Research & Insights

Lessons from Lyric Writers Will Tune Up Your Messages So They Really Sing

Want to your next social marketing campaign to strike a responsive chord?  Maybe the place to start is by taking note of what makes certain songs climb to the top of the music charts.

Based on an analysis of 50 years of top-selling songs, researchers at North Carolina State University say the themes that made these tunes resonate with listeners–as expressed in their lyrics–could also be used to craft hit-parade quality messaging campaigns.

“People are exposed to a barrage of advertisements and they often respond by tuning out those advertisements. We wanted to see what we could learn from hit songs to help advertisers break through all that clutter,” says Dr. David H. Henard, a professor of marketing at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the research.

“Our work shows that there is a limited range of widely accepted themes that get at the heart of human experience” Henard adds. He says the implication from that finding “is that efforts incorporating these themes will be more successful than efforts that don’t.”

For their study, which appears in the June 2014 Journal of Advertising Research, Henard, along with a colleague, Christian L. Rossetti from the Department of Business Management, examined the lyrics from songs that made Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” lists over the past five decades.

Among the themes  that came up most often in the hit songs were loss, desire, aspiration, breakups, pain, inspiration and nostalgia. Secondary themes included rebellion, jadedness, desperation, escapism, and confusion.

Henard and Rossetti also found that the themes varied in popularity at different times over the years. For example, nostalgia was strongest in the 1970s but declined in popularity through the 1990s.  Songs that were popular in the 2000s tapped into feelings of inspiration, pain, and desperation.

“These themes overwhelmingly reflect emotional content, rather than rational content,” Henard says. “It reinforces the idea that communications centered on emotional themes will have mass audience appeal. Hit songs reflect what consumers respond to, and that’s information that advertisers can use to craft messages that will capture people’s attention.”

“When themes are used repetitively over time,” they write, “the result is a connection with the audience that extends beyond the power of any individual message in isolation.”

Journal of Advertising Research, June 2014

David H. Henard
Christian L. Rossetti
North Carolina State University

Posted: August 18, 2014
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