Marketing Musicology
The marriage of commerce and culture


June 5, 2014

All You Need is Love? Communication Insights From Pop Music’s Number‑One Hits

In response to calls for further investigation on the role of music and advertising, the authors of the current study analyzed popular music’s most successful songs over a 50-year period (1960–2009). The current paper uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches to uncover communication themes from nearly 1,000 songs  that best resonated with mass audiences. The study identifies 12 communication themes and finds that they 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. The results provide

advertising professionals with a repertoire of themes for consideration in advertising and other marketing communications for mass audiences.



Over the past 50 years, advertising has adapted to a continuous shift in the dynamics of con- sumer communications. From the Golden Age of Advertising to the new era of social media, the industry’s interactions with consumers have evolved from one-way broadcasts into multi-way conversations.

One of the chief obstacles is to break through the clutter so that the message reaches as many target consumers as possible. Yet, today’s consumers are more psychologically and technologically empow- ered to either engage with or ignore marketers than ever before. It is important, therefore, that advertis- ers develop messages that resonate with consum- ers on a deeper level, have relevance to their daily lives, and acknowledge their social circum- stances (Aitken, Gray, and Lawson, 2008). With this in mind, the authors of the current study looked to popular music’s top-rated songs for insights on message composition and on identifying consumer communication  themes  from  the  audience’s perspective.


  • Consumers are more psychologically and technologically sophisticated than ever before, requiring new approaches to adver tising.
  • Marketing communications have evolved from one-way broadcasts to multi-way conversations.
  • To be effective, adver tisers must “join the conversation” rather than broadcast content.
  • Emotional and cognitive themes can be identified in popular music lyrics and, therefore, help adver tisers to better join the conversation.
  • These themes, while constant over decades, var y according to contemporar y environments, providing adver tisers with a temporal guide to consumer conversations.
  • Individuals’ desire to express themselves in the context of current events and adver tising plays a role in the social identity of individuals. Thus, future research aimed at uncovering the contemporary social realities of consumers can enhance advertising content.

Throughout time, musical artists have created messages using lyrics and tunes. Those who became successful commer- cially wrote songs that resonated with a broad audience. Uncovering commercially successful communication themes increas- ingly is vital for advertisers—perhaps just as important as understanding the tools, techniques, and technology associated with advertising campaigns.

The relationship between an advertised message and product performance often is mediated by consumer perceptions of the good or service advertised. By con- trast, individuals consume (i.e., purchase, download, airplay) songs based on the characteristics of the song, with little-to– no mediation effect. This direct relation- ship between message and consumption provides an opportunity to more directly assess the relationship between message content and marketplace acceptance. For this and other reasons, the authors believe that popular music can provide advertisers with a template for successful audience communication.



The role of music in advertising has expanded dramatically to a point where music—especially popular music—plays a significant and integral role in adver- tisements  (Allan,  2006,  2008;  Dunbar,1990; Hecker, 1984; Stewart, Farmer, andStannard, 1990).The inclusion of popular music in com- mercials is due to music’s ability to provide relevance or perspective for consumers (Allan, 2008). This is consistent with the view that individuals interpret messages using cultural knowledge that is handed down across generations, drawn from other media information or past experience and congruent with their own life themes (Kenyon, Wood, and Parsons, 2008). Indi- viduals simply do not decode media con- tent for information; they also process it for meaning (Hirschman, 2003; Hirschman and Thompson, 1997; McCracken, 1987; Mick and Buhl, 1992).

Furthermore, advertisements featur- ing popular music are more effective than those without it, and advertisements with music vocals (i.e., lyrics) are more effect- ive than pure instrumentals (Allan, 2006). Music long has been viewed as an effective and efficient means of eliciting moods and influencing individual behavior (Alpert and Alpert, 1990; Bruner, 1990), and the association between music and informa- tion processing in the brain is well estab- lished (Schmidt and Trainor, 2001).

Yet, while music widely is recognized for its relevance and importance to adver- tising, some in the field note a relative lack of research on the topic (e.g., Allan, 2008; Bruner, 1990; Stewart et al., 1990).

The question of whether individu- als independently processed lyrics and tunes—coupled with the lack of a quan- titative methodology—forced previous research to focus on tunes and largely ignore the impact of song lyrics. Even when the inclusion of lyrics was shown to improve the effectiveness of adver- tisements (e.g., Allan, 2008), researchers were unable to empirically evaluate those lyrics.

