Intertextuality in Advertising Music on the Radio: The Case of CFOX-FM

Eric Spalding (Kwantlen College)


Advertising, because it needs to make an immediate impact on the listener, has to rely to a great extent on beliefs and attitudes that the listener already has (Schwartz, 1974, p. 25). In other words, effective advertising is intertextual. An intertextual approach involves examining how a given text alludes to and incorporates various other texts. (On the need to study popular culture intertextually, see Fiske, 1989, pp. 123-127.) In this essay, I want to focus on music in radio ads to examine how advertisers use music's evocative capacities to attract their listeners. To accomplish this objective, I have chosen a six-hour excerpt from CFOX-FM, an album-oriented rock station that is among the more popular stations in Greater Vancouver. The excerpt was taken between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. on Monday, July 31, 1989, and Wednesday, August 2, 1989.

I begin this essay by outlining what it is about music that makes it appropriate for advertisements, emphasizing music's capacity to evoke associations for listeners or, in other words, to bring other texts to their minds. There follows a description of the excerpt, with sections on advertising for concerts, and the use of hit songs to sell goods and services. I close the essay with a look at the intertextuality of the ad music. All of the advertisements discussed in this article come from the six-hour CFOX excerpt, except as indicated.

Persuasive Aspects of Music

Arnold Perris (1985) reviews a number of ways in which music has been used through time to convey various ideas and attitudes to people. Music, according to Perris, can be a powerful conduit for propaganda: used effectively, it can dispose an audience towards listening to a message and maybe even accepting it. Music enhances the impact of the words that accompany it, whether these words are spoken or sung. Music produces this effect because people react to it in particular ways.

People have a response to music that is associative: they imbue music with meaning by relating it to the contexts in which they hear it. Perris notes, for example, that listening to only a couple of measures of the "Marines' Hymn" will evoke feelings of patriotism among many Americans because in the past the melody has so frequently been linked with such patriotic events as military parades (see also Tagg, 1987, especially pp. 285-287). Many other components of music also carry meaning as a result of their intertextual references. One of these components is musical genres: regardless of melody, genres are often quite evocative. Ragtime, for instance, makes many North Americans think of saloons in the Far West, because the music appears in countless barroom scenes in Hollywood Westerns. Movies in general have a strong influence on the associations that certain types of music bring to mind, as Simon Frith observes:

There is a standard musicological exercise... in which people are played pieces of instrumental music and asked to write down their "associations." The results suggest both that there are widely shared conventions of musical meaning and that these conventions are partly derived from people's shared experiences of film soundtracks. (Frith, 1988, p. 130)

Frith remarks furthermore that moviegoers have become so used to hearing particular types of music during certain scenes in movies, such as lush strings during a romantic moment, that much of a scorer's task consists of responding to the audience's expectations, filling in the blanks with the appropriate musical style (Frith, 1988, p. 135). As in the case of language, the connotations of a piece of music are culturally learned: only the most onomatopoeic sounds have a readily definable signified.2 The associations that music brings to mind can have a strong impact upon listeners, arousing in them a variety of intense feelings.

This ability to move people is another of music's qualities as a mode of propaganda. Music appeals to the heart first, the mind second. Perris writes that music "is an art which reaches the emotions easily, often (always?) ahead of intellectual awareness" (1985, p. 6). Indeed, we use music primarily to alter our moods, playing a slow song to soothe us when we feel tense or a raucous song to invigorate us when we feel tired. Musical pieces endure primarily through their capacity to move us in some way, to affect us on an emotional level. Perris writes: "All the eloquence of the words (if it is a work to be sung), an emotion-wringing title, or awareness of the original tempestuous event which it memorializes will not be enough to interest later generations if the quality of the music is poor" (1985, pp. 8-9).

The aesthetic impact of the song considered as a whole is more important for its lasting appeal than the message conveyed in the lyric. If a song pleases us, however, then the words that it carries will survive, the message will persist.

