Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that advertising jingles have been a part of marketing culture for a very long time.
By most reports, the first jingle broadcast on the radio debuted on Christmas Day 1926 to praise the virtues of Wheaties cereal. Intervening decades brought a rise and fall in the production and popularity of jingles. At their peak, these artfully produced ditties shaped the minds and spending habits of generations of Americans.
Of course, not all jingles are created equal. Some, once burned into our consciousness, will never leave us. Others do not make such a strong impression. And changing media habits have made ads easier to avoid. The Atlantic went so far as to declare jingles dead in 2016 — but that pronouncement just might have been premature.
To explore the staying power of jingles today, we got 735 U.S. residents to share their impressions of 67 advertising melodies … then had to go on a weeklong silence retreat. Once we returned with our hearing and sanity intact, this is what we found:
- “Nationwide is on your side” was the best-known jingle, recognized by 92.6% of survey respondents. It was followed closely by McDonald’s “Ba-da-ba-ba-baaa… I’m lovin’ it” and the canyon-crossing cry of “Ricola!”
- The top 10 most recognizable jingles are all attached to brands between 50 and 100 years old. Five of those jingles themselves reach back to the 1960s.
- Insurance firm jingles were immediately known to roughly half the survey’s respondents. All four insurance jingles — Nationwide, State Farm, Farmers, and Liberty Mutual — placed in the top third of the pack for recognizability.
- The Folgers coffee jingle placed second in the most likeable and catchiest categories, and near the top for recognizability, as well.
- Chili’s “baby back ribs” ditty won the title for catchiest jingle. Following in second and third place were Folgers’ timeless rhyme and the über-simple Ricola yodel.
- The repetitive jingle for Liberty Mutual tops both the most hated and the most annoying lists — but it also lands in the top 10 for catchiest.
- The jingle for Sara Lee is by far the most commonly misheard, with 74.6% of people thinking the lyrics are, “Nobody does it like Sara Lee.”
We tested our respondents’ familiarity with jingles in a variety of ways — remembering the tune, remembering the lyrics, naming the brand based on the jingle, and filling in the blanks. Read on to see what else we learned, as well as some best practices for advertisers planning their next jingle-based campaign.
The Power of the Earworm
Anyone who is watched TV or listened to the radio knows that some product jingles are sticky, refusing to leave your head for hours — sometimes even days — after you have heard the ad. The lyrics do not have to contain recognizable words (McDonald’s, Farmers, Chia Pet) or an actual melody (Ricola cough drops). You do not even have to connect it with the product it represents to carry a jingle around all day: You just have to hear it. Then you cannot unhear it.
As a 28-year-old female survey taker from Texas put it: “The catchy ones are stuck in my head forever. I will never need to call J.G. Wentworth, but I will always remember their phone number because of their jingle.”
Using a weighted average for responses in the “Definitely remember,” Maybe remember,” and “Doesn’t ring a bell” columns, we analyzed how recognizable each jingle was to our survey respondents. Here we show the results for the Top 20 Catchiest Jingles, but you can find rankings for the entire list at the end of this article.
The winner with the most recognizable jingle is Nationwide. Since its slogan’s birth in 1964, the insurance firm has run ads for decades with the same soothing, seven-note jingle, giving it more than 50 years to seep into the consciousness of three generations of Americans. With longevity like that, it’s no wonder almost 93% of people know immediately who’s on their side. Nationwide has one of the best advertising slogans of all time
Sharing the top of the list is fast food giant McDonald’s, whose advertising history began when Ronald McDonald first frightened children on TV in 1963. Among its three campaigns that placed among the top 50 most recognizable jingles, McDonald’s introduced the most recent in 2003, which means that Americans have been “Ba-da-ba-ba-baaa … loving it” for 18 years.
There is a lot to be said for staying power: The top 10 most recognizable jingles are all attached to brands more than 50 years old, and five of those jingles themselves reach back to the 1960s. The Campbell’s Soup “mm-mm good” jingle debuted in 1935. If you’re hoping for lots of people to know your jingle, it helps to stick around for a lifetime.
