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