According to Perris, these two capacities of music, to evoke associations and to move, dispose listeners towards accepting any words that might be conveyed in tandem with the music, whether these words are sung or spoken. Alfred North Whitehead's remarks reflect this view: "With the sense of sight, the idea communicates the emotion, whereas with sound, the emotion communicates the idea, which is more direct and therefore more powerful" (Whitehead & Price, 1954, cited in McLuhan, 1970, p. 146).

Nevertheless, Perris's description of music as a force in persuasion and even control is imperfect, because he neglects to acknowledge the important role that the listener plays in decoding the message. Certainly, we should reject the implication that music has the power somehow to entrance people into accepting an idea or an attitude: we should recognize that the listener has the independence of will to disagree with the words conveyed through music, however effectively it supports them.

Perris's approach shows how appropriate music is for advertisements, as a way of sugarcoating the advertising message, making it an easier pill to swallow. "Surely," Perris writes, "no one will disagree that the singing commercials of radio and television belong to an art of persuasion" (1985, p. 5). Music makes it less unpleasant for us to receive new information about a service or a product. The ability for a catchy jingle to insinuate itself into our consciousness explains the important role that music plays as a promotional device. A dual process is involved: (1) we react emotionally to music and the associations it brings to mind; and (2) we link the song and its associations to the product or service being advertised (Williamson, 1978, pp. 24-31). The song guides our response; it cues us as to how we should be feeling towards the service or product. An effective ad will succeed in creating a mood that we can associate to the product. For instance, an ad from the CFOX excerpt, for the Seattle International Raceway, features heavy metal with an especially strident guitar. The sound is kinetic and energizing. It evokes images of young men in black leather jackets. There are intimations of action and violence. Through listening to the ad, we transfer these emotions and associations to the subject of the ad, the Raceway itself. If the energy of the music attracts us, then it is probable that the Raceway, through its juxtaposition with the heavy metal, will also attract us.

David Huron (1986) cites a number of other uses of music in advertisements. He notes that a musical score can give a sense of continuity to an ad, especially if the ad features two or more announcers speaking in different styles. Advertisers can also use music to emphasize specific parts of the ad, through the use of crescendos or rises in pitch. Music, especially in the form of jingles, can also increase the memorability of the advertising message. As Huron writes, "Music's tenacity for mental loitering is evident even when the mind is an unwilling host" (1986, p. 11). In this way, such jingles from the excerpt as "This Bud's for You" or "Can't Beat the Feeling" (for Coke) tend to linger in the mind when they are repeated often enough. Music can also help advertisers to reach their target audience. In this way, advertisers will choose musical genres that are particularly likely to appeal to their potential clients: Coors, for example, made an appropriate choice, a hard rock score, in promoting its light beer to the CFOX audience.

Huron remarks that music is also quite effective at conveying evocative and lyrical words. In this respect, he notes that in many ads, the spoken words differ markedly from the sung words. In an ad for Factory Carpet (taken from the excerpt), the speaker provides practical, down-to-earth information: "From now until Wednesday you can buy the latest carpet styles and designs at Factory Carpet for as low as half price or less." (The announcer repeats this information three times in three slightly different ways in the ad. Interestingly, redundancy is an effective way of getting the message across to the listener.)

The singers, for their part, chant words that would sound vague and irrelevant if they were spoken:

Pick out your carpet and we'll do the rest;
Factory Carpet does it for less,
'Cause satisfying you is what we do best,
Satisfying you is what we do best.

The sung lyric, as Huron says, appeals to the emotions more than to reason. The above verses elicit a feeling of trust and confidence in Factory Carpet; few listeners, however, are attentive enough to notice that there is nothing about the words to substantiate such a sentiment. For instance, Factory Carpet says that, after we have chosen our carpet, it will "do the rest." This claim is quite meaningless, because it does not explain what "doing the rest" involves. We can expect the salespeople at the store to package the carpet, calculate its cost, and accept our payment. All stores, however, offer such services as a matter of course. Although these verses promise nothing in particular, they can inspire a general sense of confidence in the store when they are sung, more because of how they are sung than because of what is sung.