Industry Standouts — and Washouts
Ad jingles fall into predictable categories: snacks, candy, fast food, soft drinks, cereal, and … insurance?
Yes, firmly planted among the mainstays of instant gratification were the unsexy insurance firms, whose songs were immediately recognized by roughly half of respondents. No other industry had as many easily identified ads, with all four insurance jingles — Farmers, Nationwide, State Farm, and Liberty Mutual — ranking in the top third for recognizability.
When we grouped industry jingles together and averaged their collective scores, the insurance jingles were most annoying and least likeable, but boy did they make an impression. They took top honors for both catchiness and memorability.
More than half the products on our master list of jingles were for snacks and candy (led by Kit Kat in the top 10), prepared foods (repped in the top 10 by Spaghetti-O’s and Campbell’s Soup), and toys and novelties (with Toys R Us at #10).
Averaged together, the candy/gum industry had the least annoying jingles and fared well for likeability, catchiness, and overall memorability.
If you look at the full results below, it’s interesting to note that Pepsi, Fanta, Dr Pepper, and even the iconic 70s Coke anthem all ranked near the bottom for recognizability. For an industry with big budgets and sparkling celebrity relationships, soft drink companies’ jingles largely fizzled. Collectively, they ranked low for likeability, high for annoyingness, and they landed dead last for both catchiness and memorability.
I Love That Song!
There are so many reasons to love a jingle: Most are upbeat and fun to sing, with a bouncy, catchy tune. Some are delivered by a spokescharacter or kid so cute, you will forever associate it with them or the happy time when you first heard them. Some are so silly they just make you smile. We will delve into the reasoning later, but first, we simply asked people which jingles they really, really like.
A few surprises cropped up in the top 10 list for likeability, alongside many predictable wins. The McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” jingle was at the top of the Like List, too. People love it most for its chirpy tune and simple, positive message, rating it a 4.39 out of 5 for likeability.
Next is Folgers’ timeless morning anthem (“The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup“). Band-Aid’s (“I am stuck on Band-Aid“) and Oscar Mayer’s (“My bologna has a first name“) campaigns, both 1970s classics delivered by adorable kids, rounded out the top five.
Among the surprises were the Purina Meow Mix jingle — which is literally just a cat singing scales to “Meow meow meow meow” over and over — which ranked in the top 10 of jingles people like, and nowhere near the top of the “dislike” or “annoying” categories. (Perhaps as a product of the 1970s, its maddening sound never reached the ears of younger respondents.)
It’s interesting to note that several of the top 10 winners in the “Love it” category also placed high in the categories of recognizability and/or catchiness, like the jingles for Nestlé’s Kit Kat bar, Lucky Charms cereal, and Folgers coffee.
Catching Your Ear
One of the most prolific jingle writers of all time, Barry Manilow once explained jingles as “these obnoxious little melodies that won’t leave you alone.” The multi-platinum singer and songwriter knows a thing or two about catchy songs, as he wrote famous jingles for such monster brands as McDonald’s, Pepsi, State Farm, and Band-Aid, which have stuck in the public’s ear for decades. We asked survey takers to tell us which ones they thought were the catchiest jingles.
You might wonder, what makes a catchy jingle? For a tiny bit of music, a lot goes into a jingle: It needs to be short and simple for your brain to pay attention to it. If there’s repetition, your brain is more likely to remember it. If it has got a distinctive, identifiable sound, you’ll be able to distinguish it from others. And finally, if it hits you in an emotional place — clever, funny, or relatable work best — you’ll have good associations with it.
One 49-year-old woman from Arkansas characterized a catchy jingle as, “Anything that sounds like it could be sung on a playground while skipping rope. Clever lyrics, cheerful and fun.”
The writers clearly knew the criteria for a catchy jingle when they wrote Chili’s “baby back ribs” ditty that won the title for catchiest jingle, with a score of 4.33 out of 5. Following right behind in second and third place were the time-honored Folgers rhyme with 4.32 and the über-simple Ricola call with 4.31.
