Sell It With A Song

Sell It With A Song December 1, 2017

Nicholas Cook (Music: A Very Short Introduction) observes that “Advertisers use music to communicate meanings that would take too long to put into words, or that would carry no conviction in them.”

To illustrate, he cites a 1992 Prudential commercial that begins with a young man listening to music and dreamily tapping his toe, moves forward in time to show the same young man playing in a band, and ends with a scene of the man, now older, playing requests for old ladies.

Throughout, “The Prudential commercial uses music as a powerful symbol for aspiration, self-fulfillment, the desire to ‘be what you want to be,’ as the voice-over says. More than that, it uses a particular sort of music—rock music—to target a particular segment of society, the twenty- or maybe thirtysomethings.”

But the use of rock music isn’t straightforward: “For while you see rock music—the young man tapping his foot as he listens to his Walkman, the band—you don’t hear it. Instead, you hear music in a watered-down version of what is sometimes called the ‘common-practice’ style, the style of Western European art music from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century: the music that record shops file under ‘Classical,’ and that books on music traditionally refer to simply as ‘music,’ as if there were no other kind.”

It’s the “odd juxtaposition” of the music that carries the message: “Rock stands for youth, freedom, being true to yourself; in a word, authenticity. Classical music, by contrast, encodes maturity and, by extension, the demands of responsibility to family and to society. Through music, the commercial accomplishes a kind of conjuring trick, combining both sets of values and in this way selling the advertiser’s message (you need to start planning for your old age now) to a segment of society that might be expected to be resistant to it; what the commercial is saying (though not in so many words, of course) is that you can begin responsible financial planning without selling out on your youth, freedom, and spontaneity.”

Sell it with a song.


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