Why You’ll Never Forget That Empire Carpet’s Phone Number Is 588-2300

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 7 2012 11:14 PM

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

The history of advertising jingles, a truly American art form.

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The next jingle to hit it big was the 1946 Chiquita Banana spot that made Americans crazy for calypso. Reading the lyrics, I couldn’t help but wonder if that famous opening hook—“I’m Chiquita Banana and I’ve come to say, I offer good nutrition in a simple way”—wasn’t the kernel of the corny trope in which any out-of-touch jokester could rap that they were “here to say” they liked something in a “major way.” The folks at Fruity Pebbles, for one, leaned pretty hard on it.

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Indeed, when rap broke through in the ‘80s, advertisers were at the ready. “Part of the appeal seems to have been that a good deal of information could be imparted by rapping the lyrics,” Taylor writes. Russell Simmons notes that the use of hip-hop in commercials wasn’t selling out, because “being a starving artist is not that cool in the ghetto.” By the time Run-DMC nabbed a sportswear line after releasing “My Adidas” in 1987, Adidas had already been slipping them shoes for years.

As memorable as “My Adidas” was, my favorite moment of brand loyalty from DMC remains his ferocious shout-out to Ronald McDonald in “Son of Byford.” And while McDonald’s is responsible for their fair share of tongue twisters (remember the “Menu Song” pressed on flexi discs?) the fact remains that jingle writers of the ‘40s were crafting rhymes with more complexity than most of today’s club hits. And taking this one step further, is it possible that jingle writers predated beat boxing? Taylor recounts a labor dispute between recording artists and record companies in 1942 that led to oddball instruments not recognized by the union like kazoos, Jews’ harps, and musical saws being used for the recording of TV jingles. Most strikingly, singers also mimicked full bands with their mouths. Said adman Robert Foreman: “Some of our people can dub in a bass fiddle by blowing a ‘puck-puck-puck’ sound close to the mic. There’s one guy who does the snare drum, trumpet, and sax by breathing through his nose. He must be making a small fortune out of TV sound tracks.”

It is innovations and improvisations like this that make for such immersive reading in the first half of Sounds of Capitalism. And though Taylor does a fine job completing the circle, there’s simply not as much material to grapple with once music licensing became the name of the game in the ‘90s and beyond. Taylor astutely targets the “conquest of cool” phenomenon and chronicles the erosion of the sell-out stigma, explaining, for example, how the once-untouchable Beatles catalog has since become commercial wallpaper, with the controversial appropriation of “Revolution” in a 1987 ad for Nike serving as Trojan horse. I also liked being reminded of the day we all rushed to snap up that Nick Drake song from the Volkswagen commercial, pretending we’d owned it all along. But it’s less fun to read about Moby’s grandma-friendly techno and the millions of dollars it reaped in licensing than it is to discover a scrappy character like the banjo player Harry Reser, who created “sparkling” music for the Clicquot Club Eskimos radio show in 1929, which in turn made listeners think of sparkling ginger ale.  

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I guess I simply appreciate the spirit of jingle writers, even when their creations drive me nuts. The cannibalization of the pop charts and an endless parade of kitsch may be eroding the craftsmanship that made jingles such an experimental enterprise in the last century, but the practice is far from extinct. As any Chicagoan can attest, carpeting-related earworms didn’t end with Empire, especially considering Luna, another local carpet company, has already claimed the crown of catchiest jingle in the city. In New York, the “Hatfield and McCoy-style advertising war” between Dial 7 and their rival, Carmel Car and Limousine Service, whose jingle is a little too 6-centric for Dial 7’s taste, rages on. And don’t look now, but even the Free Credit Score band is back.

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The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture by Timothy D. Taylor. University of Chicago Press.