Ad and marketing creatives

Ads That Rhyme: Past Their Prime?

For about four decades in the 20th century, rhyme ruled American advertising. The period between the 1940s and the 1970s was the golden age of ad jingles and rhyming slogans, of "Oh thank heaven for 7-Eleven," "See the USA in your Chevrolet," and "Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce/ Special orders don't upset us." Today, ads rarely incorporate verse — and when they do appear, it's often awkwardly executed, derivative, or barely recognizable as rhyme. What happened?

Here's a more basic question: Why was rhyme ever popular in ads?

"Rhyme is a mnemonic device, an aid to the memory," writes the English poet and journalist James Fenton. Along with regular rhythm, rhyme also leads to "enhanced aesthetic appreciation," according a psychological study published earlier this year. The first utterances we hear (and speak) as infants are likely to be rhymes; later we use rhyme for learning ("A pint's a pound/the world around") and relaxation (song lyrics that don't rhyme are rare).

That combination — memorability, pleasure, and familiarity — makes rhyme a happy fit for advertisers, whose goal, of course, is to instill desire. Still, it took copywriters quite a while to harness rhyme's power. Ads in the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century were dense with sales copy but short on catchy verse.

That changed in the 1920s with the advent of commercial radio, which emphasized hearing over reading: in effect, it took us back to our preliterate roots, when spoken poetry was the primary form of literary expression. On Christmas Eve 1925, the first ad jingle — "Try Wheaties," sung a cappella by the Wheaties Quartet — was broadcast on Minneapolis station WCCO. The jingle rhymed "bran" and "man," "through" and "you." (You can hear a recording of the original jingle here.) At the time, strict regulations prohibited direct advertising during prime time, but jingles that mentioned a product's name without a sales pitch were acceptable. By the 1940s and 1950s the airwaves were filled with rhyming jingles for soda ("Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/Twelve full ounces, that's a lot"), toothpaste ("You'll wonder where the yellow went/When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent"), and cigarettes ("Winston tastes good/like a cigarette should" — notorious for its "ungrammaticality," as I explained in a 2010 column). Verse was literally in the air, and successful radio jingles were carried over to print — and, later, television — advertising.

(Why are they called jingles? "Because they ring a bell in your head," an ad man once quipped.)

It didn't hurt that in midcentury America "popular" and "poetry" weren't as oxymoronic as they seem today. Schoolchildren were encouraged to memorize and recite rhyming poems ("The Cremation of Sam McGee," "Casey at the Bat"). Serious magazines published the sophisticated light verse of Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, and Phyllis McGinley. Even kid-focused Mad Magazine published poems, some of which were collected in a 1975 anthology, For Better or Verse.

In keeping with this democratic trend, companies frequently sponsored jingle and slogan contests. The prizes could be substantial. In her 2001 memoir The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Terry Ryan writes that her mother, an indefatigable "contester" who supported her large family by submitting poems and ad copy to advertisers, won a shopping spree at a local supermarket with a verse that began "Wide selections, priced to please her;/Scads of Seabrook's in their freezer."

One of the biggest influences on rhyming advertising was Burma-Shave. In 1925, when long-distance auto travel was becoming commonplace, the Minneapolis-based shaving-cream company (what was it about Minneapolis?) introduced a series of small signs along intercity highways. When read together, the signs formed a short ad. The first ads didn't rhyme, but by the 1930s, as Bill Bryson writes in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, "the company was beginning to find its métier and offering passing motorists such droll entertainments as: Shaving Brushes/You'll Soon See 'Em/Way Down East/In Some Museum/Burma-Shave." The campaign spread through most of the United States; by the 1950s, writes Terry Ryan, "you couldn't drive down a highway without passing a Burma-Shave roadside billboard campaign, six signs spaced at hundred-yard intervals down the road, one line to a sign, the last always ‘Burma-Shave'." The campaign continued until 1963, when the Interstate highway system siphoned away traffic from state and county roads. During its heyday, when the company was unable to create new verses fast enough, Burma-Shave sponsored contests, paying $100 — a considerable sum in the 1950s — for each winning entry. According to Bryson, the company received more than 50,000 submissions a year. (You can see the complete collection of Burma-Shave rhymes here.)