Ads from national advertisers provide this emotional appeal with perhaps more craft. Soft drink companies like Coke and Pepsi, for example, spend enormous sums of money on advertising, and their ads rely completely on emotion. As David Vadehra, president of Video Storyboard Tests, an advertising-research company, remarks, "The thing about soda commercials is that they actually have nothing to say" (Consumer Reports, 1991b, p. 521). Their purpose, according to him, is to "keep the product in the public eye through sheer entertainment" (Consumer Reports, 1991b, p. 521). In this sense, the better drink is the one that is featured in the better commercial. As Philip Nelson (1974) has indicated, such a view is not nonsensical (see also Leiss, Kline, & Jhally, 1986, p. 38). Nelson agrees that most national advertising provides little information in the conventional sense. He says, however, that information as such is beside the point of this advertising. Rather, the point is to show to the audience that the company is successful: it has done well enough with a product that it can afford to advertise it on a wide scale. "Simply put," Nelson writes, "it pays to advertise winners rather than losers. In consequence, the amount of advertising gives consumers a clue as to which brands are winners and which brands are losers" (Nelson, 1974, p. 50).

Certainly the omnipresence of ads for Coke and Pepsi, reflecting worldwide expenses in 1989 of $140 and $151 million respectively (Consumer Reports, 1991a, p. 524), gives consumers a strong indication of the colas' popularity. If a company can afford to produce entertaining ads and to give them wide exposure, then its products must be worthwhile. Ads that are competently done can in this way instill feelings of confidence in consumers.

Apart from classified and retail ads, most advertising does not appeal to people's reason so much as it does to their emotions. Music, through its capacity to move people, is thus highly appropriate for advertising. Gordon Bruner II (1990) has done a comprehensive review of the literature on how music affects mood and behaviour. In this review, Bruner observes that music is especially effective for products that people buy without thinking much about them; such products as beer or cosmetics demand "low cognitive involvement" (1990, p. 101). Indeed, choosing a brand of beer has more to do with mood than with reasoning. Music can also be effective, but less so, with regard to products whose purchase requires more thought, like cars and appliances. Bruner writes that, given music's ability to establish the mood of an ad, it is important for marketers to be familiar with what kinds of music produce what kinds of effect in advertisements (1990, p. 100). In other words, what types of music can make a message sound happy or sad, serious or humorous, serene or exciting, for a target audience? Marketers can use such knowledge to improve the effectiveness of the advertising message.

A Description of the Excerpt

There were 71 advertisements in the six-hour CFOX excerpt taken for this paper. This amounts to about 3 every 15 minutes. Such a frequency seems like an effective way of inculcating commercial values into the youthful CFOX listeners. The ads addressed the interests of CFOX's core audience, the 18-to-34 age group, as Table 1 suggests.

Advertisements, by Subject Category, from a Six-Hour Excerpt of CFOX

Table 1
Advertising item No. of advertisements
Shows (concerts, races, movies) 19
Drink (pop, beer, coolers, milk) 12
Food (restaurants, supermarkets) 11
Goods (records, film, clothes, carpets) 9
CFOX-FM (specials, contests) 6
Services (travel, banks, lottery, insurance) 6
Employment and education 5
Public service announcements 3

The preponderance of music in the advertising is illustrated by the fact that 55 of the 71 ads included music. As a result of this preponderance, the ads without music tended to have a specific connotation, usually of seriousness. None of the three public service announcements (PSAs) had any music, for instance, adding emphasis to the fact that drug and alcohol abuse, and drinking and driving, are issues whose gravity is incompatible with the distractions of music. The PSAs bring to my mind the image of the father telling his daughter to turn off her stereo because he has something important to tell her.

The ads that did have music featured a wider range of styles than the songs on the station. According to Bernadine Ward, a creative writer at CFOX, the music on ads is indeed treated differently from the songs: "We have a format for the music that we play on the radio station. That's not part and parcel with what we do on commercials though." Nevertheless, she adds, the station does reject commercials whose music contrasts excessively with its format:

We get music sometimes that is rap or something like that, and we don't play rap. We had a spot in fact that came in for Eaton's that was rap, and so what we did was we phoned them and said "We can't use it with the music that you have. If you send us the copy, we'll redo it with another music bed under it." That's what we do. (Personal interview, January 12, 1994)

In spite of such a practice, there is a greater degree of heterogeneity in the ad music than there is in the records that CFOX broadcasts. For example, the musical styles of the ads in the excerpt ranged from circus music to heavy metal.