Certain developments make such an evaluation conceptually and empirically possible:

  • An assortment of behavioral and neu- ropsychological research has demon- strated the independence of semantic and harmonic processing in the brain (e.g., Barongan and Hall, 1995; Besson, Faita, Bonnell, and Requin, 1998; Peretz et al., 1994; Wester, Crown, Quatman, and  Heesacker,  1997).  Simply  stated, individuals  process  lyrics  and  tunes independently while listening to songs. From a marketing communications perspective, this independent processing heightens the importance of understand- ing the impact of the lyrical component of music on consumers in addition to that of tunes.
  • Computational text analysis software makes sophisticated quantitative analy- ses of lyrics (and any written/spoken communication) possible.

The current study seeks answers to three fundamental research questions:

  • Can communication themes quantifiably be identified in popular music lyrics?
  • If identifiable, can these themes predict a song’s commercial success or failure?
  • If both of the above are true, what are the practical implications for advertising and marketing communications?



Of the multiple forms of communication with which consumers interact, people report listening to music more than any other form, highlighting the integral role that music plays in our lives (Rentfrow and Gosling, 2003).

Music, arguably, is the dominant com- munication medium for which the com- mercial success depends on striking a balance between broad audience appeal and individual preferences. This is remi- niscent of the advertiser/consumer dyad. Musicians develop musical styles at spe- cific times and within a specific cultural context much like the field of advertis- ing. Neither the communicator nor the recipient fully can appreciate a message without some frame of historical reference. This degree of contextual and temporal variance  requires  a  longitudinal  under- standing  of  how  successful  recording artists have communicated with their audi- ences. Such an understanding over time can provide practitioners with multi-level insights, ranging from the construction of effective advertising communication themes to simply deciding which song might be appropriate for a specific adver- tisement at a specific point in time.

The commercial success of a song is determined by the audience’s evaluation of both its tune and lyrics. By focusing on song lyrics, the authors seek to capture message themes that resonate best with a large number of consumers—over a sus- tained period of time—with the intent of understanding why some songs are more commercially successful than others. Although the influence of tunes cannot be discounted as a factor in a song’s chart success, a combination of statistical meth- ods does allow the authors to tease out the influence of lyrical themes.

Music is one of the oldest methods of entertainment and cultural transmission and is found in various forms in every known culture (Wallin, Merker, and Brown, 2000). This fact gives credence to the view that popular music is relevant to our interest in consumer communications. Music is framed best as a socially situated, communicative experience, which implies two important consequences (Scott, 1990):

  • Interpretations of music not only are idi- osyncratic but largely are shared.
  • The interpretation of each musical com- munication is shaped by the sum of an individual’s past listening experiences.

Thus, it is important to view marketing communications as having a connection to social and cultural issues and not as separate, disconnected activities (Thomp- son, 1994). Framing music as a socially situated, communicative experience (Scott, 1990) is appropriate in this instance as songs are constructed by artists to affect audiences in much the same way that advertisements and jingles are designed to have an impact on consumers.

Recent psychological research suggests that an individual’s musical preferences are a representation of his or her attitudes, beliefs, and needs (North and Margreaves, 2007). Music represents a social situation in which the audience primarily is involved in receiving symbolic information pro- duced by others to whom they cannot directly respond but with whom they can form bonds of friendship, affection, or loyalty (Thompson, 1994). Again, this is analogous to the relationship between advertisers and consumers.

Much like advertising, there is a large and indefinite  potential range  of audi- ences associated with music communica- tions. This entails a certain narrowing of the range of symbolic cues that can be employed by the recording artist (Thomp- son, 1994). In essence, the most popular, commercially successful songs strike a chord with a large, diverse population of individuals in the same manner that endearing advertisements do.

Successful communications—musical or otherwise—do not tell us how to react or what to do. Rather, they present care- fully constructed stimuli that evoke cer- tain inner connections that elicit a desired behavior or reaction (Schwartz, 1981). Although no one can make a priori predic- tions as to the cognitive or affective themes found in popular music’s number-one hits, it is conventional thought to believe that musical effects can be equated with emo- tion (Dowling and Harwood, 1986, p. 202; Scott, 1990), as most electronic media emphasize feeling, appearance, and mood (Meyrowitz, 1994).

