50 years of hit songs yield tips for advertisers, marketers

RALEIGH, N.C.
March 18, 2014 6:48am
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•  From heartbreak to desperation, escapism to confusion

•  “A limited range of widely accepted themes that get at the heart of human experience”


The lyrics sung by a Buck Owens or Bono may not be Shakespearean or even rival Chaucer, but there are definite themes that seem to resonate over the years with the human psyche, according to new research at North Carolina State University.

It is research that can be used by advertisers to pick themes to power their messages through today’s commercial clutter, according to David Henard, a professor of marketing at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the research.

Researchers from North Carolina State University have analyzed 50 years’ worth of hit songs to identify key themes that marketing professionals can use 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. We wanted to see what we could learn from hit songs to help advertisers break through all that clutter,” says Mr. Henard. “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,” he says. “We’re not saying that every marketing effort should center 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.”

And what are those key themes? The answer is not clear-cut because it seems to change over the years.

But the researchers have identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs: loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion.

While these themes are common across the 50-year study period, the most prominent themes have varied over time.

“Rebellion,” 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. The themes of “desperation” and “inspirational” leapt to the top of the list in the ’00s for the first time – possibly, Mr. Henard notes, due to the cultural effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“These themes overwhelmingly reflect emotional content, rather than rational content,” Mr. 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.”

The research is based on compiling a list of every song that hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” song list between January 1960 and December 2009. The 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.

The researchers used computer programs to run textual analysis of the lyrics for all of those songs and analyzed the results to identify key themes.

The paper, “All You Need is Love? Communication Insights from Pop Music’s Number-One Hits,” is forthcoming from the Journal of Advertising Research. The paper was co-authored by Christian Rossetti, an assistant professor of business management at NC State.


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