The 7-Eleven convenience stores were the ones with the circus music, in a contest for tickets to a Who concert. The ad uses a piece of stock music featuring a brass section with trumpets, trombones, and a tuba. It is effective as an attention-getting device because it stands out from the rock that dominates the station. The piece opens with the instruments gradually rising in pitch, creating a sense of excitement. It then proceeds to a simple rhythmic melody for eight bars, returning thereafter to the opening rise in pitch. The music alternates in this way between a buildup in tension followed by a release. It is the kind of music that accompanies trapeze artists, reaching a climax during one of their stunts, and marking time between the stunts. The music is for special events, reinforcing the ad's message that a Who concert is something not to be missed. The listener can almost picture the ad's announcer in the centre ring of a circus, under the spotlight, announcing the main event in his lively voice. It is a clichéd idea to use this musical style in an ad. The score manages nevertheless to produce the requisite sense of excitement about the Who contest.

Some of the musical styles in the ads that are least suited to CFOX's format are there to produce a humorous effect. There is humour to be derived from the incongruity of playing inappropriate styles in a strict commercial format. Hearing country on CFOX when we are expecting more rock can make us smile, because the style of music appears out of place. There is some levity in the aforementioned 7-Eleven ad, for instance. Another humorous example is the ad for The Track: Charlie the Talking Horse describes the good times to be had at this horse-racing stadium. The score of this ad consists of square-dance music featuring a jews'-harp. The latter instrument, along with the kazoo, is synonymous with unseriousness. It helps communicate the idea that The Track is a place for fun and laughter.

Concert Promotions

A common advertisement on album-oriented rock radio is the ad for upcoming concerts. Radio is the natural outlet for concert promotions, since both it and the concert provide the same product, music. For concert promotions, advertisers commonly string together fragments of the performer's most familiar songs. This process enables the listener to sample the product that will be supplied in full at the concert venue. The samples are too brief for the listener to derive any satisfaction from listening to them. It is part of the advertising strategy to maintain a certain measure of dissatisfaction on the listener's part, as Leiss, Kline, & Jhally remark (1986, p. 61). Ads attempt to create a longing among their audience to actually buy and own the products and services being described.

In addition to being teasing examples for the actual concert, these collections of fragments help to increase the stars' stature in the minds of the audience, because their musical impact is condensed into a 30-second spot: such an ad features nothing but the best three or four seconds of the performers' greatest hits. It makes listeners aware of the extent of their success. It can also remind them of songs that they did not think were part of the artists' repertoire. The musical fragments from Streetheart, for a concert featuring "Kenny Shields and former members of Streetheart," show to the listener that the group has at least five familiar-sounding records to its name.

Interestingly, the ad for the Ringo Starr concert does not feature any examples of his music. Starr, however, is a special case, because he is better known for his connection to the Beatles than for his music. After all, Starr has not had a hit since 1975. As a consequence, instead of samples of his music, there is a made-for-the-ad metal soundtrack. This music gives Ringo Starr an aura that his early 1970s solo material ("You're Sixteen," for instance, which features a kazoo solo, or "The No No Song") cannot give him. We might also include the Beatles' "You Never Give Me Your Money" as part of the ad: CFOX played this song only five minutes before the Ringo Starr promo in the excerpt. It is a good strategy, because the song can help to put listeners in the mood for a Ringo Starr concert. CFOX also broadcast "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" right after an ad for the Rolling Stones. The station occasionally extends a concert ad in this way by playing a record from the featured group shortly before or after the ad.

The Commercialization of Rock

Media tie-ins are a frequent occurrence in popular culture: the appearance of a new movie will be tied in to the appearance of a novelization or a soundtrack, for instance. Such cross-references are good for sales: the movie attracts people to the soundtrack, and hit songs from the soundtrack draw people to the movie. Advertisements also benefit from media tie-ins: Simon Frith remarks that "The association of any product with a popular record has been found by advertisers to help sales" (1983, p. 127). Advertisers use hit songs for their promotions because the music lends an aura of fashionability to their goods and services.

