Jingle Theory: The Marketing Math Behind Christmas Carols

Jingle Theory: The Marketing Math Behind Christmas Carols

It has begun. As it has every year around this time. As it will every year to come. The nightmarish soundscape synonymous with ravenous hordes packed tightly together as they drive themselves half-mad in pursuit of joy. Those tormentors of the service workers, drowned them in cheer until they wish themselves deaf. The scourge of jingling bells and caroling choirs. The drummer boys and tannenbaums. The Bing and the Bublé.

The Christmas carol.

Okay, that might be a little over-dramatic. But you can’t deny that Christmas carols—some of them, anyhow—can get a little bit old after a while. Particularly when you’re forced to listen to the same one or two albums over and over again for about two straight months.

Even those who love the season have one or two songs (or, at the very least, renditions of songs) that they could do without—yet once a song enters the Christmas catalog, it tends to stay there.

And with good reason.

For this special post, we’re going to take a look at why Christmas carols are so pervasive—and how that actually has a lot more to do with marketing than you might think.

KISS-ing Underneath the Mistletoe

If you read up on marketing strategy at all, you’ll probably see the anagram KISS show up everywhere. While the last S differs depending on the politeness of your company, the “Keep It Simple, Stupid” idea is foundational in marketing, and for good reason: Simple things are easier to remember.

This is one of the major contributing factors to earworms (which is the term for songs that get stuck in your head), and is almost a defining feature of most holiday music. Simple and repetitive melodies, choruses, structures, or lyrics make songs much more memorable and recognizable.

But What About Mariah?

Even the exceptions to the rule follow the KISS in some fashion. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has recently entered the ‘Infinitely Looping Holiday Playlist’ with a lot of variation from verse to verse. However, while this less-than-simple song makes impromptu karaoke a little more difficult, it still follows a very rigid and repetitive structure, with a repeating hook: Several rhyming lines about nostalgic Christmas and winter-themed joys, followed by “But all I want for Christmas is you”.

Of course, all pop music has a simple and repetitive structure with a straightforward message. (If you’d like to hear more about that, Malcolm Gladwell goes very in-depth in his Podcast episode titled The King of Tears. It’s an exceptional look at why ‘fluff’ tends to be far more popular.) However, the varied lyrics of “All I Want for Christmas is You” actually sacrifices simplicity to play on another factor of ‘Jingle Theory’…

A Big Ol’ Gift Box Full of Emotions

Mariah Carey spends most of “All I Want For Christmas is You” bouncing from emotional touchstone to emotional touchstone, from winter wonderlands to presents under the Christmas tree to cozying up by an open fire.

Earworm research suggests that there is a strong tie between our ability to recall music and any emotions that we have associated with it. This most certainly explains the longevity of many Christmas songs, particularly those from our childhood: Hearing a Christmas song can conjure up memories from Christmas past, reminding us of what the holiday meant to us as children, and reinvigorating our seasonal joy as adults.

Music that is tied with positive holiday memories (which, thanks to Christmas music being omnipresent during the season, is the same chunk of songs for most of the Western world) tends to lift our mood when we hear it, which is why malls will always insist upon putting it on 24/7. After all, happy shoppers who are ‘in tune’ with their holiday cheer will spend much more than grumpy Scrooges who just want to get home in time for The Bachelor.

Do we get emotional over commercial jingles?

The effectiveness of ’emotional linkage’ is both a tool that classic jingles leverage and a reason they’ve started to fade from mainstream advertising.

The old jingles from decades past that you still see referenced today in pop culture, such as the “I feel like chicken tonight” song, have a nostalgic power that was earned through high-volume repetition, an association with the television programming with which it would air, and a careful construction to be as simple and catchy as possible.

However, even our favorite original commercial jingles didn’t start with emotional associations (apart from the occasional ‘this song reminds me of…’ associations).

Pop music, on the other hand, comes pre-loaded with recognition and emotional weight. Even if the lyrics aren’t associated with the brand or product, if the recognizable chorus sounded close to a company name, an industry, or a message, then they would gain instant association. For example, I can’t hear the original “Mellow Yellow” without thinking of butter, even though the song has nothing to do with dairy products.

old warning signThe Unintentional Irony of Poor Track Selection

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” has been used by not one but three US politicians in major political campaigns. The unintentional irony? It’s a protest song. Sure, it sounds uplifting, particularly if you just listen to the chorus, but the song is actually a harsh critique about the state not caring about its citizens, and the gross mistreatment of Vietnam war veterans. “Born in the USA” is intended to be a “We turn a blind eye to injustice because it’s a part of our culture”, not an “I’m proud of my country because it’s the best”.\

In fact, many attribute its use in Reagan’s Republican political campaign to be the reason why Bruce Springsteen became a politically active Democrat.

So What?

So, holiday music is here to stay, and it’s thanks to a number of psychological tools that have been widely studied and implemented in modern marketing, from the jingles of our youth to the rocking soundtracks of our movie trailers (often featuring songs that aren’t even in the movie they’re advertising).

In other words, from a business perspective, Bing and Bublé are here to stay, but with a little analytical ingenuity, we can leverage the lessons of their craft to elevate our own marketing to the next level.

Call Us Today!

I usually try to work a call-to-action into the conclusion, but I figured I’d keep this one purely educational.

If you do have any questions, leave them in the comment section below, and I’ll do my damnedest to find you an answer.

If you’ve left your holiday marketing to the last minute, jump in a time machine and contact us about two months ago. (Or you could also contact us today if you have any other marketing, writing, or promotional needs heading into the new year.)

William Hull
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