Audio and Music in Advertising

On February 27, I posted a Blind Confidential article about an item in Business Week describing the use of tactile clues for marketing mainstream products in a global market.  The article is still in the archives so refer to it if you find the subject interesting.  I received an articled titled, “Sounds Subliminal: Branding the Future with Audio,” originally published in the UK’s New Media Knowledge from our friends at Blind News.  The article describes the new marketing science of “sonic branding” and how music can function in a distinct manner for identifying products.

Below, I’ve pasted in the entire article as I found it of great interest and I expect that some BC readers would as well.  As I read the article, which does include discussion of 3D audio and applications for people with a vision impairment (a topic I’ve been very close to for some time now), brought a lot of commercial jingles into my mind that have sat dormant for years.

I think of the Barry Manilow composition that “bought the world a Coke,” the heavenly coffee sold by Chock Full of Nuts, “McDonald’s is your kind of place, it’s such a happy place,” “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” the “By Mennen” tones that made it into a Seinfeld episode, “Taste me, Taste me, C’mon and taste me,” “Bum Bum Bumblebee tuna, I love Bumblebee, Bumblebee tuna,” “Double your pleasure, double your fun” and so many more.

I can also remember products associated with pop tunes and pop tunes ruined by their product associations.  “Anticipation…” sang as the ketchup slowly poured from the Heinz bottle, “Start me up,” as the Windows ’95 start menu appeared on the screen, virtually any song George Thoroughgood stole from an African American blues musician and turned into an advertisement for beer.  Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” selling us middle aged former punks relaxing cruises (yes, we do get old).  “London Calling” used in an advertisement for Jaguar made me sad but the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” seems fitting in a beer commercial.  I suppose another sign of turning middle aged is that the revolutionary songs of my misspent youth have turned into commercial jingles played during family programming.  

“You deserve a break today,” “Maxwell House is the coffee you can count on,” “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese on a sesame seed bun,” “In a Chevrolet, In the USA,” “Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet,” “Meet the Mets, Come on down and greet the Mets, Bring your children, Bring Your wife, Guaranteed to have the time of your life,” “Clearwater Mattress, Tampa Bay’s way to sleep,” “I’m a pepper, you’re a pepper, would you like to be a pepper too?” “Boller Coller, Boller Coller…” “The most rewarding flavor in this man’s world, Schaeffer is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one,” “Would you offer a Tiperillo to lady?”

It seems that many of the most memorable jingles have an association with alcohol or cigarettes.  I wonder if their subliminal message touches a pleasure center more so than some breakfast cereal jingle that I have long forgotten.  

Years ago, in a different lifetime altogether, a friend of mine came to the US from Sweden as a foreign exchange student.  I had already known her for a long time having first met her at a ski resort in Austria.  She started dating a friend of mine and his family, a very cosmopolitan New York area group who brought her too many places of interest to her and her amazingly beautiful mother who would often come to visit as well.  So, when my friend Lou and I brought her to Glens Falls, NY to meet her host family, she, Lou and I found ourselves largely under whelmed.  

The host couple described themselves as an “artist” (the wife) and a “composer” (the husband).  Thus, we were expecting an Adirondack couple like Stieglitz and O’Keefe.  In fact, the “artist” made lumpy ceramics sold at weekend, flea market craft fairs and the composer wrote jingles for radio commercials – none of which could anyone present, other than himself and his wife, could remember.  I was hoping that I had met the guy who wrote, “The best music, 77 WABC, Cousin Brucie!”  Or some other icon of my then 23 year life but nothing at all of nostalgic value had come from this man’s piano and staff paper.  

Needless to say, tension grew between our Swedish friend, the host family and the families of her friends.  The host couple included not just me but my parents in their hatred.  They wrote us all identical letters, photocopied from a typed original that reminded us of Mayor Koch’s Playboy interview where he described people upstate New York as, “wearing those gingham dresses and Sears’s suits.”  The letter continued to accuse us of having poor moral values (in my case they were right but my parents didn’t deserve this abuse) and of having ruined their time with their exchange student by having shown her things like the Empire State Building (we hadn’t) and the World trade Center (we may have pointed at the towers but didn’t go into them).  They just didn’t get it.  

