Sonic boom: Advertising is increasingly making use of tiny tunes to catch our attention
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Saturday 08 March 2014
'Mmm, Danone." As I watch another Gok Wan-fronted advert for Activia yogurt, I know what's coming. It's always there, right at the end. "Mmm, Danone." It's a sound that usually washes over me, but I suddenly became intrigued by this pseudo-sexy appreciation of a multinational food corporation. How did it come about? Who wrote that three-note melody? How long did it take them? Do they get paid whenever it's broadcast? And if so, how much?
I started pondering all the other tiny tunes that have become subliminally embedded in our heads over the years, from the seven-note Radio 2 jingle to "mild, green, Fairy Liquid"; they whizz past in a trice, usually contain no information, but are nevertheless phenomenally successful exercises in branding.
In the beginning, pop music was distilled into the jingle, a marketing device that has since become deeply uncool. The sonic logo took that distillation process to the extreme - a flourish of four or five notes that supposedly sums up everything about a brand. Unlike the jingle, it was chic, elegant and has now become a box that many marketing departments are desperate to tick.
"A sonic logo on its own isn't going to do very much," says Julian Treasure, founder and chairman of The Sound Agency. "We get frustrated with smaller brands who come to us and say, 'We need a bing-bong'. You just can't encapsulate a brand for £500 in a three-second sound. It doesn't work."
Many composers, however, are tasked with doing just that, and it can be a nebulous process that can feel like knitting with fog. What sound represents value for money, for example? Which sequence of notes represents youth and vitality? "The more that you talk to companies and the more that they brief you," says Ben Neidle, Creative Director at Noise Fusion, "the more you start to build an idea in your head of what sounds could represent the brand. Car companies might want a 'male' sound, for example – the sound of the road, sounds that are sturdy, tough – and then it's your job to turn that into something that could work musically."
People may sneer at the idea of composing a four-note tune ("I could have done that!") and it's true that many famous sonic logos were composed in as little as 10 seconds. The slight absurdity of this world was highlighted in a scene for the BBC's comedy series, Twenty Twelve: in a short meeting, the head of branding is convinced by a persuasive composer that his one-note tune ("da da-da da da") perfectly sums up Olympic values. But the value of good sonic branding to a big corporation can be huge, according to Julian Treasure.
"They're a kind of mnemonic," he says. "They're not attempting to convey a message; they're designed to remind you of the experience you've had with that brand, which is hopefully a positive one. You could have a very jaunty sonic logo, but if your telephone staff are pissing people off every five minutes, then your sonic logo is just going to remind people of that."
Keen to get inside the head of a sonic logo composer, I set myself the task of producing one for this newspaper. Armed with an email from our marketing manager that featured the words 'intelligent, innovative, serious, bold, truth-seeking', I sat down at the keyboard. But it was tough. Everything I played sounded like a half-baked fanfare or an ice-cream van. Stumped, I turned to Ben Neidle. "The instrumentation and sound design is almost more important than the melody," he advised. "You might have a maximum of three seconds to make your point, and so the sounds that you choose or create can really end up defining the piece."
So with multiple synthesisers primed, I took the plunge. Working in the formidable shadow of such successful compositions as "In-tel In-side" and "BBC Ra-di-o Two", there was an inevitability that I'd end up with five notes ("The In-de-pen-dent"). Annoyingly, those syllables ended up a bit mis-emphasised... But perhaps our marketing department will love it. Maybe it'll become as synonymous with this newspaper as the breathy start-up chime is with the Macintosh computer, or those nine booming drum hits are with the climax of EastEnders. The chances of it making me a fortune, however, seem rather slim. (Oh – and I never did find out who wrote "Mmm, Danone". If you're out there, Mr or Mrs Danone, do let me know.)
The "ding-a-ling-a-ling" tune, identified with T-Mobile for many years, was written by Lance Massey, founder of NeuroPop, an aural therapy business that develops "health and wellness" products in audio form. The winner of a global competition, it was based upon the T-Mobile logo featuring grey dots and a pink letter T. "I used one of the NeuroPop algorithms to assign a middle C to a dot, and the pink T got the major third above it," says Lance. How long did it take him? "I had years of research and training to know what to do when the time came," he says, "but when the time came, it took me about 15 seconds."
