated percussion and almost identical piano melodies and chord sequences. The ‘Perle De Lait’ music has a slightly stronger brass section playing more sustained chords, giving it a less staccato and slightly more dramatic sound, which could be reference to the Sex And The City film soundtrack, which is a remix of the TV theme tune with a swing rhythm, played by a big band orchestra, dominated by brass. The tagline “Pleasure make you beautiful” is clearly an emotional, irrational appeal.
So through music, the brand aligns itself the Sex And The City lifestyles. Composer Paul Hart describes this practise as “a very grey and murky area” [Hart, 2011]. Whilst we have grown able to spot a heavily airbrushed image or a sensationalist claim, for remain relatively ignorant of music’s ability to persuade for commercial gain.
Whilst we are know of music's persuasive abilities, our vast cultural experience also makes it feel unthreatening. We let it “into our living rooms and bedrooms when no one else is around” because we “interpret these violations as a source of pleasure and amusement” . And when music communicates, our brains process the emotional input “without cognitive processing or even awareness” .
Music and emotional advertising go hand in hand. Because the meaning of music cannot be directly or sufficiently translated, commercial “music relationships are being used to assert a message that only has to be expressed in words for its absurdity to be obvious: eating Walker’s crisps enables you to be what you want to be” . Even “courts of law… are much less apt to find sung statements slanderous than their spoken counterparts” . As David Huron describes, it is “the discourse that passes itself off as nature” .
The rebirth of the jingle
In a world where time is money, the speed at which we associate music makes it a highly commercial efficient tool. One note and its many subtle shadings have the ability to refer to a multitude of things.
The sonic logo
Many companies, such as BMW and McDonalds have developed ‘sonic logos’ to represent their brand. They are, in essence, a more sophisticated version of the jingle. Their use reflects the use of motifs in classical music - short, recurring musical ideas that represented characters or themes. Sonic logos are used across brand touchpoints advertisements for recognition.
These sounds are often just a few seconds long. As a result, every aspect of the sound must be considered for maximum impact. Even the distance of a microphone from a guitar amp gives a different quality to the sound, and advances in sound engineering give sound designers even more scope. Sonic logos are often voiceless and more subtle than older jingles. And these sounds become associated with brands - often without us being aware of it.
The most famous and successful acoustic logo is Intel Inside. The Intel sonic logo is the most performed melody in broadcasting  and has been named “the 2nd most addictive sound in the world”. (It was beaten only by the sound of a baby laughing.)
Music’s ability to communicate diverse topics is demonstrated by the brief given to Intel composer Walter Werzowa. He was instructed to reate “tones that evoked innovation, trouble shooting skills and the inside of a computer, while also sound corporate and inviting” . Werzowa delivers these concepts in five notes.
The Intel Inside sonic logo is played principally on a marimba synthesiser - an electronic version of the soft‐toned Mexican percussion instrument, as a mix of tradition with technology. There are actually more than twenty sounds in the first tone alone, including tambourine, anvil and electric spark” . The music is in the key of A♭ major and the melody finishes on the supertonic - an implication that more is to come. The ascent of the melody enhances this innovative, leading nature, while the steady rhythm reflects corporate stability and echoes the rhythm of the words ‘Intel Inside’.
Online sources have linked the Intel sonic logo with everything from Handel’s Rejoice Greatly, to La Marseillais, to the Superman theme song. Werzowa has confirmed that he “did not intentionally compose Intel after any existing music”  and simply used common intervals to give the logo cross‐cultural appeal.
There has also been a recent reversion to an amateurish musical aesthetic, reminiscent of early TV commercials and jingles. Compare the Market and Go Compare [CD, track 4] are two of many examples. For some brands, the jingle has been re‐born as “a corny throwback to a time when viewers would accept a sing‐songy tune written about a product” .
We now see the jingle as a joke that we understand and can sometimes even enjoy it as a nostalgic novelty item. Some music in advertising is reverting back on itself, with the aim of appearing comical. Old music advertising techniques and their association to amateurism are starting to be exploited as a means of appearing genuine to bypass consumers’ cynicism.
The power of silence
With music comes risk. Julian Treasure states that poorly considered music can reduce marketing effectiveness by 86% . The vast majority of TV and radio advertisements have employed music in some manner for close to 90 years. Its abundance has started gaining consumer attention for the wrong reasons. We've have begun to relate music with deception and manipulation.