Half-spoken and only semi-melodic with six notes, the alliterative “Maybe it’s Maybelline” campaign made a surprise showing in fourth place, with the punchy, repetitive “Ch-ch-ch-Chia” Pet rounding out the top five catchiest jingles. And speaking of repetition, the controversial Liberty Mutual jingle made it into the top 10. We will see it reappear in other top rankings, below.
Jingles That Jangle the Nerves
Just as numerous are the possible reasons why you might hate a jingle. A majority represent products — snacks, candy, fast food chains, soft drinks, prepared foods, breakfast cereal, and toys — that promise instant gratification, largely to kids. Hence, these jingles can be loud, silly, repetitive, excessively zany, or all of the above. All the better to grab kids’ attention — and grate on adults’ nerves. We asked people which jingles they love to hate.
Remember when we mentioned the repetition of “Liberty, Liberty, Liberty … Liberty” ? Yep, those four identical words did the trick: Survey takers said they hate the Liberty Mutual jingle more than any other.
The next least popular, from hazy decades past, are “Have a Pepsi day” from the late 1970s and “I feel like chicken tonight,” for a line of Ragu sauces, aptly named Chicken Tonight, which lived and died in the early 1990s.
The Army’s iconic “Be all that you can be” theme drew fire in the fourth spot. And a few more outliers from the 70s appeared on the hate list, including the brassy “Nair for short shorts” and the unearthly voices of the Lite Brite theme.
The appearance of the Chili’s jingle, rated catchiest and also among the top 10 most hated jingles, proves the two are not mutually exclusive. And, naturally, several jingles that were rated most hated also appear in the “most annoying” category, below.
Please Make It Stop
That one jingle that drives you nuts every time you hear it. It is not necessarily a bad thing, at least from an advertiser’s standpoint. Love it or hate it, an effective jingle stays in your head and makes you think, even subconsciously, of the product it represents. Knowing how maddening these earworms can be, we asked people which jingles they found most annoying.
Besides being the most hated jingle of all time, Liberty Mutual also won top honors for being the most annoying — and ranked 10th for catchiest, as well — thereby proving the point that annoying doesn’t necessarily mean ineffective. In the words of a 69-year-old woman from Florida, “Even if you hate it, you remember the product.”
The tune for Nestlé’s Wonderball, an amped-up cover of the 1958 hit song “Book of Love,” won second most annoying honors. The second-most-hated “Have a Pepsi day” jingle placed third for being annoying.
It comes as no surprise that many hated jingles are unpopular precisely because they’re annoying. In addition to Liberty Mutual and Pepsi, both qualities are shared by the jingles for J.G. Wentworth and Reese’s Puffs cereal.
The Most Misheard Jingle of All Time
It seems Americans do not love a double negative. While it is common for people to mishear lyrics and fill in their own words, Sara Lee wins the top spot for the most misheard jingle of all time, with a whopping 3 out of 4 people getting it wrong. But at least the company name is not what consumers mixed up.
Why We Love Jingles
Survey takers were pretty clear about what makes a winner, and it’s reflected in the list of most likeable jingles. More than half the survey takers said the most important ingredients are happiness, humor, and/or nostalgia. Other elements for endorsement included catchiness and cleverness, as well as positive associations with the original song, visual ad, singer or spokescharacter, or the product itself.
Why We Hate Jingles
As noted above, plenty of aspects can make you hate a jingle, too. The top turnoff is a grating or annoying quality. Repetitive or excessively cheesy jingles get thumbs-downs, too. Other problems include ads that are overplayed or too loud, and ones that are sexist or just plain dumb. Survey takers also cited problems with the product or spokescharacter as reasons for disliking a jingle.
Where We Hear Jingles
Americans’ media habits are changing, but traditional TV still has a slight edge. And the transition to streaming entertainment and handheld devices does not necessarily spell the end for jingles.
Ads will continue to pay for all but the most premium services, and platforms like YouTube and social media have made longer-form ads a possibility. (Lumé won acclaim and a nice boost in sales with its extravagant 3-minute song-and-dance musical number).