Many people frown upon such a commercialization of popular music, particularly when it is well-known performers who sell their songs or services to advertisers. Neil Young made a prominent attack on this process in his song "This Note's for You," which criticized those musicians who sell out by allowing themselves to be used for the promotion of consumer goods such as beer or soft drinks. Leslie Savan writes that "The point of Young's video is that when a rock star is totally identified with his or her aluminum can, every time they appear, they become commercials" (Savan, 1988, p. 105).3 In this way, as Neil Young himself says, artists "lose their artistic credentials" (Savan, 1988, p. 49). A performer who sacrifices a song with the express intention of making money also sacrifices his or her individuality: the music of the performer loses its value as a direct expression of his or her feelings. Elvis Costello has also said that it is a shame that the main message that Michael Jackson was conveying to the youth of the late 1980s, given his prominence and his power to set an example, was "Drink Pepsi-Cola" (Rowland, 1989, p. 79).

Stuart Ewen writes that advertising dissociates images from their original context, as the images take on new significance through the process (1988, pp. 251-256). As an example, Ewen describes an ad for hair spray that compares today's "neat" look with the 1960s "wild" look: Ewen points out that the ad treats long hair as if it were merely a fashion statement in the 1960s, when in fact it was a code through which young people expressed their adherence to the counterculture. Such an example, according to Ewen, shows advertising's "ability to transform social movements into easily manipulated visual clichés" (Ewen, 1988, p. 256).

This transformation also occurs when Labatt uses "Summertime Blues" in its advertisements. The song was co-written by Eddie Cochran and was a hit for him in 1958. It reflects the carefree rebelliousness of the times, expounding upon the inconvenience of being young in an adult world. Cochran, although he died in a car crash at the age of 21, was an influential performer, and the Who and Blue Cheer paid homage to his significance by recording their own renditions of "Summertime Blues" at the end of the 1960s. Labatt, however, takes the song and turns it into a sales pitch for beer. In this way, the company creates new associations between the song and a product, Labatt's Blue. As a consequence, when we hear the original Eddie Cochran version of the song, we are likely to start thinking about a beer commercial instead of enjoying the undiluted impact of the song's gently rebellious message, and its ties to two of rock's most formative periods, the mid-1950s and the late 1960s.

It is relevant to add at this point that many of the people who criticize the co-optation of rock songs by advertising are not exactly the most detached of observers. After all, both rock musicians and rock critics have an interest in emphasizing the authenticity of their music by denigrating songs that have appeared in commercials. It is likely that the use of a song in an ad will affect listeners' associations with regard to that song and its performer. The matter, however, is not as severe as Neil Young and his supporters make it out to be. People can still enjoy "Summertime Blues," for instance, even if they have to mentally separate the song from its connection to a beer commercial to do so. Furthermore, in all cases the music industry treats all the music that it distributes as a product, to be bought and sold on the marketplace just like beer and soda pop. Not even Neil Young is exempt from this process. Viewed in this way, the video for Young's "This Note's for You" is not only a PSA against selling out: it is also an ad for the song and its performer.

There's certainly something questionable about rich musicians exploiting their fame by selling their music to advertisers; nevertheless, a boycott is hardly called for.

Intertextuality in the Advertisements

Such songs as "Summertime Blues" are effective in arousing our interest because they mean something to us, they are significant for us. If nothing more, we listen to such an ad as the one for Labatt's Blue because we want to hear what the advertisers have done to the song in it. Because of its effectiveness, the practice of including various cultural references in an advertisement is commonplace, as Gérard Genette observes: "Il faudrait, je l'ai dit, un gros volume, aussitôt dépassé, pour seulement recenser les pratiques hypertextuelles de la publicité moderne" (Genette, 1982, p. 436).4 Advertising is indeed extremely "hypertextual," taking elements from our culture at large, and transforming them for its own uses.