In 2011, a UNICEF advert featuring Ewan McGregor contained the line, “You shouldn’t need this music to make you care”. In the advert, the emotional elements are stripped away one by one until only spoken voice remains. A similar approach has been used by Tesco Mobile, who mock the extent to which emotional advertising has become oblique and pretentious. The advert uses an abrupt halt in emotional music to disassociate itself from such practises. Both of these cases – representing very different brands – use the exposure of audio branding techniques to give themselves an upfront, honest appearance.
Naturally, this technique will only be effective for as long as silence is a novelty. Neurologically, we've evolved to pay attention to silence (Treasure says that when the birds stop singing, it signals danger) . This association is less relevant nowadays, but in a world that is getting louder, silence is a rarity. Silence has become a powerful sound for communication. With silence as a new foundation, one would hope the addition of brand sound will be more considered, as commercial music comes full circle.
Sound advertising outside of TV and radio commercials
Radio and television audiences are moving online. This innovation is changing the way we receive entertainment. And it is diminishing the reach of peak-time commercial slots. Consumers go online to shop, sell, read, write, be entertained, work and communicate. And the Internet’s multimedia capabilities give advertisers more scope. Steve Goodman, author of Sonic Warfare, believes that the Internet’s attributes and popularity has helped sound attain “a more central role in […] contemporary culture” .
Internet advertising has become synonymous with ‘pop‐ups’; an onslaught of irritating, conspicuous visuals. Some advertisers have also taken to assaulting the consumer with sound. Pop‐up adverts with sound require consumer participation to mute and infringe upon a viewing or listening experience. Similar to the jingle, this method of advertising creates a negative consumer relationship with sound in this environment.
Online sound advertising is, however, becoming more sophisticated. Television and radio advertising has to appeal to relatively broad audiences. The Internet marks the end of mass advertising. Online, our every movement is tracked and online behavioural profiling allows advertisements to be targeted at ever more specific groups.
Musical listening habits are extremely telling in the building of these profiles. Spotify is one company with access to this kind of information. Spotify founder and CEO, Daniel Ek, explains to what extent music choice can express an individual: “We can then predict whether you like Audi better than BMW and then serve you advertising from either of them” . Listening to music is no longer a private hobby, even if we still consider it to be so.
Spotify advertisements are not so different from those used in modern radio commercials. But their context means that advertisers can predict the mood of the consumer based on what music they have been listening to. “If you’re a brand that needs to reach people in a relaxed mindset — perhaps they’re listening to Ibiza chill‐out or Mozart — we know that […] and therefore you can serve the right brand to them” [Andrews, 2009]. As we consume more media online, advertisers will have an in-depth record of our musical encounters and, consequently, be able to better predict how we may react to subsequent advertising.
Every single sound a consumer encounters as part of a brand is important, be it the beep of an oven to the music played in pub toilets. “When sound was removed from slot machines in Las Vegas, revenues fell by 24%” . Sound is an integral part of a brand experience, particularly as part of a product. It can "often be the deciding factor in a consumer’s choice” . For example, “more than 40 percent of consumers believe the cell phone sound – that is, the sound of its ring – is more important than the phone’s design” .
Sound incorporated within a product is an effective method of brand establishment and continuity. They can be particularly powerful because they are heard outside the realms of traditional advertising. Many brands have not perfected their audio brand to the extent of their visual, and therefore product sound gives another point of differentiation in an increasingly saturated and uniform market‐space.
Take Microsoft, for example. Back in 2005, Windows was "the operating platform for 97 percent of the world’s PC users, meaning that more than 400 million people listen to a Microsoft start‐up sound every day” . Windows have huge the lack of sonic consistency across these updates. The sounds are unrecognisable as part of the same brand family.
Listening to Apple's startup sound across its history reveals very different results. Although there is some differentiation, the musical concept has remained. This results in better recognition and familiarity with the brand. There is some evidence to suggest that Windows might be starting to take note: For the first time in their history, Windows 7 had the same startup sound as its predecessor, Windows Vista.
Some companies have been paying close attention to product sound for decades. “In the late 1990s, Daimler Chrysler had already established a department whose sole purpose was to improve the sound of their car doors” . Lindstrom expands, “before a product [a car] hits the production line, its sound has been created by a multidisciplinary team consisting of sound engineers, product designers, and psychologists who ensure that the sound of the product will enhance the values and convey standards of trust, safety, and luxury that befit the brand.” 
The way that a sound as simple as the slamming of a car door can change our product perception is demonstrated in the 2009 Just like A Golf car advertisement. Pay close attention to the ‘fake Golf’ and ‘real Golf’ sounds. The ‘fake’ Golf door has equalisation geared towards the treble and more reverb and echo, giving it a tinny, ‘cheap’ sound. The ‘real’ Golf door is the opposite. It is a deeper, more contained sound that oozes quality.