Many survey takers acknowledged this evolution in media and entertainment as shortening the reach of jingles, for better and for worse. “People don’t really watch TV or pay attention to ads the way they used to,” observed a 28-year-old woman from Washington, D.C. A 30-year-old man from Delaware agreed, “I never even see commercials anymore because of ad-block.”
Others went a step further in their analysis of modern advertising. A 30-year-old man from Georgia said, “I think it’s more about celebrity endorsements or influencers [now].” And a 35-year-old woman from Connecticut summed up the current plight of traditional ads by saying: “I don’t think jingles are as important today as they were in the past. Most people are too busy on their phones to even notice them.”
What Makes a Good Jingle? Lessons for Advertisers
As we mentioned earlier, there is a definite set of criteria that makes a jingle effective: It’s short, uses just a few tones in a distinctive pattern, maybe contains repetition, and definitely affects the listener emotionally in a clever, funny, or relatable way. Conventional wisdom backs up this list. But we also found some more clues for advertisers in our respondents’ answers to what they do and don’t like.
1) Know your audience:
- Do make it fun to sing along with and humorous.
- Don’t make it cheesy or overplayed.
- Do make it visually appealing and inspirational.
- Don’t make it grating, irritating, or repetitive.
- Do avoid sexism in imagery and lyrics.
“Catchy and fun to sing” matters more to women than men (48% to 42.1%). Humor is also more important to women, 53.4% of whom noted “funny” as an important factor compared with 50.2% of men.
The visual appeal of an ad matters more to men than women (21.5% to 17.2%) as does a jingle that is “inspiring” (19.9% of men vs. 15.2% of women)
Women are more irked by cheesy jingles than their male counterparts (39.2% to 34.7%) and have less patience for music that is overplayed (38.7% of women hate that vs. 33.7% of men).
Men are more turned off by grating or irritating music than women (46.1% to 41.2%) and have less patience for repetitive jingles (42.4% to 39.2%). Surprisingly, men were also almost twice as likely to say they hate sexist jingles than women (18.2% to 10.3%)
HIGHLY MUSICAL PEOPLE
- Do make your jingle funny and consider basing it on a popular song.
- Don’t make the ad louder than the programming.
People who consider themselves very musical are much more likely than their tone-deaf peers to notice when an ad is louder than the programming before and after it. This was a pet peeve among 31.1% of people who described themselves as very musical, but only 10.8% of those who are less musically inclined.
However, musical people appreciate funny jingles more than those who can’t carry a tune (57% vs. 18.9%) and enjoy jingles based on a song they like (21.5% vs. 5.4%).
When asked what makes a good jingle, a 31-year-old woman from Massachusetts who rated herself 5 out of 5 for musicality said: “Creativity, good lyrics, nice melody, appropriate support of the product. … A song people can tie to the brand immediately, short and sweet.”
2) Consider the viewing/listening format
- Do make jingles funny, happy/upbeat, and clever.
- Do avoid sexism and being “cheesy.”
- Do emphasize nostalgia.
- Do make the ad visually appealing.
People who experience ad jingles on streaming entertainment platforms like YouTube and Hulu have slightly different preferences than those who see most ads on traditional TV. Streaming audiences feel more strongly than traditional TV viewers that jingles should be funny (65.1% to 53.8%), happy/upbeat (60.3% vs. 52.6%), and clever (34.9% vs. 28.2%).
Traditional TV viewers care slightly more than streaming audiences about nostalgia (64.1% vs. 60.3%) and having ads be visually appealing (22.7% vs. 15.4%).
Streaming audiences are more irritated by sexism than traditional viewers (25.4% vs. 16.7%) and have very little patience for ads they consider “cheesy” (44.4% vs. 30.8%).
Streaming viewers are especially savvy about the placement and sound of ads. A 44-year-old woman from Oregon said she finds jingles most effective “… if you can get one into that few seconds of an ad before you skip it [to see] a YouTube video. For years now, that’s the only bit of ads I ever see.”