Advertising scholars associate such appeals with slower wear-out and low- ered consumer forgetting (Bass, Bruce, Majumdar, and Murthhi, 2007; Friestad and Thorson, 1986; Pechmann and Stewart, 1989). These facts lend further support to the belief that a greater understanding of music lyrical themes can foster more suc- cessful advertising communications.

In sum, the authors of the current study looked to popular  music  for  a  variety of reasons:

  • With regard to music in general, indi- viduals appear to be “hardwired” to respond favorably to it, and the effec- tiveness of music in communication is demonstrated from the time of human infancy (Fernald, 1993; Rock, Trainor, and Addison, 1999; Trainor, Clark, Huntley, and Adams, 1997).
  • There is ample research evidence to sug- gest that music (both lyrics and tunes) is an effective component of advertis- ing yet sufficient evidence that more research is warranted.
  • The neuropsychological research sub- stantiation that individuals process music lyrics and tunes separately means that a greater understanding of the impact of music lyrics will complement our base of knowledge on the effects of tunes.
  • The development of sophisticated quantitative software allows for an analysis of music lyrics that heretofore was unavailable.



Data source

Investigations of music lyrics neither are new nor confined to a single research stream (e.g., Cole, 1971; Dukes, Bisel, Borego, Lobata, and Owens, 2003; Kuhn, 1999; Whissell, 2008). Yet, although much of the extant research has focused on the music of a particular artist or music genre, the research questions proposed in the cur- rent study call for a broad and objectively comprised set of lyrics.

As such, Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” song list is an appropriate data source for this research. In 1946, Billboard began to compile and publish statistics on the sales, airplay, and juke-box play of popu- lar songs. This compilation and reporting system evolved until 1958, when the “Hot 100” songs list was developed. This list quickly became the U.S. industry standard for measuring the success of music singles and largely remains so today. The top 100 songs currently are reported weekly and are ranked on airtime impressions, sales data (both calculated by Nielsen), and on- line streaming activity. The list has always been composed of some combined meas- ure of sales and airplay metrics indicators of commercial performance.


Collecting and Cleaning the Lyrics

To include a sufficient time horizon for historical analysis and simultaneously focus on songs that would be composed of lyrics best capable of reaching a diverse audience, all number-one songs between 1960 and 2009 ultimately were chosen for analysis. The authors’ premise was that songs ranked number-one were those that best resonated with the public; therefore, only those songs that reached the top spot were analyzed. This resulted in a list of 956 songs. These songs remained number one for an average of 19 days with a range of seven to 112 days. The median length of time at number one was 14 days.

After each song detail was catalogued, a search for the lyrics was performed using multiple electronic search engines. Located lyrics were then converted to text format for subsequent analysis. The lyrics for one song could not be located, and 12 additional songs were instrumentals hav- ing no associated lyrics, resulting in 943 songs (98.6 percent) for the final empirical analysis. There were a very few instances in which a song was number one on the chart for a period of days, then dropped below the top rank for a short period of time, and later returned to the top spot. In those instances, the song lyrics were analyzed once and the cumulative length of days spent at number one was listed once. Where a song reached the top spot across a period of years (e.g., remix/ remake by different artists in different years), the song lyrics were captured as separate occurrences.

There are 10,556 words across all songs and all years. The statistical analysis of so many lyrics over such an extended period of time understandably is complex. In the initial step of data purification, the authors independently catalogued all words and examined them for any spelling or punc- tuation irregularities that could adversely affect the analyses, correcting those words identified as empirically prob- lematic (e.g., dat → that; U R → you are; gonna → going to).

The authors next identified the top 1,000 most influential words, and each indepen- dently suggested additional corrections. To facilitate the analysis without losing the richness of the data, the authors inde- pendently combined similar words into more manageable and coherent terms that effectively comprised the diverse terms (e.g., Maria, Loretta, Maggie → female name). Lists were then compared to deter- mine a final coding scheme. The few areas of initial discrepancy were rectified by discussion and additional examination of specific song lyrics.


Analyzing the Lyrics

One methodological goal of this manu- script was to go beyond simplistic word- count analysis and utilize a computational text analysis that allowed the researchers to subject written communication to more rigorous methodological evaluation.

Lyrics were analyzed using the centering- resonance analysis method of computerized text analysis (cf. Corman, Kuhn, McPhee, and Dooley, 2002; McPhee, Corman, and Dooley, 2002). Centering-resonance analysis (CRA) draws on centering theory (Grosz, Weinstein, and Joshi, 1995) and uses content analysis to code text by empirically repre- senting it as a network composed of words and their grammatical relationships (Carley and Kaufer, 1993; Danowski, 1993).

