The Right Track

The right soundtrack can turn a good ad into a great one. But it's not as simple as just picking the latest chart-topper. So how do you decide what's the perfect audio for your ad, and does science have the answer? By Daniel M Jackson

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Music is a recreational drug, not merely an accompaniment to them. So, given our industry’s liberal approach to recreational
activities, it’s no surprise that we consume music in rock-star proportions, we get hooked on it, we take so much that we can’t think straight and, most of the time, our addictions end up costing too much money.

Is this addiction benign? Or should we be concerned that, while under the influence of our favourite tracks, we are missing opportunities to improve the performance of our communications? Not only failing to maximise music’s potential for creating great advertising, but occasionally overstating its importance and overspending clients’ budgets?

In his 1997 book How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, wrote: "Compared with language, vision, social reasoning and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once."

Music is essential. Every brand makes a noise, has its soundtrack. Ads need music like they need media. The relationship is symbiotic. Indivisible. Unavoidable.

So we should have easy answers to the questions: why is music important? How does it work? What is it about melody, rhythm, pace and timbre that cause music to soar with the picture or cause creative people to tear their hair out? What is music, anyway?

Truth is, most of us don’t have these answers. But we do "know it when we hear it". This is why I have spent the past 15 years trying to piece together an approach to music that builds on the agency’s strength: that it can feel the right music, while understanding that most of us have a weakness. We are mainly incapable of articulating what is right or wrong with any one piece, which makes the process of
selecting a track a general nightmare. So does science have the answers?

Music’s role in advertising is as varied as advertising itself, so understanding the neuroscience behind choosing it and using it is incredibly complex. We start by examining the functional role of music in any given communication. Pointing to the best musical ads of the past can do this.

Music has sometimes been relegated to a simple call to action – a fanfare that signals the brand that is primarily catchy and memorable, simply shouting: "Look at me!" The best (worst?) examples of approach that stick in your ears are from Intel Inside, Direct Line and T-Mobile.

Neuroscience has played a major role in identifying a "collective unconscious" or innate response to certain sounds (sirens, alarms) that can be abstracted to musical shapes (semitone intervals from Jaws, strings from Psycho) in order to rapidly generate attention through stimulation of the amygdala.

Historically, music is at the forefront of communicating a brand benefit; think of the golden era of advertising when copy was sung and campaigns such as "Only the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate…", "I’d like to buy the world a Coke" and "If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our Club" were dominating schedules. These brand songs played on heavy rotation and over many years became highly memorable as a result of how often they were heard.

That we inherently remember ad copy more closely when it is sung rather than spoken simply does not
require scientific study. It is a palpable truth. All science can tell us is how and the answer appears to lie in the way lyrics are stored in the brain, where they travel with melody along "whole brain" neural pathways, whereas syntax – written or spoken language – is stored in more contained brain areas such as the visual cortex and frontal lobe.

In the 80s, music became shorthand for building instant affinity with consumers and the idea of "borrowed" values from famous tracks and artists led to classic campaigns such as Levi’s 501 (I Heard It Through The Grapevine), Vauxhall (Layla) and Pepsi (Michael Jackson, Madonna et al). That neuroscience has not studied why famous music gets used on ads is hardly surprising. The benefits,
however, are not as clear as they might seem.

For every big hit generated by famous music on a TV commercial, there are tens or hundreds of ads where the music sank without a trace. We may as well look to astrology to find out what makes a hit.

At the moment, Coca-Cola has established a paradigm through its use of music composed around the "Open Happiness" mnemonic. This model develops the idea that owning a brand "song" is a good idea (just don’t always sing your copy) and factors in the attention and attraction of major artists such as Cee Lo Green and Mark Ronson to create affinity.

The role of neuroscience here has been to assist with the design of mnemonics, helping to identify what note combinations are most memorable or arousing and then to track recognition as notes are absorbed into new pieces of music and sung by new artists. It’s too early to see all the results, but the fact that leading global brands such as Coke and Nescafé are adopting this strategy suggests that this approach has merit.

Whatever the role of music or the accompanying scientific evidence to support the choice of perfect music, some simple truths remain. Music is slippery and subjective. It is at once incredibly important and utterly inconsequential. It is both a quick fix and a lifelong dependency.

Should advertising turn to neuroscience to choose the music for a spot? Probably not – science has too far to go to understand our brains, and possibly even further to understand music.

What’s important is that we make clear decisions and articulate them so that our clients understand and
support our choices. The psychology of decision-making, therefore, is probably the most important thing neuroscience has to offer. That, a decent musical education and a deep passion for advertising might just lead to some great music on an ad – but don’t bet the agency on it!

Daniel M Jackson is the managing director of Cord, a joint venture between McCann London and Cutting Edge Group, the provider of music for the film, TV and advertising industries.