The devils behind Subway's "five-dollar foot-long" jingle.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 21 2008 7:21 AM

Jingle Hell

The diabolical geniuses behind Subway's "five-dollar foot-long" song.

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(I didn't get the sense that there'd been a conscious strategy at work here. Tonefarmer's songwriters whipped up seven or eight jingle candidates for Subway—including a Weezer sound-alike and a ska-inflected number—with the hope that one tune would be chosen and, in a best-case scenario, develop into an earworm. Harned paused to self-analyze only after the fact, when I requested that he look more closely at what he'd wrought.)

More and more, ad agencies don't bother to commission songs; they instead just buy up cool indie tracks to run behind ads. (A recent example—and an ad I love: the Nike Sparq spot in which footage of athletes is expertly edited to a Saul Williams track.) When original music does come into play, it's often instrumental, mood-setting wallpaper. The in-your-face jingle, with product-specific lyrics, is something of a lost art.

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But take heart, jingle fans—they're still out there. Dunkin' Donuts hired They Might Be Giants to pen a series of short songs about coffee and smoothies and such. And the current campaign for FreeCreditReport.com makes bold use of infectious musical storytelling. While the Subway jingle is more a demi-jingle, with very little build and no verses, the FreeCreditReport.com songs are full-blown ballads—which of course include carefully enunciated mentions of the brand, in this case literally spelled out. The songwriter for these spots was David Muhlenfeld of the Martin Agency, who says he "went away with my guitar and some cheap Chianti" to find inspiration. When I asked Muhlenfeld whether he used any particular tricks to make the tunes catchy, he replied: "Repetition alone will make something stick in a listener's head. The question is, once your song is in their head, will they want to stick that head in an oven?"

And that pretty much captures the risk inherent in jingle usage. It also perhaps explains why jingles enjoy limited popularity with today's advertising execs. When a jingle's bad, it's very bad. Or as Cronin and Mambro put it: "Done wrong, it can make your eyes bleed."

Grade: B. No great shakes here, but anyone watching the ad will 1) probably be arrested by the colorful visuals and memorable tune and 2) almost certainly receive the message that $5 foot-longs are available at Subway. So, mission accomplished. Granted, the song does grow irritating with repeat exposures. (I won't be sad when it disappears from the airwaves, and I won't be listening to the extended dance remix available for download at the Subway Web site.) But thanks to its atypical harmonies, I think this jingle manages to stop just shy of encroaching on eye-bleeding, head-in-oven territory.

Got an ad you'd like to see reviewed? E-mail your suggestions to adreportcard@slate.com.

Correction, June 5, 2008: Although composer Jimmy Harned initially stated that the jingle's chord structure "goes down from a C to an A-flat," he later clarified that while the guitar part does go to an A-flat, the more prominent vocals are voicing an F minor. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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