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Get Your Earplugs Ready: The Worst Uses Of Sound In Branding

Exploited correctly, sound can elicit memory and good feelings. Done wrong–remember that noisy Sunchips bag?–it can send people fleeing.

Get Your Earplugs Ready: The Worst Uses Of Sound In Branding
[Photo: Corbis Images]

Just as sound is one of the most powerful tools we have to tell a story, the wrong sound is one of the most powerful ways to kill one. Simply put, sonic trash is any sound that diminishes your experience because it’s wrong to you. As the multiple Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer puts it: “Get rid of the shitty sound. Life’s too short.”

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In January 2010, Frito-Lay debuted a 100% biodegradable bag for its SunChips brand. The bag was designed to cut down on landfill waste, but it completely polluted the sonic landscape of customers and anyone within earshot. A Facebook group called Sorry But I Can’t Hear You Over This SunChips Bag sprang up and gathered more than 44,000 fans. In a report about the bag, an enterprising television reporter for CBS found that, when shaken, the bag registered 100 decibels, louder than a lawn mower (90 decibels), a motorcycle (95 decibels) or a subway (94 decibels)–the reporter even shook the bag on a subway platform, and it cut through really loud sounds there. SunChips sales dropped every month, in year-on-year measurements, from the moment the bag debuted. Frito-Lay tried to add an adhesive to the material to cut down the sound. But 10 months after announcing the bag, Frito-Lay said it was scrapping the crinkly nightmare. At least we know all of those bags broke down quickly in landfills.

The Oxford psychologist Charles Spence famously discovered how the crunchiness of chips and crinkly-ness of packaging influences perceptions of flavor and freshness, but SunChips took it several steps too far. It’s a reminder that sound is never neutral. It always tells a story, and sometimes it’s not the story you intend. You ignore it at your peril.

The noisy SunChips bag is an example of what I call sonic trash. It’s a complete disregard for sound in storytelling. And in the case of the noisy bag, the wrong story was louder than the one Frito-Lay set out to tell. Other sonic trash can involve sound inserted in the wrong place or sound inserted solely for the sake of filling space when what’s really called for is silence. It’s Nissan’s weird digital doodle at the end of its ads that means precisely nothing and doesn’t make humans feel anything but advertising. It’s the aggressive score in the otherwise stunning 2013 movie Gravity, about a chaotic accident in space. The film is painstakingly accurate about the way things work in orbit, including the fact that you can’t hear explosions or metal shredding or glass shattering. One of the effects of losing sound in a situation where people have come to expect it is that they look for visual answers to what’s happening (next time you’re at an ATM that doesn’t beep, notice how much you lean in and pay attention to the screen). Instead of letting that disconcerting silence drive really violent scenes in Gravity, the filmmakers stuff the vacuum with strings and music meant to convey the emotions of Sandra Bullock’s character. Scoring to her emotions might make sense in a regular film, but this is not a regular film. Just as you start to wrap your head around the physics of a pivotal scenes, the score rudely insists you pay attention to how it all makes Sandra Bullock feel.

We’ve all been yanked out of a story by a misplaced film sound or song. Think of Hammer rapping “Addams Groove” over the 1991 remake of The Addams Family; P. Diddy rhyming over Jimmy Page’s “Kashmir” riff on “Come with Me” for 1998’s Godzilla remake; Limp Bizkit rap-rocking “Take a Look Around” for 2000’s Mission: Impossible II. These films shoehorn in pop icons with their own stories, which don’t align with the stories the filmmakers are trying to tell.

You’ve also heard what it sounds like when marketers try to get away with a lie. In 1987, Nike and its ad firm Wieden+Kennedy featured the Beatles’ “Revolution” in a sneaker ad. There might have been a time when Nike was an upstart rebel company, but that time was long gone by 1987. They paid $500,000 to license the song, but hard-core Beatles fans and the band’s remaining members themselves were incensed. Through their record company, Apple, the surviving Beatles sued the shoemaker for $15 million. George Harrison said in a statement: “Every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise it’s going to be a free-for-all.”

The band and the brand later settled out of court–the terms were sealed. And Nike eventually stopped running the ads.

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In plenty of other cases, brands latched onto a chorus or a hook of a song without considering the whole story it told. Many have gotten away with it. Their spots didn’t offend anyone, even if they faded away without leaving a mark. Now, though, in an age where we’re all more skeptical than ever and well aware of marketing, such misuse of sound can become infamous as sonic trash, as was the case with the use of a song for one particular brand campaign, which readers of the online magazine Slate named the greatest misuse of music in an ad.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines sought to highlight the more adventurous side of its family-friendly fun cruises in 2010. So the company, along with its ad agency Arnold Worldwide, used “Lust for Life,” a song originally written by Iggy Pop with David Bowie. “We were using a portion of the song that musically and lyrically fit with what we were doing,” Arnold’s managing partners and group creative director Jay Williams told the New York Times. The goal was to attract more young people to the cruises. “The energy, enthusiasm and raw feel was right,” Williams said. But if you recognize the song (it’s Iggy’s biggest hit, and was actually first released in 1977), you might know it as the opener of Trainspotting, a film about heroin-addicted Scots. If you dig deeper, you’ll discover that the song’s lyrics reference William S. Burroughs’s gender-bending liquor-and-drugs-peddling stripper Johnny Yen. (His name’s in the cruise-ship ads.) But to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Johnny’s never been the featured entertainer on the lido deck. And it’s a safe bet Iggy Pop won’t be doing the cruise circuit anytime soon. Bottom line: The music didn’t match the story. And to suggest that a Royal Caribbean Cruise is like vacation heroin is, well, a lie. To be fair, Royal Caribbean’s profits did surpass all expectations in 2010, but it also had just invested in shiny new ships.

Then there was Wrangler’s use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” in its campaign for jeans. The ad uses the first half of the opening verse, about folks being born to wave the flag. But gone is the second half: “And when the band plays ‘Hail to the Chief,’ / Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord.” So a song protesting sending the poor off to slaughter became a patriotic celebration of denim.


Creedence singer John Fogerty doesn’t own the rights to his music and didn’t approve the ad. Explaining the intent of his lyrics in 2002, he told the New York Times, “I was protesting the fact that it seemed like the privileged children of the wealthy didn’t have to serve in the Army. I don’t get what the song has to do with pants.” Craig Errington, director for advertising and special events for Wrangler, told the Times the song was “written and produced more as an anti-privilege anthem, as an ode to the common man. We sell millions and millions of jeans to those kinds of people and always have.” So why lose the second part of the verse? (Slate readers also voted this one among the greatest misuses of music in ads.)

The point is that the right song can help drive home a true story. But the wrong song can make it fall apart. You’ll tune out at best. At worst, you’ll get angry.

Excerpt from The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy by Joel Beckerman with Tyler Gray to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 21, 2014. Copyright © 2014 by Man Made Music, Inc. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.