We brought the young Swedish woman to see things in NY that she would find interesting, MOMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, CBGB, Studio, the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, really hip eateries, St. Mark’s Place for clothes and leathers and funky jazz clubs down the village.  They thought her disappointment with their version of the trip had to do with having already been exposed to great attractions like the top of the tall buildings, the Staten Island Ferry, brunch at the Plaza (a hotel that is only good for the fact that it is still home to trader Vic’s) and a horsy cab ride around Central Park.  Her disappointment hadn’t to do with having seen this stuff before, she hadn’t, it had to do with her desire to go see art, hear music and enjoy the culinary delights of the capital of the world.  Upstaters just don’t get it.

[Author’s Note:  Having just reread the paragraphs about the nice, albeit provincial, host family; I feel I owe them an apology.  Although I haven’t thought of them in twenty some odd years, I still hold a level of the righteous indignation that only cosmopolitan, intellectual snobs like me can truly carry.  Why should I resent these people, it’s not the woman’s fault that she did not meet my expectations of meeting a living Georgia O’Keefe and that her husband had no interest in modern compositions like those from Philip Glass, John Adams, Steven Reich or even some of the other twentieth century greats like Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Big Momma Thornton, Miles Davis, Coltrane or even the Rolling Stones.  Deep down, these people had a good nature and, although their tastes and lifestyle differed from my own, who am I to pass judgment?  

Perhaps, it is stories that this Glens Falls couple undoubtedly repeats when they are reminded of their year with our Swedish darling that turns those “regular” people against us intellectuals.  Maybe we need to clean our side of the street, put aside the snobbery, live and let live and, if outsiders have questions, don’t start with a condescending sigh but, rather, perhaps actually provide them with an invitation to learn about the things we find interesting and maybe a state of détente can grow between we hated “elitists” and the majority of the people in the country.  Maybe some outreach will do something to build a bridge between the highly distrusted academy and the people on Main Street.  Maybe this could lead to a return to trusting scientific and other scholarly experts rather than hearing statements like, “Well, sure Stephen Hawking says that but Billy Bob down at the end of the bar disagrees and Billy Bob never steered me wrong.”

Just don’t expect me to say nice things about Disney, paintings of clowns, large eyed kitties or music by Kenny G.]

Back to the topic at hand, the article that follows describes all sorts of interesting ideas regarding auditory concepts for advertising and object identification.  It gets into some of the work I’m interested in with the use of sound to represent spatial relationships.  I hope you enjoy it and don’t mind my stream of consciousness rant above too much.

New Media Knowledge (UK)
Saturday, April 29, 2006

Sounds Subliminal: Branding the Future With Audio

EXTRACT: “The team is also working with blind artists to find ways of interpreting music for people with visual impairment. The future of sonic branding is surround..”

Ringtones, radio and TV audio branding, MP3s and podcasting – all yet more ways for brands to connect with consumers. Add the Sony PSP, the PlayStation3 and the XBox360. This event on 23rd February 2006 looked at how marketers and brands can use audio as a way to engage and build relationships with consumers in the digital space…

This was a joint NMK / MusicTank event
Report by Robert Dennis
Chair: David Jennings – DJ Alchemi

David started off by saying that the aim of this event was to explore how sound creates different identities, how it can be used to create particular messages and how sound is used to communicate those messages.

Music in particular is inherently ambiguous, but its meaning can become more explicit depending on specific contexts, eg advertising, radio, tv, games and podcasting.

David drew attention to recent research that shows that although 83% of all commercial communication is visual, 75% of our emotions are influenced by what we smell while there is 65% chance our mood will change when we hear a new sound (BrandSense).

Bernard Carey and Michael Spencer – Sound Strategies

Bernard started his talk with an impromptu rendition of Andy Williams’s Happy Heart: (“There’s a certain sound always follows me around”). Brands and companies want to be followed around by a certain sound. However, the exact way to ensure that the right feeling accompanies a brand’s sound is far from clear. There’s very little research on how music and sound reacts with the brain to produce emotional responses.

