Art Of The Earworm: How Catchy Food Jingles Are Designed To Stick In Your Head

Just like the mind-control slugs that Khan shoves inside people's heads in Star Trek II, successful jingles have a way of burrowing into your brain and setting up permanent base camp. And when the topic of those jingles is food, the stomach is fond of flipping out along with the cerebrum.

The jingle, as an advertising staple, has been in play since the advent of commercial radio in the 1920s, when a barbershop-quartet-style spot for Wheaties helped bring the General Mills brand back from the brink. That was the first major example of über-catchy musical marketing, a strategy that peaked in the 1950s, only to wane in popularity by the late '80s as the licensing of Top 40 hits became fashionable. Nowadays, due to high licensing costs and/or a desire for sonic personalization, jingles are still very relevant. Just look at ubiquitous/aggravating campaigns like Subway's five-dollar footlong push.

Those catchy slivers of commercial music that stick so violently in your head — researchers call them "earworms" — aren't persistent by accident. They're tonally calibrated to stick in your craw; the music, lyrics and melodies lingering long after the radio or television spot has left regular rotation. "There has to be simplicity, but also catchiness," says David Cope, a musician who's worked in the radio-jingle world, recording tracks for restaurants and casinos. "The best ones will stick with you after you've heard it once or twice — even if you don't think you're going to buy the product." That last point is a vital one, since the aim of a jingle is not really to encourage you to open your wallet; it's more about slithering into your subconscious. You may never hanker for a ham-and-cheese Hot Pocket or a sloppy joe made with Manwich, but you still know what to pick when you want a hot meal without a big deal, or what to cook when you want some fun piled on a bun.

But what elements need to be in place to ensure a jingle reaches its maximum potential? "There's always structure," says Scott Stallone, a songwriter, musician, engineer and producer who has composed original music for the food, fashion and automotive industries. Companies will approach Stallone with a list of needs — particular touch points, a musical genre or even suggested lyrics. And the who is as important as the what. "They usually give you a demographic they're trying to target," says Stallone. "[But] you're not bound by the song structure and the rules of pop."

Right now, there are hundreds of jingles stashed away in our pop-culture repositories, waiting to dig out of the gray matter and overtake our waking thoughts. Food and drink, in particular, have provided some of our longest-lasting ditties. Here, in no particular order, are ten of the most enduring epicurean jingles. These are the rare earworms that make you want to eat.

1. Bagel Bites

The genius of this spirited campaign, which, like the product itself, comes a couple different ways, is the erroneous suggestion that pizza consumption is somehow contingent on time of day. Americans, of course, have been enjoying pizza at all hours ever since The New York Times told us what it was in 1944. Bagel Bites, though? Appropriate at any juncture, as long they're preceded or followed by roller hockey.

2. Hot Pockets

Seven hundred grams of sodium stuffed inside a pastry crust crisped up by reflective cardboard sleeve is not really anyone's idea of a good time, but this jingle is so damn good that it helped Hot Pockets become a cult favorite among '90s kids — right up there with Lunchables and Ore-Ida Smiles in artery-constricting snack ubiquity. The brand would later ditch the killer tune in favor of a questionable campaign featuring an old Asian man (?!).

3. Dr. Pepper

This ever-resilient earworm, sung by the guy from An American Werewolf in London, was cowritten by Randy Newman and prolific jingle man Jake Holmes. It's a paean to individuality so sickeningly catchy that it circumvented the rules of live-action film, allowing a certain irascible animated sailor a cameo. Garth Brooks would later tag in on this.

4. Wonder Ball

"It's candy and chocolate and foil in a box!" Not really the most appetizing slogan out there, but that didn't stop Nestlé's Wonder Ball and its repetitive, hum-worthy pop-punk jingle from taking up residence in the psyches of millions of sugar-loaded children. After the product, AKA "Magic," was yanked off the market due to choking complaints in 1997, the company rejiggered its approach, filling the inside of the hollow chocolate sphere with candy instead of inedible plastic figurines. Wonder Ball, according to this spot, was subsequently enjoyed by ethnically diverse tweens across the nation.

5. Burger King

True to its have-it-your-way ethos, there were several ways you could go when it came to Burger King jingles: dull white moms, scrappy children in overalls or this clearly superior rendition, in which a pickle- and lettuce-hating dude, with basically zero effort, convinces three lovely and talented BK employees to serenade him for the duration of his meal. Must be nice.

6. Kit Kat Bar

This universally known entry is notable for two reasons: 1.) Its role in forming an unwanted culture of sharing that dictates you must never enjoy a Kit Kat at full strength. 2.) Its use of the still-popular "rapid cuts to random people, including a construction worker, enjoying the product" format.

7. Folger's

The best part of "the best part of waking up" is that it became such an insane hit for Rockapella that they were basically obligated to sing it any time they performed live. So weird if you think about it. Imagine if Ludacris felt the need to perform his weird Pepsi song whenever he was onstage.

8. Chicken Tonight

If you were around in the '90s, you definitely spent some time flapping your arms like an idiot at the mere mention of Ragu's unappetizing poultry simmer sauces. The spots seem like they were filmed by a camera guy who drove around and forced people to do the chicken dance from his vehicle without actually stopping.

9. Cool Whip

You once spent an entire summer afternoon inside, alone, eating a tub of Cool Whip while your friends played outside in the sun too? We have so much in common. It's not our fault — blame it on whoever came up with the lilting phrase "whip-smackin' good." And Raven-Symoné.

10. Manwich

There are several different versions of the Manwich song, but if forced to pick one particular jingle to represent the canned sloppy-joe starter, it's gotta be the vaguely calypso one. Disregard its slanderous treatment of meatloaf and focus on the groove, man.

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