The very popularity of rhyming ads and slogans probably contributed to their demise. By the time Orson Welles intoned "We will sell no wine before its time" — a slant or "imperfect" rhyme — for the Paul Masson brand in the late 1970s, Americans were experiencing verse fatigue. Within a few years, rhyming jingles had all but evaporated. Instead of jingles we began to hear licensed or commissioned pop songs — soundtracks that establish a mood rather than urge a purchase. Nike's licensing of the Beatles' "Revolution," in 1987, is often cited as a turning point; since then, ads have featured the familiar songs of Johnny Cash (for Choice Hotels), M.C. Hammer (Purell), Robert Palmer (Applebee's), the Lovin' Spoonful (Kohl's), and many other artists. (See a longer list here.) Commissioned original music is rarer, and it often takes the lazy way out by spoofing a familiar childhood tune: see, for example, this current ad for Norfolk Southern, which "updates" the "Schoolhouse Rock" song "Conjunction Junction"; and Stephin Merritt's lugubrious reworking of "The Wheels on the Bus," for Volvo.

The use of "borrowed interest," often disparaged as coattail-riding, now extends to nonmusical poetry in ads as well. In a 2009 ad campaign, Levi's used a scratchy recording of Walt Whitman reading his poem "America"; in the UK, the Prudential insurance company commissioned an original poem from Nick Toczek. (Whether the downbeat tone of Toczek's poem helped or hurt sales we may never know.) Other ads take a cheaper route and parody a work in the public domain. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is a perennial favorite: see this 2009 ad for Alltel and this undated ad for SimpliciKey, neither of which hews to the original's strict rhyme and meter. (In the former, "Heather" rhymes with "forever"; in the latter, "house" rhymes with "found.") A 2011 Web ad for the retail chain Anthropologie also yielded to Yuletide cliché with an awkward imitation that began, "'Twas the lead-up to Christmas/And all through our brand..." (See the rest here.)

Verse has largely disappeared from print advertising, too, along with a lot of the rest of the writing. Visual imagery now dominates ads, and the only words you see may be the company logo. There's little demand for excellent light verse (only Calvin Trillin comes to mind as an accomplished contemporary practitioner), and very little study outside of graduate programs of verse forms and techniques. When a copywriter ventures an attempt, the results are often discouraging. A recent full-page ad for the Ford C-MAX hybrid minivan featured a quatrain that made me wince:

When you're carrying a lot of weight,
C-MAX has a nice little trait,

you see, C-MAX helps load your freight,
with its foot-activated liftgate.

The commas shouldn't be there. The sloppy meter forces you to stress the wrong syllable in "C-MAX," "activated," and "liftgate." "You see" is gratuitous, inserted only to pad the rhythm. And juxtaposing "see" and "C" is simply amateurish.

(The prose part of the copy isn't much better: "Say hi to the 5-passenger EPA-estimated 47 city MPG C-MAX HYBRID." That's quite the modifier pile-up!)

We may never see the return of the traditional ad jingle, but we are seeing its contemporary counterpart: rap-inflected verse. Rap, which has dominated popular music for almost 30 years, has its own technical conventions, including slant rhyme ("happen" can rhyme with "napkins" and "rapping") and flexible meter (which can include "unnatural" stress, as in the C-MAX ad's "liftGATE"). From MC Hammer for Taco Bell (1989) to LL Cool J for Gatorade (2004) and Eminem for Beats for Dre (2013), rap ads combine relentless rhythm, a recognizable celebrity, and striking visuals. Toyota may have had T.I.'s 2007 ad for Chevrolet in mind when it created its spoofy white-suburban-parents rap for the "Swagger Wagon," which incorporates internal rhyme ("I got the pride in my ride"), slant rhyme (parent/swearin', sales/skills), hypnotic repetition, and direct address ("No, seriously, honey, where are the kids?").

Traditionalists may bewail this development, but let's be honest: "You need no teeth/to eat Mr. Jim's beef" — to cite a Los Angeles barbeque joint's legendary (and long-gone) slogan — wasn't exactly "Ode on a Grecian Urn." And if you really miss old-school rhyme, take comfort in this: the Roto-Rooter jingle — "Call Roto-Rooter, that's the name/And away go troubles down the drain" — still survives after almost 60 years on the airwaves, making it one of the longest-running ads in history.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.