Visual corporate identity is promoted alongside strategy, culture, products and services to create an image of the company. Visual identity should be strengthened by sonic identity, which needs to be created and developed by careful research and analysis. Sonic identity should also be used in a disciplined way. This helps build familiarity among stakeholders and enhances the brand’s reputation. However, there is no silver bullet: music is essential in branding, but it’s how we use it as part of a strategy, and how we choose it, that counts.

Most new media offer what Sound Strategies call “sonic opportunities”, but these are not being used to full effect. Currently only 8 of the FTSE100 companies use sound on their websites. Even companies that do use sonic branding don’t have a fully-defined sound strategy.

Music in the human development context

Michael pointed out that music has always been a very valuable means of communication, and there are strong links between music and the development of language and our emotions.

How do we apply this knowledge? We need to understand what music is and how it relates to our development. There are musical elements in the way we speak, and speech patterns directed at children have the same reaction anywhere in the world, regardless of the language. Anthropologists studying the development of language have found that music has always been an important part of human communication.

All societies have music, and it is linked with social bonding and religion. Above all, music produces powerful emotional responses in humans. Music promotes cognitive development, crosses national boundaries and stays with us for a long time.

Music can also drive consumer behaviour, but we have to choose pieces carefully as a piece of music can the opposite effect from what we wanted.

One problem that Michael highlighted is that we tend to rely on the music of the last 30 years, or contemporary music – we don’t explore genres. Also, we don’t have a way to talk about sound in the way we can do with visual. We need a descriptive but transferable vocabulary that enables advertisers and clients to talk to each other about sound in the same way that we are able to talk about visual. Above all, sound has to fit in with a company’s individual requirements and the imperatives of its brand.

Andrew Ingram – Radio Advertising Bureau

Andrew started by asking what have we learned about the way radio advertisers use sound. Commercial radio is over thirty years old, but what do know about the way music reacts on people?

The main attraction of radio advertising is that it’s a cheap, but the real difference between radio and TV advertising is that it’s much harder to avoid radio ads.

Both radio and cinema have much lower levels of ad avoidance than other media, in particular TV (with PVR technology now a major factor) and online. Radio is also much better for increasing outreach.

How can you use sound in a way that when people hear your sound they will remember you? While orthodox advertising doesn’t link to brands very well on radio, there is still great scope for using a distinctive sound – including music, rhythm and melody – to create an emotional impact on the listener and to make your brand more memorable.

Andrew cited the comments of Carphone Warehouse’s Charles Dunstone (who built his brand through radio) that it is a good medium for leaving a few basic ideas in people’s heads.

Andrew played some examples of familiar ads from the 80s, including the Toblerone song, and a recent ad for Coke featuring an African choir. Both of these radio ads use music to produce a powerful, memorable effect on the listener.

Dan Jackson – Founder Sonicbrand

Dan described how he started the first sonic branding agency in the UK. He has spent seven years trying to make a market in audio branding and helps brand owners and agencies decide what kind of music they should use. However, as Michael Spencer pointed out earlier, people don’t have a vocabulary for defining music in brand terms.

Dan’s three fundamental laws of music for brands are:

1. Music has to match the emotions of the brand 2. Music has to be right for the medium being used 3. Music has to match the brand’s message

Dan played a number of sound clips to illustrate his three laws, including ads from BA, the US Cheese Marketing Board, the Kia-Ora ad from the eighties, the Simpsons and the McDonald’s sing-for-your-burger ad – all of which use music to achieve a strong emotional response in the listener.

The key thing is that branding has to be consistent. While this is relatively easy to achieve through the use of visual imagery (eg, logos), it’s not so straightforward with sound. Companies often just want to put the latest piece of music on their brand. Since a lot of commercial music has become more like muzak, the association with the brand may not be strong enough.

Dan also picked up the point about how we talk about using music and said that commercial radio in the US and mainland Europe are way ahead of the UK in being able to do this effectively.

Dan Kirby – DKPM / Sonic ID and Martyn Ware – Illustrious

We live in audio-visual age, but while we spend most of our time considering video, we spend less time looking at the audio side when it comes to branding and marketing. Sonic ID was set up as a partnership to address this issue: using sound to reinforce a brand is ‘the difference between being seen and being heard’.

