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.

The Spot: Various people and creatures (a police officer, a flight attendant, a Godzilla-type monster) hold up five fingers and then, using their outstretched palms, indicate a distance of roughly one foot. Meanwhile, a song plays. The lyrics, repeated again and again: "Five. Five dollar. Five dollar foot-long."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

For a limited time, Subway is offering a special deal: foot-long subs for $5. Foot-longs were once Subway's "stock in trade," according to Chief Marketing Officer Tony Pace, but in recent years the smaller 6-inch subs have overtaken them in popularity. (The 6-inchers are often sold as part of a package deal—including a drink and a snack—designed to compete with other fast food outlets' value meals.) "We wanted to get back to our heritage," says Pace, "as a place where you can get a foot-long sub."

How to convey this vital information to the public at large? To ad agency MMB, the advent of a $5 foot-long seemed in itself momentous and compelling enough that elaborate persuasive efforts could only cloud the issue. The key was to be as straightforward as possible. So the team devised a simple hand gesture to symbolize the $5 price and the ample length of the sandwich. This semaphore had a pleasing parsimony. But it still required some explanatory copy.

"We didn't want any blabbing," say Jerry Cronin and Jamie Mambro of MMB. "It was just, let's see how many times we can say 'five dollar foot-long.' Let's mention it as many times as possible without making someone hurt us. We wanted to make sure no one would miss the message." They quickly realized the best way to accomplish that goal (barring an embrace of the controversial "HeadOn: Apply directly to the forehead" method) was to embed the phrase in a jingle.

The resultant, maddeningly catchy ditty has spawned, among other responses, a YouTube horror-parody video titled "$5 Curse," in which a man goes slowly insane as he attempts to dislodge the tune from his skull. Comments posted by viewers of this video include: "I have this exact same problem. Thank you for making this video!"; "LOL. yes!! dude. this is me in my apartment"; and "I, too, am a victim of the $5 curse. My daughter and I were singing it together with the harmonies while doing the dishes after dinner tonight."

I think the song's genius (I myself have been known to hum along) lies in its blending of stubborn repetition with a haunting and imploring chord progression. It's a far cry from the pat, upbeat vibe of your standard jingle, and it's this unexpected quality that perks up our ears and sticks in our minds. I called the composer, Jimmy Harned (of the boutique music outfit Tonefarmer), to see whether he might confirm my notion that there's something ominous going on in his work.

"The chord structure does imply something dark," he agreed, getting out his guitar to demonstrate over the phone. "On the word long, [the guitar part] goes down from a C to an A-flat," he said, strumming, "which is kind of a weird place. It's definitely not a poppy, happy place. It's more of a metaly place. But at the same time, the singing stays almost saccharine." (The vocals shift to form an F minor over the guitar's A-flat.) *

(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.

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.)