Listening to a favourite piece of music is one of life’s great pleasures. As such, it was inevitably going to attract the attention of advertisers who, recognising the importance of non-verbal communication, instinctively saw it as another way to enhance a campaign’s appeal.
But does it work?
There’s surprisingly little academic research on the effectiveness of music in advertising and the little research that does exist is often times contradictory. Early studies seemed to downplay its impact. As recently as 2008, Millward Brown concluded the use of music has “no effect on persuasion”. However, Les Binet and his colleagues recently concluded that music could increase effectiveness by between 20% and 30%. For some ads, this definitely seems like an underestimation. Indeed a case could be made that for John Lewis’ Christmas ads, the music is the most important element in creating effectiveness.
This fairly stark difference of opinion is partly down to the different research methodologies employed. Binet and his colleagues were influenced by the insights of Robert Heath, whose work had shown that advertising can influence consumers in ways that doesn’t involve explicit messages. Consumers can pick up from an ad that the brand wishes to be seen as, for instance, exciting or innovative without either being an explicit message of the ad. And these implicit messages are frequently and most effectively communicated by music.
Music can help to gain attention, create desired moods, change the pace of the advertising narrative, facilitate brand and message recall, improve attitudes towards brands, and ultimately, influence purchase behaviour.
Binet recognised that to fully gauge the effect of music in advertising,
one would need a methodology that specifically measured implicit effects. He and his colleagues employed a variant of the Harvard Implicit Association Test which, rather than focussing on how people answer questions about a brand, which is the traditional research methodology, focuses instead on the speed of their response – the quicker the response, the more deeply held a view is. The results of test confirm that if one restricts oneself to measuring explicit effects then the impact of music can be negligible. But an analysis of the reaction-time data revealed a distinct impact on the implicit perceptions of the brand;
in this case it made it seem like a more exciting brand.
Without music, life would be a mistake.
So if music works in advertising, how do you choose the right track?
There is one problem from the start – while many people might like to listen to music, they often don’t like listening to the same music. Other than one’s own subjective taste, how should we choose a music track for an ad that will hopefully have a wider appeal than just one’s peers? In their heyday, Levis were unique by having a clearly defined strategy on how music should be used in their ads – the tracks had to have an edge and to be unfamiliar to all but the most knowledgeable of its key target audience. The choice seems to be most often based on things like mood and pace and that was certainly the case in our own experience. In campaigns for SuperValu and Fáilte Ireland (shown below), music was chosen for the specific task of bringing a more contemporary ‘feel’ to the brand.
The other issue when selecting music is the degree to which it should ‘sing’ the strategy. Some feel that unless there is a very close fit between the lyrics of the song and strategic ambition of the ad, then the music is not appropriate. There is definitely a role for a close congruity between music and the ad but it should not become a limiting factor.
Music has a unique ability to create a mood and to provoke an emotional response. Above and beyond reflecting the content of the ad, the choice of music should be selected for its desired emotional impact on the target audiences i.e. how it changes how they feel about the brand. Given its important role in increasing effectiveness it should not be regarded as an afterthought, something to be decided after the ad is shot, but rather as an early key element in increasing effectiveness.
Paddy Barry is Planning Director
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