The research, published in Journal of Advertising Research, investigated the role of music in advertising by analysing popular music’s most successful songs over a 50-year period (1960–2009). The US-based researchers used computer programs to run textual analysis of the lyrics for all of those songs and analysed the results to identify 12 key 'communication themes' which the team revealed "are used repeatedly over time; are largely emotional in nature; appear congruent with contemporary societal and environmental influences; and help predict a song’s chances of commercial success."
Led by Professor David Henard from North Carolina State University, the team suggested that these key themes can be used by marketing professionals to craft advertisements that will resonate with audiences.
"People are exposed to a barrage of advertisements and they often respond by tuning out those advertisements," explained Henard. "We wanted to see what we could learn from hit songs to help advertisers break through all that clutter. We also wanted to see if there were specific themes that could help companies engage with consumers in a positive way via social media."
"Our work shows that there is a limited range of widely accepted themes that get at the heart of human experience and resonate with a large and diverse population of consumers," the lead researcher revealed. "We're not saying that every marketing effort should centre on one or more of these themes, but the implication is that efforts incorporating these themes will be more successful than efforts that don't."
The team began by compiling a list of every song that hit No. 1 on US Billboard magazine's 'Hot 100' song list between January 1960 and December 2009 - these tracks ranged from 'El Paso' by Marty Robbins on Jan. 4 and 11 in 1960 to 'Empire State of Mind' by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys in the last five weeks of 2009.
Henard and his colleagues identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs. These themes are: loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion.
"These themes overwhelmingly reflect emotional content, rather than rational content," said Henard.
"It reinforces the idea that communications cantered 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."
All you need is love?
While all of these themes are common across the 50-year study period, the team noted that the most prominent themes have varied over time. For example 'rebellion', which was a prominent theme in the '60s and '70s, did not break the top 10 in the '80s – and was in the middle of the pack in the '90s and '00s.
In addition, the team showed that while the word 'love' is associated with many of the top ranking communication themes, the actual use of the word in song lyrics has dipped dramatically in recent decades. While love dominated the most 'influential' words in songs during the '60s, '70s and '80s, it has dipped in recent years and in the '00s had fallen from number one to number nine, the research shows.
Meanwhile the communication themes of 'desperation' and 'inspirational' jumped to the top of the list in the '00s for the first time, said the team. Henard suggested that this may have been due to the cultural effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Source: Journal of Advertising Research
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.2501/JAR-54-1-000-000
"All You Need is Love? Communication Insights from Pop Music’s Number-One Hits"
Authors: David H. Henard, Christian L. Rossetti