STREAMING MUSIC SERVICES OR APPS
- Do make jingles happy and upbeat.
- Do make jingles fun to sing along with.
- Don’t make jingles repetitive or overplayed.
- Do make the spokescharacter likeable.
- Do make jingles that are inspiring.
There was also a difference between broadcast radio listeners and those who typically stream music on a service like Spotify or Pandora. Streaming listeners felt much more strongly that jingles should be happy or upbeat than broadcast listeners (73.1% to 52.3%). Streaming listeners also placed a higher value on catchy jingles they can sing along with (65.4% to 54.5%).
Broadcast radio listeners were less bothered by ad jingles that are repetitive or overplayed than streaming listeners. Repetitiveness was a pet peeve of 50% of streaming music listeners, but only 43.2% of broadcast radio fans. Jingles that are overplayed were an annoyance for 46.2% of streaming listeners vs. 36.4% of those who listen to broadcast radio, where relentless repetition is often commonplace.
However, broadcast radio listeners felt more strongly than streaming listeners that a jingle’s spokescharacter should be likeable (18.2% to 11.5%), and radio devotees were more appreciative of jingles that are inspiring (26.9% vs. 19.2%).
POP-UP ADS ON INTERNET BROWSERS OR WEBSITES
- Don’t insult the viewer’s intelligence with cheesy or dumb jingles.
- Do make ads that are clever.
Those who tend to encounter ad jingles on their computer browsers shared most of the usual likes and dislikes, but they stood out in one respect. This audience had less patience than any other group for ads they considered “cheesy” (51.9%) or “dumb” (42.3%). They felt most strongly that ads should be “clever” (55.6%). Advertisers should take care not to insult this audience’s intelligence.
3) Remember: Jingles do not have to be likeable to be memorable.
No industry understands this last point better than the insurance industry. When we looked at groups of jingles pitching similar products — soft drinks, fast food, cereal, and the like — we found that although the insurance industry’s ditties were rated the least likeable and most annoying, they bested all others for catchiness and memorability.
Rumors of the jingle’s demise have been greatly exaggerated — although their numbers have declined in an era when brands can license any music they want and hire pop stars to sing their praises. The internet-driven shift to visuals has also tapped a few nails into the lid of the jingle coffin. Or maybe we have just heard their earworms so many times that they’ve lost their potency.
But there’s hope for jingle jammers. Just a year after The Atlantic sounded the death knell, no less an authority than Forbes predicted a jingle resurgence: “Brands that continue to harness the art of the jingle, such as McDonald’s, are thriving. … We take note of a company’s loyal dedication to their sonic branding, and this consistency translates into a trustworthy connection to these brands.”
Even more recently, the British advertising industry watcher site shots.net went a step further with a full-throated endorsement for reinstating the jingle as a cornerstone of the advertising edifice, saying, “When people ask me what the future of advertising is, I say jingles. Because [with a jingle], in the battle of the brands and uncivil war for consumers, it’s you they can’t get out of their heads.”
When we asked our survey takers to tell advertisers what they thought made a good jingle, they came back with some interesting answers. Many cited catchiness of tune and lyrics, combined with brevity and humor. But one 34-year-old man from Massachusetts summed up probably the most commonly shared opinion: “I really don’t know what makes a good jingle, but I think everyone knows one when they hear it.”
For anyone who knows they’ll never forget the digits to J.G. Wentworth’s or Empire Carpet’s telephone numbers, this is not new information. If you still can recite the ingredients in a Big Mac or have ever pondered exactly what you’d do for a Klondike bar, you know the power of a catchy jingle cannot be denied.
Our survey was conducted online. It involved 735 U.S. residents from 48 states and the District of Columbia. (Only Hawaii and North Dakota were not represented.) Participants were 49.5% women and 51.4% men. Two people identified as nonbinary. Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to 75, with a median age of 35. Questions included a mix of multiple-choice, short answer, fill-in-the-blank, and rating scale formats. To prevent ballot fatigue, not all participants were exposed to the same jingles. However, each jingle was evaluated at least 164 times.