The January issue of Creative Review takes music as its theme and I’ve contributed an article about advertising jingles: that enduringly effective commercial art form where music and copywriting meet.
In the course of researching the article, two of the first jingles that came to mind were ‘For mash get Smash’ and, inevitably, Go Compare. As the campaigns are nearly three decades apart, I was surprised to find the same copywriter associated with both. His name is Chris Wilkins and, when I got in touch to ask some questions, he sent some enlightening answers.
For the full article, you’ll have to subscribe to Creative Review. But they’ve allowed me to reproduce the Q&A here (an edited version appears in the magazine).
Chris Wilkins started out as a copywriter at JWT in the 1970s and went on to be joint creative director with John Webster at BMP. While there he won D&AD Silvers for his work on Cresta and Smash (although the jingle itself preceded his involvement) and was also involved in Pepsi’s ‘Lipsmackin’ campaign, created with Dave Trott. In 1985 he founded Davis Wilkins with Siân Davis and later sold the company to TBWA. Since 2005 the pair have worked as creative partnership Chris & Siân Wilkins, with notable successes including the jingle-led Sheilas’ Wheels campaign, and the operatic Gio Compario character for Go Compare.
Here are my questions and Chris’s answers:
Why do you think jingles work?
I think they can work in a couple of ways. They can act simply as an ID badge for the brand – a role which goes back to radio, I suspect, when music could add a distinctive ‘colour’ in a non-visual medium. ‘For mash get Smash’ is an example, as is the Pepsi ident, ‘Lipsmackinthirstquenchin’. These are really both traditional ‘stings’ – rather than jingles – serving primarily to glue the brand name to the preceding message.
Jingles act most powerfully as mnemonic devices. Just ask yourself – how much Victorian religious poetry can I recite from memory? Not so much. Now ask the question in a different way – How many Christmas carols can I sing along to? The music makes the words memorable, particularly through repetition.
What makes a good jingle?
There’s a phenomenon known in the neurology trade as an ‘earworm’ which refers to a piece of music that gets stuck in your head and no amount of conscious voluntary effort can banish it. Good jingles take up residence in your brain. They are ‘catchy’ with all that word’s association with contagion.
This is not just the case with advertising themes, of course. I recently found myself repeatedly humming an old TV series title track which I knew really well, but I couldn’t attach it to a programme. (It turned out to be The Rockford Files.) This is why it’s crucial for the brand property to be tightly knitted into the fabric of the jingle.
You cannot mentally sing along with Sheilas’ Wheels or Go Compare without mentioning the brand name. A lot of current advertising seems to start with a ‘borrowed’ song which is grafted arbitrarily onto whatever product message happens to be next on the creative to-do list. That’s just lazy.
Do jingles work better for a particular type of brief?
Jingles work most happily when there is a simple, single-minded message to be communicated. (Mind you, since that should be the case with all advertising briefs, you could argue that a jingle should always be considered as an option.) There is some research which suggests that people don’t take in rational sales messages that are sung to them, but there is also research suggesting that people don’t respond much to rational sales messages anyway. It’s an emotional business, and music has always been pretty good at stirring emotions.
You could argue ‘For mash get Smash’ was already a great line without the need for music. How did that come about?
When I moved to BMP in the early 1970s, to work with John Webster – sadly, no longer with us – the Smash campaign already had its musical pay-off. You’re right, it is a strong line anyway, so why set it to music? Well, times were different then and I think we were still very much under the spell of the Americans. The Madmen tended to sign off their films with a little musical ‘sting’ – almost as a parting gift to the viewer. Webster, in his own account, remembers briefing the composer, Cliff Adams, who happened to be sitting at his piano. Cliff said, “You mean something like this?” and played the four notes which, it is rumoured, were to earn him more in royalties than the rest of his TV work put together. When I wrote the first of the Martians scripts, the jingle was already a household property.
Why did you choose a jingle/music-led route for Go Compare and Sheilas’ Wheels? Did the client come to you with that in mind, or was it your idea to go in that direction?