Martyn explored the cultural and artistic aspects of sonic branding. He explained how using revolutionary 3-dimensional sound technology, Illustrious are able to create (apparently) solid sound objects that move around in space for indoor and outdoor events.

Martyn has also encouraged companies to develop a bespoke compositional imperative for creating a new kind of branding. Advertisers tend to scour the marketplace for contemporary, hip music because it’s a safe option. Sonic ID want to encourage companies to develop original music and to help them to develop a free-thinking approach to how consumers’ emotions can be manipulated through music in connection with brands.

As a Visiting Professor in the digital music department at Queen Mary College, London, Martyn has been looking at music information retrieval technology, (including meta-tagging) and the reality of having a personalised radio station.

The team are also working with blind artists to find ways of interpreting music for people with visual impairment.

The future of sonic branding is surround. Martyn’s team will be delivering a series of mini-lectures called the Future of Sound (organised by the Arts Council) later this year. Artists, games designers and cognitive scientists will explore the links between sound, the mind, the arts and commerce. There is huge interest in exploring the power of sound and its psychological effects. Having worked with 3D, Martyn is convinced that the way we perceive sound and space are linked.

As well as doing conventional branding, Sonic ID is looking at other experimental ways of using sound, including attaching sonic signatures to buildings and designing immersive 3D spaces, often combined with digital projection.

Sonic branding is not just about radio and using music in advertising – there is also huge potential in developing spatial applications. Sourcing original, bespoke music, rather than just using off-the-shelf tracks, can also help create a strong brand identity.

Dan then talked about how these artistic and cultural developments can be applied in a commercial context, especially in an age when there is less actual stuff to package.

There are five key reasons why sound and music is important for brands:

1. It brings the brand to life
2. Builds a strong emotional response
3. Allows the listener to experience the brand
4. Transcends language and cultural barriers
5. Works on a subconscious level – when you’re not watching / reading

Advertising is traditionally about interruption. Sonic branding, however, can be a great way of allowing a message to seep in unnoticed.

Sound should be an important building block in creating a brand, although it has tended to be something of a poor relation to visual. It’s important that sound and music are integrated into an overall brand strategy.

Sound can be used to partition areas of a store and as a wayfinding device for websites. It can also be used to brand buildings and public spaces. Sonic ID have used sound to create both external and internal brand identities, similar to the internal-only sound component for Peugeot which was used as a PC start-up sound and hold music. They also used sound to brand an awards event for BP, which included ‘sonic searchlights’ and tension music.

Dan concluded by saying that the future of sound is linked to the future of brands.

John Broomhall – Broomhall Projects

John spoke about the use of sound in video games. Sound is now a crucial and highly-developed element of any game. One title that John is currently working on for Sony has at least forty licensed tracks. Sound and music are a massive part of gameplay experience.

There are three types of music in games:

1. Bespoke music specially composed for the game. Gamers will develop a deep relationship with this as it is ubiquitous and heard over a long time.
2. Licensed music: games often introduce new bands and tracks.
3. Hybrids of 1 and 2.

Music and sound help create the mood of a game, determine its pace and deliver key messages. Music makes the game more immersive and compelling, eg by creating a sense of threat. It can also underpin the narrative, support geographical references, and create a feeling of reward.

However, music can also be overused in games. As with film, the key questions are what and who is the music for: when it is used well, sound can make all the difference, but sometimes the grammar of film music is misapplied.

Music should be used to support the brand. This is done primarily through association, eg by using a distinctive theme in connection with the brand (eg Star Wars, Harry Potter). There are rights and costs issues involved as well – for example, games that John has worked on involve licensing the appropriate tracks to complement the street culture of the game.

Another issue is quality. Some WW2 games, for example, require an AAA orchestral score. Getting the right sound may involve commissioning original work (eg Paul Oakenfold’s Fifa theme) and it is crucial to consider the additional commercial exploitation of the music (eg, through ringtone sales), especially where music is an integral element of the game (as in Pop Idol).

One of the problems facing the composer writing music for games is that you cannot predict how someone will play the game itself, the route they will take, or how long they will spend playing. It is essential to have variation over a long period of time. Music can be created to allow a dynamic response (as in a film) when something significant happens. Delivering music in segmented form and in layers allows greater interactivity. Using pools of motifs and features that can be combined dynamically requires considerable creativity and ingenuity on the part of the composer. Music for games is accordingly written in linear and vertical sections.

