They’re Playing Our Song (to Death)

Who Killed the Jingle? How a Unique American Art Form Disappeared

By Steve Karmen

Hal Leonard, 184 pp., $22.95

STEVE KARMEN’S TITLE ASKS A FAIR QUESTION: How did the once ubiquitous advertising jingle come to die? And, as the People-proclaimed “King of the Jingle,” he brings an informed perspective to the quest for an answer. Now retired, Karmen is fiercely proud to be responsible for such instantly recognizable tunes as “I Love New York,” “This Bud’s for You,” “Nationwide Is on Your Side,” and many dozens more pieces of musical Americana. If he doesn’t name a particular murderous “who,” his book is yet another chapter in the “why everything is going wrong” casebook.

Though many occupations and products have disappeared because of technology, we can’t blame the Internet or digitalization for the loss of “Oh-oh, Spaghetti-Os.” The real culprit in the case of the vanishing jingle and its replacement with rearranged or simply appropriated popular music is that, as one composer told Karmen, “No one thinks anymore. Imitation is the sincerest form of not having an original idea.” And no one wants to stick his neck out.

Underpinning the unoriginality, of course, is fear. Karmen spoke with many people in the biz for his book, and nearly everyone reflexively declined to speak on the record, no matter how inoffensive the quote. Fear grips ad people from inside and out, because they’re at the mercy of forces they can’t control: Advertising is neither art nor science, though it pretends to both. Despite the fact that Ridley Scott directed it, that 30-second minimovie fails as art because the product is always the star. And if you want to talk market research, I have two words for you: New Coke.

Coca-Cola’s CEO in 1984, Roberto Goizueta—one of the smartest businessmen of the time, with untold millions to spend—made the decision to change the formula of the beloved soft drink because he read the numbers wrong. And he read the numbers wrong because he and his marketing team erroneously believed that numbers held an answer to the question of why people enjoy sugar water. Karmen doesn’t talk about this case, loaded as it is with irony: Part of the reason people had bought oceans of the drink over a century was jingles—which the marketing teams of the world were by then rejecting—from “It’s the Real Thing” to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

So copywriters and art directors who fancy themselves artistes must live with the knowledge that they are frauds. (Yet in no other field is the term “creative”—as in “He’s in creative” and “She’s a creative”—heard more frequently.) And data-oriented ad reps must realize that their dazzling presentations are smoke and mirrors built on housing developments of cards. And all because they can’t say no to a client. Refuse to put a talking dog in the commercial and the client just goes next door, where the new agency will gladly take his money and produce the all-too-common least-common-denominator piece of junk.

So it is an old anxiety that has driven a media-saturated new generation of ad whizzes to seek refuge in the prepackaged popularity of hit songs over the unpredictability of original compositions. And this easy way out is also, of course, a failure of creative nerve. Why wrack your brain composing a fresh jingle when you can just swipe from your iPod and edit out-of-focus footage around the tune? The desired result, as too many addies told Karmen, is a spot that’s “cutting-edge.” Edge-cutting is what the highly compensated creatives are concerned with; damn the product.

“In their quest to be perceived as art, and not commerce, Madison Avenue succeeds in just being bad commerce,” writes Karmen. Bad commerce is spending millions to promote a product without telling people what that product is. Didn’t someone at HQ notice that the mopey Britpopper mumbling in the car commercial never actually mentions a car?

The trend away from product-specific jingles is so heedless, so underthought that the song “My Way” has already been used to hype eBay, Mercedes-Benz autos, and an insurance company. Karmen quotes an ad exec dismissing any concern about any dilution of branding engendered by duplication by saying that as long as his client was happy, it didn’t matter. Another name-withholding ad man justifies his company’s use of catchy but vague tunes with a dazzling piece of illogic: “What we’re doing is original in its own way, and it’s what everyone’s doing.”

And so instead of having earworms such as “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” and “My bologna has a first name…” fill their brains, today’s TV and radio consumers are treated to the experience of hearing their onetime favorite song splattered with the muck of SUV ads.

But the intended customers aren’t quite the suckers that self-satisfied marketers imagine. They know that the Zep lyrics Cadillac’s agency cut out of the commercial speak of a “lonely, lonely, lonely time.” They understand that, no matter how many flags wave in the Wrangler-jeans ad, Creedence‘s “Fortunate Son” is the antithesis of a patriotic anthem. Possibly the stupidest match is Iggy‘s drug-debauched “Lust for Life” with a luxury cruise line. The inevitable line running through the heads of TV watchers is not Damn, I’d like to travel on a Royal Caribbean ship but How stupid do they think we are?

Yet another reason that songs have replaced jingles, of course, is that they represent found money for avaricious copyright holders. “When pop-music publishers and the newly conjoined record company conglomerates realized that they could offer their songs at a competitive price with custom-made tracks—and still make a fortune—the advertising industry had finally become the marketing arm of the record business,” Karmen perceptively writes. And, yes, you can buy CD compilations of pop music from commercials. Songs in the key of commerce, let’s call them.

Of course, Karmen would not have minded grabbing some of that found money. He recounts his nearly 20-year losing battle with ASCAP to get jingle writers royalties comparable to those of pop songwriters. Part of the reason he fought so long and so hard is that he conducted research that found that jingles were 41 percent of the music heard on TV and 12 percent of the music heard on radio, but paid a measly 1 percent royalty rate from ASCAP—peanuts compared with pop-song cash. Karmen, a sought-after freelancer, had the audacity and the clout to rework the standard contract so that he kept the rights to his own music. Because he owned the notes to the Budweiser Clydesdale Christmas spot, he got paid every year, whether the score was re-orchestrated or not. This arrangement proved lucrative, but it would have been much more lucrative had he been paid at the level of Paul Simon or Hoagy Carmichael. (In a rather sad epilogue, Karmen reveals that he’s still battling corporations that want to use his music without paying.)

Of course, arguing for back-catalog integrity among pop stars (or the owners of their copyrights) when the near-death Rolling Stones are back on tour and the hope-I-die-before-I-get-old Who are licensing their songs for TV themes is futile. Just as futile as pointing out the irony of heroin-chic anthems’ being used to sell luxuries. Or arguing for the creativity of the jingles of yore. Your raft of an argument will only be obliterated in the deluge of repurposed rock.

Sure, even at their best jingles are simplistic and cynical. And by definition, they’re tainted with the intrinsic BS of adspeak. But ask yourself which is worse: sitting through another chorus of “I’m Chiquita Banana” or hearing the song that was playing during your first kiss now selling you toilet paper? Yeah, thought so.