Advertising borrows as a matter of course because it needs to make an immediate impact upon the audience. As Leiss, Kline, & Jhally write,

In the era of market segmentation and the thirty-second commercial, this reliance on shared knowledge becomes even more important. The thirty-second ad allows little time to give information about anything. Advertisers pretty much have to use what already exists in the imaginations of the target audience. (1986, p. 156)

Philip Tagg concurs with Leiss, Kline, & Jhally when he observes that popular music, to achieve an immediate impact, makes frequent use of "well-established and widely recognized archetypes of musical code" (Tagg, 1987, p. 284). Furthermore, the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss adds that people derive pleasure and comfort from recognizing familiar forms in unfamiliar settings (Dreyfuss, 1955, pp. 59-60).

We can view intertextuality as a combination of old and new meanings in that the text refers to existing texts from which it draws, while at the same time conveying a new meaning through its placement in a new context. The old meaning makes it easier for the listener to absorb the new meaning. For example, the Club Med theme ("Hands Up") borrows from musical styles that originated in the West Indies. The Caribbean shimmer of the music spontaneously conveys a sense of tropicalness, sunshine, warmth, and relaxation to the listener, and the lively chorus projects a celebratory feeling of collaboration and companionship among people. There is no need for cumbersome descriptions and explanations: the music in the ad does the describing in a concise and persuasive way.

Similarly, an ad from the British Columbia Dairy Foundation features a modern update of the blues, with a black-sounding announcer backed by an acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Much of the appeal of this advertisement lies in the intertextuality of the score. The austere instrumentation of the music projects an appealing image of simplicity and genuineness. The blues sounds like a pure, natural form of music, especially in comparison with its descendants, rhythm & blues and rock. All of these qualities (simplicity, purity. . .) lend themselves well to the product being advertised, "Cool Milk."

Musical genres such as the blues are quite useful in creating positive associations for a product. Although the associations that they evoke are more diffuse than those that actual songs evoke, genres are much cheaper for the advertiser than songs are: genres, after all, infringe upon no one's copyrights. Conversely, the fees for buying the rights to specific songs, as Fred Miller indicates, "can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars; they depend on the usage of the material and the marketability of the song" (Miller, 1985, p. 7). The expense explains why only a few national advertisers in the excerpt (McDonald's, Labatt, Mr. Submarine) use copyrighted material. Commissioned jingles played in recognizable genres are almost as effective as popular songs, and local advertisers frequently use them in their ads.

Summary and Conclusion

Music is evocative. In particular, it appeals strongly to the emotions. Both of these qualities make it appropriate for advertising. Music enhances the persuasiveness of ads, as many of the ads in the excerpt from CFOX demonstrate. Different types of music can evoke different feelings, such as nostalgia or excitement, adding impact to the ad. Music is useful in concert promotions as well: it gives listeners a sample of an artist's repertoire, enticing them with musical fragments that can only be heard in their complete form at the concert being promoted.

For a few pop stars, involvement in advertising goes beyond concert promotions: these performers earn extra income by using their songs and their image to promote various products. Some critics have accused such stars of selling out. Whether fans should dismiss these artists is another matter, however.

Much of the power of music lies in its intertextuality: music constantly refers beyond itself, to images and ideas that listeners have acquired through previous cultural experiences. As a consequence, intertextuality in advertising music is an effective way of piquing listeners' interest: familiar melodies and arrangements can lure them into paying attention to the advertising message. Evocative music can also convey ideas and feelings concisely. There is less need for description or explanation when music can create the right ambience within a few seconds. In this way, listening to the music in the ads on CFOX, morning commuters headed for Vancouver can lose themselves, in dreams of Caribbean sunshine and tall glasses of cool milk.


I thank Martin Laba, Richard Gruneau, and Barry Truax for their comments and suggestions.
Jean-Jacques Nattiez writes, "Le signifiant musical renvoie à un signifié qui n'a pas de signification verbale précise" (1988, p. 143). [The musical signifier refers to a signified that does not have a precise verbal signification. Trans. mine.] For more on this topic, see also Orlov (1981).
See also Rosenbluth (1988). For an advertiser's contrasting perspective on this issue, see Hardee (1990).
Genette (1982), p. 436: [One would need, as I have said, a large volume, which would become instantly out-of-date, to merely compile the hypertextual practices of modern advertising. Trans. mine.]


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