In essence, mechanical coding rules replace latent methods that simply rely on human coders. This reduces the level of bias in the coding process allowing for a more detailed analysis of complex groups of words, sentences, and thematic relation- ships, which is appropriate to this research. The CRA method is an emerging empiri- cal methodology that is demonstrated to provide convergent, divergent, and face validity (Corman et al., 2002) and is used increasingly in a variety of research stud- ies (e.g., Canary and Jennings, 2007; Lee and James, 2007; Lichtenstein, Dooley, and Lumpkin, 2006; Rossetti and Dooley, 2010; Tate, Ellram, and Kirchoff, 2010).

CRA works by using natural language processing to break text into sentences to identify the various parts of speech. To form a CRA network, nouns and adjectives are extracted in the form of noun phrases and serve as nodes in a network. Words that are contiguous or in the same noun phrase are connected together creating the links in the network.

CRA then calculates the relative, overall influence of each word (Freeman, 1979). Influence is defined as the extent to which a word figures prominently in a series of relationships with other words. Using this operational definition, the influence of a word is related to its ability to span con- ceptual boundaries and effectively implies that the most influential words represent the structural center of a CRA network.

After two or more networks are derived from a set of texts, their “resonance” (i.e., similarity) is measured using a standard cosine-similarity metric (Corman et al., 2002). Resonance measures the  fraction of words that are shared by two texts, weighted by the influence of each word in each text. The resonance values can then be used to create a similarity matrix, which is empirically similar to a correlation matrix.

Creating the  Datasets

The authors began by creating a dataset with all top songs across all 50 years. Five datasets of song lyrics corresponding to the decades in which the song was ranked number one (e.g., 1960–1969; 1970–1979) then were created. Each dataset contained individual text files corresponding to each unique song lyric and was analyzed cre- ating a CRA network for each song. This yielded an influence score for each word in every song. The number of influential words (“nodes”), the density of those words, and their focus were recorded. “Density” refers to the number of word connections relative to the number of statistically possible connections, and “focus” refers to the degree of network density around the most influential words.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Identifying Primary and secondary  Themes

As stated in the onset, the first research question  is  whether  one  can  identify themes within the top songs. Given the complex nature of these data, both quan- titative and qualitative analyses are neces- sary for interpretation. A factor analysis was conducted using the most influential words in the 1960–2009 lyrics dataset as a guiding parameter. As the goal of this research was to discover lyrical themes that are present—rather than test for the appearance of a specifically hypothesized number  of  themes—the  factor  analysis should be viewed as exploratory in nature. Although several linear combinations were produced from the initial, unrotated factor analysis, interpretability of factors is crucial. For these specific data, solely relying on an empirical cutoff point (e.g., Eigenvalue, correlation) to determine the number of factors is insufficient. Therefore, the key influence words were evaluated independently for each identified factor, and a list of descriptor labels appropriate to each factor was then created.

Songs associated with each factor then were identified, and the lyrics of each song were reviewed jointly to more accurately identify the themes as represented in the raw data. Evaluations then were compared, and the inter-rater reliability between the authors was greater than 95 percent. Discrepancies were rectified via discussion, and an overall theme label was assigned to each unique factor.

Identifying themes from the 50-year data provides one with the ability to evaluate the use of lyrical communications. Yet, by their broad nature, the resulting themes could tend to suppress statistically other themes that might be present and also vary by decade.

To  tease  out  any  secondary  themes from  these  data,  a  second  dataset  was created containing the top 250 words that appeared in at least five songs. The 50 previously identified words first were removed from the dataset, and principal component analysis was then performed. This ensured that the secondary analysis was granular enough to capture transitory themes yet not confounded by the previ- ously identified primary lyrical communi- cation themes (See Table 3).

