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The Consumer Psychology Behind Earworms

Posted On  September 28, 2020
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As consumers, we often think our logical and rational minds have more control over our actions and behaviors than our less-conscious influences. To put that to the test, I’d like you to read the following statements without singing them:

  • “Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece of that Kit Kat Bar.”
  • “Nationwide is on your side.”
  • “I want my baby back ribs.”

If you are like most of the population, you read those phrases as jingles, and now may even have one of the catchy tunes stuck in your brain for the rest of the day (sorry!). These types of jingles or catchy tunes are known as “earworms” due to their ability to wiggle into people’s less-conscious thoughts and float around for longer than most of us would like. What’s interesting about these statements is that they successfully connect with audiences without being the most convincing argument to choose the product. Sure, they give a little info about differentiators or key qualities, but you’d be hard pressed to find a consumer say that a cutesy jingle influenced their choice in car insurance. Instead, these earworms tap into our memories to increase familiarity and create emotional connections that positively impact brand perceptions and influence our decision making.

Why are earworms effective?

As a rule, our brains strive to find patterns in our everyday lives. It’s a natural way for us to embrace things that are familiar to us in uncertain times. This is why we make stereotypes and form habits, and it is likely why we enjoy music and jingles that have predictable, repetitive features. In most cases, earworms are short, simple, and repetitive — all factors that contribute to them getting stuck in our minds. Using these techniques, earworms target our brains’ natural affinity for music and patterns to influence our perceptions in three key ways:

1) Music is more memorable than speech

A key factor for earworms being so memorable is their musicality. In fact, music or tonality is so effective at getting lodged in our memory, it’s used as a mnemonic that helps us remember fundamental things (think learning the A, B, C’s as a kid). Musical memories also appear to be stored differently than other memories. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble remembering certain types of memories like the names of family or recent events but can easily sing the lyrics to popular songs from their childhoods. Given their musical nature, earworms are more effective than spoken word at getting lodged in our minds, and helping us remember a phone number, website, or even the price of a sandwich (“Five… five dollar… five dollar footlongs!”).

2) Familiarity and repetition help make brands more likeable

A key feature of most earworms is repetition, either of tones or phrases. Things that are familiar to us – brand names, people, foods – are perceived more positively than things that are novel. This is due to the survival pressures that shaped our thinking; in fight-or-flight situations, things we’ve experienced before (and did not harm us) are more positive than new things that still have the potential to harm. When a brand name is repeated numerous times in a short jingle, and then repeated more throughout the day as it’s stuck in your mind, it’s on its way to being the brand at the tip of your tongue next time you need something in the category, like a trash bag that won’t quit (“Hefty, Hefty, Hefty!”).

3) Music effectively taps into our emotions

Music is almost universally rewarding, activating the same part of our brains that fire up when we eat our favorite foods. Even when songs and jingles are sad or evoke negative emotions, our brains still find them rewarding and compel us to keep listening. Music provides no clear survival advantage, but our brains tune in to music. One theory is that the rhythms produced by music help sync up the electrical impulses in our brains to facilitate emotional experience, known as entrainment. Whatever the mechanism, music and tones transform otherwise unemotional information — like a brand’s phone number or URL – into a happy or positive tone, both bleeding over into brand perceptions and helping to stick in our memory.

How do brands use earworms?

The features that make earworms so effective – their repetition and simplicity – are also qualities that make them annoying. So why would a brand risk irritating potential consumers? In the end, the ability for consumers to remember your brand, its key value proposition, or a call to action is more valuable than the potential to irritate a select few. While few people would cite a jingle like Kars4Kids as a motivation to donate, the fact remains that the number is deeply ingrained in people’s memory and has likely prompted many donations over the years. This strategy seems to be particularly successful among direct-to-consumer brands that don’t require immediate action but want to be top of mind when you need their services. 1-877-KARS-4-KIDS is joined by 1-800-588-2300 (EMPIRE Today), and personal injury numbers like 1-800-8-MILLION (Barnes Firm) as brands that are used infrequently, but likely benefit as a familiar, top-of-mind name when consumers are in need.

In addition to informational earworms, other jingles function as complements to the brand’s visual identity and offer opportunities to catch consumers when they aren’t looking at a screen. These present opportunities to connect less consciously with consumers by evoking a feeling or mood that supports the overall tone of the messaging and becomes implicitly linked to the brand.  Some of these earworms become so effective, that the message is no longer needed. McDonalds’ hummed I’m lovin’ it and Nationwide’s use of “Chicken parm you taste so good” in place of its tagline are examples of earworms so strong that the tune itself is all you need to evoke a positive brand image.

Earworms are just one of many messaging strategies

While we don’t necessarily recommend that all brands jump to create the catchiest and earworm-iest jingles, this phenomenon highlights that when it comes to brand messaging, consumers aren’t always logical. Yes, they’ll tell you they chose your brand because of its superior qualities and attributes, but they know deep down there are less-conscious processes at play. If you are only asking rational questions, you may be missing part of the story. Identifying which messages work at less-conscious levels will help ensure you’re not throwing away strong messaging, but will also help identify where a message will perform best.

Our Prime Messaging approach does just this by profiling which messages are most memorable, connect emotionally, or are just plain likable. Our team then recommends usage and contexts based on these findings. Every smart brand should apply these types of metrics in their next message tests.

(Or, sung to the tune of the Nationwide jingle: “You will love Prime Mess-a-ging!”)

Written by Lauren Murphy
Director, Research Scientist, Pragmatic Brain Science Institute®
Lauren develops creative approaches to help understand consumer behavior and why people sometimes say one thing but do another. She draws on her expertise in emotion processing, decision making, and behavior to produce meaningful insights and novel research approaches. Lauren joined LRW in February 2018 and received a B.S. in Anthropology from Florida State University and a PhD in Psychology from Emory University.

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