One final example of product sound branding is the Nokia ringtone. At it's peak, this tune was heard an estimated 1.8 billion times every day . That’s about 20,000 per second, which makes Intel’s once every five minutes pale in comparison . Originally taken from a Spanish classical guitar piece that was out of copyright, Nokia have achieved huge recognition and ‘audio space’ simply by having the tune as the preset ringtone in all their handsets and letting the consumers do the rest. “This sound register involves an almost subliminal recognition […] Chances are you’re so familiar with the sound palette that you can recognize the sound language of Nokia without even being aware that you know it”, explains Martin Lindstrom . This is audio branding at its most integral. By bringing acoustic logos into our everyday lives, we barely recognise them as advertising at all. Audio branding is everywhere!
Sound in spaces
Our world is getting noisier. People, industry, and commercialisation are contributing to rise in everyday background noise. As Julian Treasure notes, “the phrase 'a quiet coffee' has ceased to have much meaning these days” . As a result, our habituation circuit is working overtime. Levitin explains, “if your refrigerator has a hum, you get so used to it that you no longer notice it – that is habituation” . But this doesn't mean that the sound is no longer affecting us. Whilst we can close our eyes, we can't close our ears. Our relationship with sound in physical spaces is becoming largely unconscious.
Piped music has a long history. It's played everywhere, from shopping centres to football stadiums and was was originated on a mass scale by the Muzak Company - who later changed rebranded to become Mood Media due to negative connotations with the name 'Muzak', which has become a generic term for piped music. Muzak was conservatively estimated in 1957 to have 50 million daily North American listeners . Sound designer Donald O’Neill described its objective as to “bathe an already half‐conscious patient in an anaesthetic or a tonic aural fluid” .
Through scientific research, we are beginning to understand how and why music can affect our behaviour, particularly in commercial environments. Although there is a “great deal of interpersonal variation, we are born with a predisposition toward interpreting sounds in particular ways” . These primitive reactions account for many of our behaviour in response to music in shops and other commercial spaces.
Tempo is a key behavioural influencer. We physically respond to the rhythms around us because our cerebellum (the part of the brain involved with motor control) “adjusts itself to stay synchronized” . Likewise, the rhythm of the surf, at roughly twelve cycles per minute, is the same as the cycle of a sleeping human’s breathing and may promote relaxation. Short sharp burst of sound are frightening to us, because they're similar to animals alert cries.
In a commercial environment, these primitive reactions can influence customer behaviour. For example, “the slower the music, the more people shop. The faster the tempo, the less they spend” . Music can also be used as a 'zoning policy' - controlling how people move around an environment, and even deterring the 'wrong' people from entering a shop. Retailers use music “as a filter, attracting the ‘right’ people and warning the ‘wrong’ ones to go elsewhere because this is not for them. Buddha Bar and Abercrombie & Fitch are two good examples”, explains Treasure .
As a result, retail sound comes with its risks. Pipedown is one group at the front of this backlash in the United Kingdom. Their biggest grievance is the involuntary nature of the music, “which people have not chosen and which they may not be able to escape” (29).
Successful use of sound and music in commercial spaces clearly requires a great deal of consideration. Audio branding can also be used to create more pleasant spaces. For example, The Sound Agency have used custom-designed soundscapes to develop more pleasant aural spaces for clients such as BP and Helm Bank . And it can play a large role in what Martin Lindstrom calls "smashable branding". A sonically branded space will allow you to close your eyes and instinctively know were you are, building deeper connections with brands and their customers.
Our relationship with sound is innate. This neurological evolution has taken hundreds of thousands of years, and any influence of commercial music has little impact on this deeper relationship. But these survival instincts remain for how brands influence consumers. In one sense, sound advertising has had no effect on our relationship with music and the environment. Rather, it is our relationship with music and the environment that has affected sound advertising.
Consumers have also become more aware of attempted manipulation through sound. And their lack of control has led to backlashes and sometimes created a negative relationship between consumers and music. This has lead to the growing importance of silence. It is now highly sought after, both by consumers and companies in a multitude of situations. Audio branding is becoming a more considerate and valuable art-form. Sophisticated product sound is an example of where sound can aid both consumer and brand, through better user interfaces and increased familiarity.
Advertising will always affect our relationship with music and the environment. As a result, we have already seen a cycle of usage through audio branding's brief history. And as commercial sound and music infiltrate our lives in more ways, our consumer relationship with sound will take on a whole new dimension.
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