Ear-catching ads: Why songs, fizzy soda and nails on a chalkboard speak to us

Finding the right noise to break through the clutter

Ear-catching ads: Why songs, fizzy soda and nails on a chalkboard speak to us

How the right sounds can break through the noise

I’m walking through the living room on a mission to somewhere but pause in my tracks. Hey, I like this song. Who’s playing it? Oh, it’s a TV commercial for Walmart. Welcome to my house, Baby take control now, hm hm something some-thing…

Or, I’m sitting on the couch staring at my pocket computer, and I’m interrupted from my Instagram-scrolling haze by an intriguing tune. I look up to see the latest MicrosoftSamsung or even L.L. Bean commercial. No words, just an obscure song that will likely, by virtue of association and repetition, hit the top 40 in the next few weeks.

Or, during the Super Bowl I dash from the kitchen to catch the commercials (Because the game? Not so exciting.), and watch Zoe Kravitz sit in the middle of a jungle oasis and click her nails against a glass bottle of Michelob UltraUh, what?

In a modern world of noise and chaos, brands have latched onto the idea that the bait for our attention is not less noise, but the right noise. Cars honk, devices beep (and buzz), commercials talk, but an ear-catching song still has the ability to reach into my brain and capture my interest not just once, but every time I hear the song (ever again). And with enough repetition, I now associate Flo-Rida with Walmart.


Advertisers started using jingles on the radio in the 1920s. The story goes that General Mills launched a jingle for Wheaties, even though they were on the verge of discontinuing the product. When they saw a spike in sales in areas where the jingle aired, they decided to keep the product and launched the jingle nationally, and the rest is history (just like the box of cereal in your pantry).

But this begs the question: why does it work? Why am I still singing Welcome to my house, Play that music too loud… ?


Here’s a quick human anatomy lesson (the CliffsNotes version). Our ears are connected to the auditory cortex located in the temporal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for sensory processing including language comprehension, emotional association and (ah hah!) short-term memory.

While I’m sure the associations and neural pathways are both much more complex and mysterious, this is how we end up with the commonly-known ‘earworm’ (or Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI)). We hear a song, attach some emotions to it and drop it in the short-term memory bank. If we’re lucky (unlucky?), after hearing the song enough times, it transfers, at least in part, to long-term memory to return unannounced and unbidden at future and often random moments.

I know, you’re still asking: but why music? Why can I remember the lyrics to Spice Girls Wannabe, but not why I walked into the room?! Because: repetition, connections, and patterns.


First, repetition. If you hear a song just once, it’s unlikely to stick with you. Thanks to radio, TV, Spotify, YouTube and iTunes (or compact discs, if you’re lucky enough to still have a car with a CD player in it), we are served songs over and over again, and can choose to play them on repeat for ourselves. This is called memorization.

So why do I want to listen to some songs repeatedly until I’ve memorized them? Patterns.

Music we like sounds good to our ears because it forms patterns. The words rhyme, there’s a natural cadence and flow, and the music itself causes our foot to tap or our hips to sway.

Back to the brain again: in the caveman and cavewoman days, our brains developed the natural ability to look for patterns as a way to process the world and make sense out of chaos. Noting the pattern of how a saber-toothed tiger stalks its prey is a good way to avoid being eaten by one. In a more modern sense, patterns help us read other people’s emotions, avoid car crashes, and build routines that get us through our days more efficiently. Our brains are wired to like patterns, hence why we love music.

So why do the patterns/music stick? Because of connections.

Going back to the temporal lobe and sensory processing, with music your brain is processing language, sound, and emotion all together in one, four-minute package. The words are tied to a rhythm and notes and a beat, all of which often make us feel things. Because the connections, or neural pathways, basically come built in, a song is bundled and ready for our brains to absorb into long-term memory.


Because our brains like music and advertisers want us to remember their commercials, the association is natural: tie a song to a brand or product and every time that song is played, I will take a neural trip to that brand.

As a brand I’m sure you’re saying, “All right, I’m in.” If only it was that simple. Using a song on the scale of “Come Along” in Apple’s Color Flood commercial is expensive. As in, hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars expensive. There are many factors, though, that play into the cost, and choosing wisely can help you stay in budget.

The most expensive option is to use a popular song by a well-known artist with an unrestricted license (TV, radio, online, etc.) across a large geographic area for a long period of time (e.g., a year). Start taking that down a notch:

  • Find an unknown song from an unknown band, or even cheaper, purchase royalty-free stock music
  • Use a cover version of a popular song
  • Select a more restricted license to only use the song in a set medium
  • Limit your geographic area


Most of this article has focused on music, but auditory attraction is not limited to just songs. The unusual Michelob Ultra commercial was based on ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. This refers to the sensations you may feel when you hear certain sounds. One example is ‘nails on a chalkboard.’ (Some of you got chills just reading that.) On the more positive side is the gentle ‘whoosh’ of waves lapping against the shore, soda fizzing in a glass, or, yes, even the sound of someone brushing their hair.

All over YouTube you can find videos of people making these soothing sounds that create a positive physical response of peace and relaxation. It’s the same idea on which your night-time sound machine is based but expanded to all sorts of ordinary noises. Sounds, even seemingly innocuous ones, have the power to cause a physical response and engender positive feelings, which is just one more way brands can catch our attention.


As always in advertising, the name of the game is standing out from the crowd and getting people to remember you. With banner ads and videos and talking heads vying for our attention, the less-is-more approach of a well-chosen song (or sound) may be the way to break through the clutter and forge the positive, long-term associations marketers dream of.

Whether it’s the right words, the right visuals, or the right music, we are experienced at understanding both your brand and your audience and putting together the right mix to reach your goals. Interested in learning more? Give us a shout! (Or maybe a gentle whisper instead…)

With a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business and more than 11 years of diverse marketing experience, Tara understands that clear communication is the key to customer satisfaction. Whether it’s consumer product goods, higher education, insurance, or healthcare, developing a solid strategy that leads to concise, targeted messaging creates a framework for successful projects and sustainable growth. Tara is experienced in writing copy, designing ads and recording radio spots, and is responsible for leading the Writing by Design team and its clients through each communications project.