The client brief for what became Sheilas’ Wheels was simply to create a car insurance brand aimed at women. The name, the brand, the idea of a jingle was ours. Even the big pink ‘Sheilamobile’ was designed by Siân Wilkins, my art-director partner.
During our 35-year-long careers in advertising, neither Siân nor I had ever done a full-on jingle campaign. We wanted to devise a brand with ‘Girl Power’ (echoes of the Spice Girls) which led to our creating a ‘real’ singing group, styled on the 60s Motown sound.
We cast three brilliant session singers and – on the back of the advertising success – they actually toured the country as an act. The spin-off for the client was terrific. When one commercial asked women to post online videos of themselves dressed up and performing as our ‘Sheilas’, we had over 11,000 responses (some 240 from men) just for the prize of a guest spot in a commercial.
The brief for Go Compare was to make the brand front-of-mind in a market of four pretty competitive comparison sites. The success of Compare the Market’s Meerkats had spooked everyone else. We were lucky, because our brand name was already a call to action, so we hit on the idea of using another call to action from WW1 – the song ‘Over There’ about US troops coming to the rescue in Europe.
We unearthed an old recording of the great Enrico Caruso singing the song, which inspired the notion of using an Italian operatic tenor and we had originally intended to cast an actor and have him mime to the track. We were lucky, as it turned out, to find Wynne Evans, then Principal Tenor at Welsh National Opera, who could not only sing, but was a great physical comic.
As well as being successful, the Go Compare campaign famously annoyed a lot of people. What’s your reaction to that?
Yes, it was voted Most Annoying Campaign in the marketing press for two years running. But, to put this in context, the year before the campaign broke Go Compare posted a loss of £4m. At the end of the campaign’s first year, they posted a profit of £12m. We went on to make fifteen increasingly ‘annoying’ films over the three years we worked with them.
Similarly, our campaign for Direct Line with that little red phone on wheels and its strident bugle-call jingle, was also voted Most Annoying. Direct Line grew to become the country’s leading car insurer. It’s funny how much you can achieve when you stop checking over your shoulder for the D&AD jury, and start working out how to make your clients rich.
Jingles are often seen as ‘unsophisticated’ and outdated – what’s your view on that?
There are fashions in advertising, as in every other form of ‘creativity’. Currently, there’s a powerful groundswell pulling advertisers towards social media and there’s this desperate optimistic belief among some clients that Facebook and Twitter are freebie media for business to exploit. Problem is, the wonderful professional skills out there – musical skills included – are being bypassed in favour of mass mediocrity. A million competent ukulele players on YouTube still don’t add up to one Mozart.
Would you say you have a musical ear? How important is it for copywriters to have a sense of rhythm and the ‘sound’ of words?
Siân and I are not particularly musical but we’ve been wonderfully well served by the musicians we’ve worked with – particular the guys at Yellow Boat Music whose ingenuity created a whole raft of musical styles for Go Compare, ranging from Baroque Chamber to Moroccan Folk.
We’ve also evolved a secret trick for writing lyrics which composers can work with. If you want to write a great jingle, write it to an existing tune. That way, it will have an inbuilt ‘lyrical’ structure to it. Then, when you hand the words over to a composer – and here’s the secret bit – don’t tell him what your tune was. That’s what we did with Sheilas’ Wheels and the legendary film music composer, John Altman, took it from there.
Particularly with Smash and Go Compare, you’ve produced work that has entered the nation’s collective memory. How does that make you feel?
Do you have any favourite jingles (either your own or someone else’s)?
Of my own stuff, I’m quite proud of rhymes like ‘With just a few clicks / Save your spondulicks’ and ‘It’s where you go ter / Insure your motor’ for Go Compare. And I was also pretty happy with ‘If you had a name like Florence / And you needed car insurance’ for Sheilas’ Wheels.
But there have been some great jingles over the years. Dave Trott knows how it’s done – his ‘Gertcha’ spot for Courage beer and his ‘Ariston... and on...’ were classics. But my all-time favourite has to be, ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went / When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent’. That was written in 1948.
Thanks to Chris for his answers – you can read the entire article in the January edition of Creative Review.