Being Modern: Advertising music

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The Independent Online

In advertising as in film, music is a tool to manipulate our emotions. Unlike in film, though, the music tinkling away in the background of ads is a subtle device to make us empty our wallets. Devious.

In more innocent times, advert music would invariably take the form of a jingle – think, say, the Milky Bar Kid. But times change, and so, in 1985, we had the first acknowledged use of a pop song in an ad when Burger King decided that Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love" was the best way to sell their burgers.

Talk about a game-changer. Now all a music supervisor has to do is match an existing song to a product or, easier still, take their pick from any number of royalty-free sample libraries. Which means we now have a new functional form of ad music, which can be grossly oversimplified into three categories.

One: futuristic, corporate, ambient, trip-hoppy electronica. Bank trying to seem cutting-edge? This is your weapon of choice: an all-encompassing sonic smothering to accompany images of futuristic cityscapes and reflective office windows; national anthems for a featureless digital landscape.

Two: knock-off-grade "cool" pop. Telecoms provider trying to seem "accessible"? Use this. Manifests as left-field pop music with soft, low-fi pianos, or cheery indie-rock anthems. Often accompanies images of smiling models. Add throaty female singer, voice cracking, to add maximum punch.

Three: not-even-trying dance music. Selling stuff late at night? Don't want to pay anything at all? The ultimate in bad-taste ad music comes out after dark, or on cable. You'll hear it in risqué adverts for "telephone" services. It takes the form of something that can be whipped up in 20 seconds by combining a percussion loop and some synth stabs.

Progress? Hardly. As a measure of how far ad music has faltered since the innocent days of the jingle, try this: first, hum the music to any major bank or car commercial currently on TV. And then try to say "Only the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate..." without bursting into song.