The first music played on Channel 4 was an orchestral piece called "Fourscore", written by the son of the 3rd Marquess of Zetland, Lord David Dundas. The main theme of the piece consisted of four notes, A-G-C-A, which were used as the channel ident from 1982 until 1994. Dundas, also known for his 1976 hit single "Jeans On" and his score to the film 'Withnail and I', reportedly received £3.50 every time the four notes were played, totalling around £1,000 per week. He has since been described as a "jammy sod" by at least one jealous composer.
It's impossible to listen to independent local radio in the UK without having the tune "Autoglass repair, Autoglass replace" drilled into your skull. But it's not just the British who bear this burden; the French get "Carglass répare, Carglass remplace", New Zealanders put up with "Smith & Smith repair, Smith & Smith replace", while in the USA it's "Safelite repair...". The tune, known as "Thème Carglass", was written by Alain Lievens, who produces work for Citroën, Dunlop, Ford, Kellogg's and others from his studio in Tahiti. Nice work, if you can get it.
"It's become the world's most played tune – something like 1.8 billion times per day," says The Sound Agency's Julian Treasure. The distinctive Nokia ringtone is based upon a small section of Francisco Tárrega's "Gran Vals" for solo guitar, a piece which was used in one of the first Nokia television adverts. As it was written in 1902, it was long out of copyright and could be used by the Finnish company for free. "It's something of a two-edged sword, now," says Treasure, "as it can be interpreted as 'that person who is too stupid to have changed their default ringtone'."
The "I'm lovin' it" campaign, launched in 2003, featured the Justin Timberlake song of the same name, written by Pharrell Williams, Matthias Glink, Andreas Forberger and Franco Tortora. Today, the only reference to the song that remains in McDonald's adverts is that four-note whistle which closely resembles, but doesn't quite duplicate, the backing vocal phrase on the original single. Enquiries as to whether Pharrell Williams & co still receive royalties for that little whistle went unanswered by their publisher.
The "cavalry charge" fanfare, which for many years concluded Direct Line's TV adverts, was written by composer and producer Simon Franglen in 1989. Franglen and his publishers began proceedings against Direct Line in autumn 1995, following the company's application to register the jingle as a trademark; at the time, 'The Herald' reported that Franglen had originally been paid £41.62 for the tune. Franglen went on to bigger and better things, eventually receiving Golden Globe and Grammy nominations for his work on the film 'Avatar'.
The famous advert for instant mash featuring Martians laughing hysterically at our cooking habits concluded with a four-note refrain: "For Mash get Smash". It was composed by the late Cliff Adams, also responsible for tunes we came to associate with Turkish Delight, Milk Tray and Murray Mints. "About 30 seconds into the meeting," recounted the famed advertising executive Chris Sharpe, in a tribute to Adams for 'Campaign' magazine, "Cliff went to the piano and struck three chords, one of them twice. That was it. Time for a celebratory glass of champagne."
Indian Premier League
It's a Spanish fanfare that's become associated with many sporting events, including the Six Nations Championship, but the IPL cricket tournament made it globally famous. Blasted through the PA during quiet passages of play in order to raise an impassioned cheer from the crowd, it was written by Spanish composer Juan Quintero Muñoz for the opening of his paso doble, "En er Mundo"; the recording used at cricket and rugby matches is taken from the opening of "Olé" by French DJ John Revox.
The "Yahoo! yodel" - also heard frequently during sporting events on TV - was recorded back in 1996, just a year after yahoo.com had been registered for the first time. The yodeller was one Wylie Gustafson, who spent five minutes recording about 20 yodels and was paid $590 for his trouble. Yahoo! then picked their favourite - but many years later, after realising the company was still using it, Gustafson called upon the services of his learned friends and settled with Yahoo! for an undisclosed sum. "I'm not going to give the amount," he said, "but it was fair." He then named his horse 'Yahoo' to celebrate.
"You or I never buy an Intel product explicitly," says Julian Treasure, "and yet their sonic logo is far better known and more powerful than its visual equivalent. It's probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars." Austrian composer Walter Werzowa wrote the tune over the course of a weekend that he has previously described as a "frustrating" one. The breakthrough came when he sung "Intel Inside" to himself; the initial recording took him 10 days to produce. Werzowa received a set fee ("not that much") but he now owns a successful Hollywood production studio.
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