Characterization is another important aspect of using music in games: each character can have their own music, which again enhances gameplay. Game states can be signalled through music, eg to indicate when the character is in a state of danger, or when their health level falls or rises.

With technological developments in consoles (eg the Xbox 360) and increasing computing power, the capacity is now available to achieve the same level of sound quality as in a film. Overall, music will play an increasingly important role in the branding of games.

Alex Bellinger – Audacious

Podcasting is one of the most talked-about developments in the audio world. With no gatekeepers and a simple distribution mechanism, podcasting has been widely taken up by large numbers of individuals, and organisations, including radio stations. However, unlike traditional broadcasting, podcasts are about the niche, not the numbers.

Podcasting can be considered as online radio to go, appealing to the individual tastes of the listener. RSS allows listeners to access just what they want, on their own terms, and developments in mobile technology mean phones are becoming an increasingly important platform and market.

The great advantage of a podcast is that you are in control: you can listen whenever you want. But time-shifting obviously has implications for advertisers. Podcasts work because they are personal, engaging and persuasive. Voice can convey far more than text.

Alex described the journey radio has made from Marconi and the early pioneers, through to its development as a means of mass communication, where numbers are everything. However, with the advent of the web, ways of individualising content such as podcasting are gaining favour over the “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Podcasts are a great way of differentiating your brand. Businesses need an individual voice and identity – and a successful podcast should reflect the style of the individual podcaster. Firms need to capture the ear of their customers, staff and stakeholders. Podcasting is ideal for tailoring the message to the individual.

The key difference between podcasting and broadcasting is that with a podcast the individual has selected the content. Recent hits such as Ricky Gervais’s podcasts show, there is an appetite for the medium.

Pocasting is also changing our perceptions about media: for example the Daily Telegraph podcast is now effectively competing with Radio 4. With mobile phone penetration expected to reach 1 billion users by 2009, the potential for personalised, downloadable content is enormous.

Alasdair Scott – Filter

Alasdair opened by saying that mobile is becoming the most prevalent digital platform. This has been driven by advances in mobile technology, allowing the distribution of full, high quality music tracks to phones.

Filter has developed its BlueCasting technology, a proximity marketing system that allows fast, free and relevant downloads to people within range of its signal.

Filter supported the release of Coldplay’s X&Y album through blucasting exclusive free content to anyone who wanted to download it, at concerts as well as in public spaces, eg mainline railway stations.

Running a campaign over a fortnight, with around twenty DRM-free assets, they achieved an opt-in rate of over 20% (4% is considered a good rate for direct marketing). They not only helped increase mobile sales, but received additional press coverage due to the novelty factor of the technology.

There is a huge demand for mobile content that will only increase, Al noted. Brands can benefit from sonic elements, especially if they are unique, viral and free.

See the original EVENT page


About the Speakers:

Bernard Carey and Michael Spencer – Sound Strategies (

Andrew Ingram – Radio Advertising Bureau (

Dan Jackson – Founder, Sonicbrand and author of Sonic Branding: An Essential Guide to the Art and Science of Sonic Branding (

Martyn Ware – Musician and record producer, founding member of Human League, Heaven 17 and the Illustrious Company ( with Dan Kirby DKPM/sonic ID (

John Broomhall – Broomhall Projects (

Alex Bellinger – Partner, Audacious Communications (

Al Scott – Founding Partner, Filter (

CHAIR: David Jennings – Founder, DJ Alchemi

© 2003-2006 New Media Knowledge
Version 1.2.9

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

2 thoughts on “Audio and Music in Advertising”

  1. NOW NOW! I was with you until you started dissing Kenny G! Kenny is cool even if all his music sounds the same. May all the advertising you hear in the future have Kenny G audio… In Dolby 5.1!

    Only kidding of course. Great blog!

  2. What a self-righteous, arrogant, poseur. And, on top of all that, a little attention to a better, more coherant writing style, would have made the whole mish-mosh at least a little easier to follow.

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