How Hit Songs in Commercials Might Be Making You Shop More

Kid Watching TV
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According to a study, popular syncs are proven to boost consumer engagement -- but experts say how these songs are used is just as important.

Popular song syncs are a staple of modern advertisement, but it turns out these commercial uses benefit more than just good vibes -- they increase viewers' attention, emotion and memory by 20 percent and deliver a significant rise in effectiveness over multiple viewings. 

This information comes from a recent report published by Dr. Bradly Vines, director of neuroscience Europe for Nielsen Music finding that though agencies are likely to pay a hefty price to use pop songs in their commercials, the cost might be worthwhile. He states that, so long as the pop song does not overshadow the brand or trigger negative associations, popular syncs are proven to boost consumer engagement the more times the ad is seen (and heard). 

Certainly positive associations play a role in this phenomenon, but Vines also likens the affect to a celebrity influencer that triggers an innate need to conform.

"This gives the advertised product a halo of popularity, which signals to the consumer that there is less risk in trying it out for new purchasers," he writes. "A famous song may also imbue the messages in an ad with greater authority if the music drives associations with rich and famous musicians who are seen as cultural leaders."

Vines conducted the survey by measuring test subjects' electroencephalography (EEG), deriving second-by-second metrics during ads and then calculating an overall score and database of the ads efficiency. He explains to Billboard that the most important metrics measured are attention processing, emotional motivation and memory activation -- each of which are derived from different areas and types of activations in the brain. 

"If you're working on a 30 second commercial, you know 20 seconds of it are probably going to be voiceover, so it's really a limited time and they have just about 12-15 seconds to get people's attention," says Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer at Sony/ATV. "If you can put a song in there that gets people to stop and turn around and look at the television and go, 'Oh wait, I know this, what is this?' That works. And that's kind of the emotion I think people go after."

The Nielsen study also noted that their neurological "wear-in" score -- measured by looking at a composite score, based on EEG, that weighs emotion, memory and attention over three views -- increased significantly with pop songs over the multiple viewings. The higher the EEG, it suggests the higher the ad is engaging with subsequent views. Vines says that typically "wear-out" is more common than "wear-in," adding proof to his argument of popular songs' influencing effects. While Vines would not disclose the exact songs that were used in the various tests due to client confidentiality, he tells Billboard they were "well known."

The testing was conducted using "forced exposure," meaning there were no other distractions to the test subjects. While television viewers may often be multitasking on their phones or computers while watching a program, Vines says they have found this method of testing testing correlates "well with in market behaviors."

The reasoning behind this response, says Eric Sheinkop, author of Hit Brands: How Music Builds Value for the World's Smartest Brands and Return of the Hustle: The Art of Marketing With Music, can be broken down into how listeners relate to the music on cognitive, physiological and social levels. Our bodies physically react to music in a powerful way, including even sometimes actually locking our heart rate with a tempo or producing dopamine levels in our brains even higher than during sex or doing drugs -- offering advertisers an effective tool. 

"If you just think about it from an actual physical perspective, how your body physically reacts to music, it's one of the most powerful forces that we have," says Sheinkop. "It can slow down your heart rate, it could make you excited, it can make you anxious."

But regarding social aspects of music, Sheinkop argues against any dominating power of popular music and, rather, in favor of brands syncing lesser known acts as well. By bringing viewers and helping them discover new, well curated music, he says, a brand can begin to play a very positive role in someone's life. "That creates not just what used to be the most important thing to a brand, which was awareness and then loyalty, it moves them one step further in that filter to advocacy and talking about a brand sharing their affinity for a brand," he says.

Eric Johnson, SVP executive integrated music producer at McCann Erickson, affirms that there's no steadfast rule that applies to all marketing. Budgets and timelines are always constrictions and the best song for the job dials down to what story the brand is trying to tell with its commercial. "It's never an exact answer," he says. "It's different every time and it's sort of modular and customizable every time." 

While nailing down the right sync has in the past relied largely on good taste and gut instinct, Johnson says ad execs such as himself are now working to take some of that risk out of the equation by bringing data into their decision making and using the idea of the artist influencer via sync to target a specific demographic. "We could start to hyper target passionate fans of artists as a way to hyper target for our brand," says Johnson. "And I think that is one of the biggest developments in data insights lately."

With artists acting as influencers comes a decision: Are they comfortable with what may be perceived by consumers as a product endorsement? Monaco says that's a problem he deals with regularly. One solution might be taking the vocals out and syncing a less recognizable instrumental version. Others will flat out deny the opportunities. "It's different for every artist it's different for every project," he says. "You know a lot of times the bigger acts want to see the actual commercial prior. The newer acts just love that as a platform to get their music out outside of SoundCloud or YouTube or the streaming services."

If a well known artist passes on a commercial or there's not the budget, one solution is to rerecord one of their songs -- as Monaco helped set up Gary Clark Jr. to do for the Justice League trailers last year, covering The Beatles' classic "Come Together." That track not only served Justice League well but has gone on to become one of Clark Jr.'s biggest hits, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart. This strategy is something Sheinkop can get behind too. He says it can deliver audiences more than nostalgia or familiarity, but -- again -- something new and interesting, providing a social value to both young and old audiences. 

"The way to get both generations is you use an old song but you do a cover like a new a new cool electro or hip-hop version," says Sheinkop. "That's killing two birds with one stone, you're hitting both demographics, but otherwise I would argue for millennials, teenagers whatever it might be they don't need a commercial to hear the most popular song on the radio because they're hearing it all day everywhere anyway. So what value is that?"