Memory, Emotion, Music & Nostalgia

Why the brain responds to popular music in advertising

nostalgia411 Imagine you're sitting at home watching television after a long day at work or taking care of the kids. You You are enjoying your favorite crime drama, basking in the realization that someone else's life truly is worse than your own. As the mirror neurons in your brain fire in the escapism of the rescue fantasy that the detective story line triggers - after all, in a world of terrorism and orange alerts, don't we all want to be a little safer? - your experience is suddenly interrupted by a commercial break featuring an ad for a chocolate brand. And just as you're about to flip the channel or get up for another glass of merlot, something is triggered deep inside the recesses of your brain. It happens well below conscious recognition, compelling you to stay put and avoid grabbing your remote. It's a voice that calls from deep below your conscious awareness. At first you don't realize it or recognize it. You are now nodding your head uncontrollably and imperceptibly - so subtle are the movements that your spouse does not even notice them. Your palms become ever so slightly sweaty, your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes a bit shallower. You have heard this song before!

You have just had your emotions and memories hijacked by the nostalgia triggered by familiar music used in advertising. It's not the original version, but you recognize it anyway. "I'll stop the world and melt with you" go the lyrics and familiar tune, as a happy group of smiling figures emerge from the Hershey's chocolate. You may never consciously even make the connection but that is not the point. The familiar tune triggers an unconscious emotional response significant enough to break the habit of commercial avoidance - as it was intended to do. You may not care, you may never realize, but in the background of that Hershey's chocolate ad is a take on the Modern English song, "I Melt with You" released in the U.S. in the 1980s. Well, that explains why your babysitter, who decided to stay to see the end of the crime drama, seems to be yawning as you tap your fingers. She wasn't even born when it came out in 1982. Does that mean her heart isn't beating faster, her palms are no sweatier than before? She is less engaged and not nearly or not at all hijacked emotionally by the music as she gets up to pack her bag.

It is not clear when it started, but experts estimate that prior to the 1980s, most music in television advertisements was limited to original scores known as "jingles." So popular were some jingles that the 1971 song written for a television commercial for Coca-Cola was re-recorded and released as the hit song, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." As the decade of the 1980s progressed, however, the trend reversed, as previously recorded popular songs were increasingly used in television ads, including Aretha Franklin's "Freeway to Love" for Burger King, The Beatles' hit "Revolution" for Nike, and the ever-present Bob Seger song "Like a Rock" for selling Chevy trucks. The trend continues to this day, not only in television advertising but in the sound tracks for many Hollywood films.

Why the trend to add past or presently popular music to advertising? Well, if you were paying attention, the character on the couch watching television in the opening vignette did not avoid the Hershey's commercial. In fact, he watched the whole thing and as keeper of the remote, subjected others in the room to the advertising impression. So stopping power is one reason to use nostalgic songs. Items that have personal relevance, such as music which has previously created an emotional resonance with us, are more likely to draw our attention and stimulate an emotional response again. So nostalgic memories from music increase emotional engagement, but how? It is important to understand that human memory is not one "thing," but a process for storing information that will be retrieved for use at a future point in time. There are multiple relevant frameworks and types of memory including: 1) memory for facts versus procedures; 2) short-term versus long-term; and 3) implicit versus explicit memories. Memories for facts, sometimes referred to as declarative memory, include our memories for discrete events in time (such as going on holiday with your family) and learned facts (such as the year of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence).

Procedural memories are used for tasks and processes that have multiple steps and require coordination of attention and movement, such as riding a bike or washing the dishes.

Short-term (a.k.a. "working") memory is the process of keeping relevant stimuli (verbal, auditory, visual) intact over short periods for understanding and meaning-making, such as what crime was committed early in that detective show we were just watching, to connect and allow the final courtroom scene to make sense.

Long-term memory is the encoding and storage of aspects of that information for later use - such as the name of the show so you can watch it again.

Implicit memory processes are unconscious (e.g., associative learning), while explicit memory processes are conscious (e.g., recall and recognition).

In addition to describing different types and functions of memories, these frameworks also reflect activity in different functional and structural areas of the brain.

For example, semantic memory requires activity in the hippocampus and surrounding temporal cortex. Procedural memory uses aspects of the limbic system and cerebellum. Explicit memories require the executive function of the frontal lobes. And implicit memory is somewhat autonomous, embedded in many different brain systems and networks, including the emotion centers.

Short-term memories also require frontal-lobe activity, while long-term memory processes are more distributed. However, one thing to keep in mind is that emotional responses are well known to enhance many different types of memory.

Our emotions are responses to the evaluation of internal or external stimuli as being personally relevant to some goal or need state. An emotion is perceived as being "positive" when the goal is advanced and "negative" when the goal is impeded. Thus, the core of emotional states is the preparation of the body for readiness to act (i.e., "approach," "avoid," "ignore") as emotions help us prioritize the use of limited resources.

This readiness for action can be immediate or information can be stored, via memory processes, for use at a later date. The Modern English tune in the Hershey's commercial put our protagonist in an "approach" mode and kept his attention on the commercial. As a result, emotions help determine the importance of information. Simply put, emotions "tag" information for relevance. Consequently, in order for advertising to be maximally effective, unconscious emotional responses need to be triggered to identify if the brand, product or service is relevant to the consumer. That response tells the brain to direct additional processing resources to that information so that some type of memory can be formed (in some cases, allowing the information to be used at a later date).

Adding relevant or emotional information to new or existing information enhances encoding of advertising, so adding a measure of unconscious relevance increases brain processing. That is what music does to advertising.

Why would adding more emotional information to a new memory enhance encoding of that information? The answer lies in understanding modern neural networks and Hebb's Law, which states: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." The more interconnections with other concepts or links that a new memory has, the more likely it is to be perceived as relevant.

The more relevant the stimulus is, the more encoding in the brain it will generate and the more likely it will exert influence on future behaviors - particularly if emotions are triggered. This is the neurological basis for associative learning and the reason why aided recall is always more efficient than free recall - the memory aid triggers portions of the existing network for the memory and increases the probability of accurate identification. This is also why older, more iconic brands are easier to remember than new brands. We have more enhanced "networks" in our brains for iconic brands and brands we have experienced over time. The music we grew up with and its association to brands and products creates links in our brain networks that result in memories of all types, including procedural and implicit memories on an unconscious level.

So our protagonist in the opening vignette is not numb to advertising. He has had a simple and increasingly common advertising technique play a trick on his brain. The music generates a measurable emotional response, directing his attention, enhancing learning and memory, creating associations between a long-forgotten favorite tune and Hershey's chocolate.

"There's nothing you and I won't do ... I'll stop the world and melt with you!" I think I will go get a Hershey's chocolate bar. And as the babysitter leaves uninfluenced by the ad, Madison Avenue works on another Hershey's commercial for the next generation. Rihanna anyone?

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