Testing for bias

Identifying the dominant lyrical themes allows one to gauge their level of appear- ance in communications over the 50-year time frame. Although an analysis of every commercially released song between 1960 and 2009 is beyond the scope of this manuscript, the authors are cognizant of the fact that, while using the number-one songs  to  populate  the  database  clearly.

allows one to evaluate commercially successful lyrical communications, the results are somewhat skewed by a success bias: Less commercially successful song lyrics are not represented in these data. Thus, the data were broken into quartiles by the length of days at number one to contrast the use of lyrical themes across the top and bottom 25 percent of songs. In  this  manner,  the  authors  sought  to evaluate whether the use of themes dif- fered across quartiles. Recent-era songs (1990–2009) tend to remain, on average, at number one longer than earlier-era songs (1960–1989). Thus, to eliminate any tem- poral bias in the analysis, the top 25 per- cent and bottom 25 percent of number-one songs from eacyear (1960–2009) were selected to populate the quartiles. No sta- tistical difference in the use of primary or secondary themes across the quartiles was found.



Secondary Communication Themes and Associated Descriptors (1960–2009)*


Rebellion Jaded Desperation escapism Confusion
Associated Rebellious Reflective Helpless Fantasy Confused
Descriptors: Counter Culture Jaded Trapped Escape Distant Memories
Rock ’n’ Roll Cynicism Desperate Ecstasy Pointless
Music Trapped Cornered love as a Drug Secrets
Contemplative Coveting Sex
Key Influential Favorite State Corner Deal Memor y
Words: Sunday Favorite Throw Ecstasy Suitcase
Playing Mirror line Flying Circle
City Sunday Guess Inside view
Rock Heavy Promise Question Secret
Radio Jet Stupid Grooving Magic


*The 250 most influential words that appeared in at least five different song lyrics across all years were used to populate the dataset employed to identify these themes. The 50 influential words identified in the development of primary themes were removed from consideration prior to development of these secondary lyrical themes. Key influential words are listed in descending order of influence.


Certain Themes Predict Commercial success

The second research question was whether any identifiable themes could predict com- mercial success or failure. The authors are aware that a song’s commercial success or failure is influenced by both its lyrics and its tunes. Therefore, in assessing commer- cial success, the effect of song tunes was controlled to the greatest extent possible by limiting this portion of the analysis to the catalogues of individual artists. Spe- cifically, the authors strove to isolate the impact of lyrical themes from specific tunes and musical styles popular in each decade when assessing the commercial success of a specific theme by keeping recording artists constant.

For each of the five decades, the top two most successful recording artists as measured by weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 list were identified (See Table 4). The authors captured as much of the entire song catalogue for each artist as was publicly available, noting which songs made, or did not make, the Billboard Hot 100 list. To ensure that there was a variance in theme usage across the catalogues of the top ten artists, a factor analysis was con- ducted for each artist to identify key influ- ential words and themes across their entire song catalogue (both Hot 100 and non-Hot 100 songs).

Results appropriately indicated a vari- ance in themes for each artist. In the same manner as detailed in earlier analyses, the songs were converted to text files and ana- lyzed using the CRA technique to deter- mine influential words and their respective influence scores. The seven primary theme factor scores for each song’s lyrics then were calculated using the previously deter- mined factor score loadings. Factor scores then were standardized. The 3,094 songs were then coded “1” if they reached Hot 100 status and “0” if they did not.

Direct logistic regression was used to determine whether the identified primary themes could predict whether a song would reach the Billboard Hot 100 list (i.e., “commercial success”) or not. Logistic regression was chosen because of


  • the  technique’s  flexibility,  relative  to other methods;
  • its  freedom  from  certain  statistical restrictions; and
  • the fact that the authors proposed no specific hypotheses regarding the relative importance of any particular song theme or interaction of themes.

The  method  allowed  one  to  predict group   membership   from   direct   and first-order interaction theme effects. The resulting model had Cox and Snell and Naqelkerke pseudo R2 values of 0.21 and 0.28, respectively.

In response to the second research ques- tion, the authors found that the presence of the identified primary themes could pre- dict with 73.4 percent accuracy whether  a  song  will  or  will  not  be  commercially successful. Specifically, 24.3 percent of the

  • The sample was randomly split and logistic regression was performed on both sub-samples. This yielded statistically identical results.
  • A similar model was formulated using general linear model procedures outlined in SPSS 17.0. A negative binomial distribution was assumed due to the high ratio of non-performing songs. The model yielded similar statistically significant terms to the logistic regression analysis and had relatively good fit: deviance/degree of freedom = 0.384 and CAIC = 3,646.


Hot 100 songs were correctly identified as making the top 100 list, and 81.6 percent of the non-Hot 100 songs were correctly iden- tified as not making the list.

To the authors’ knowledge, this was the first time that research empirically had quantified lyrical themes in popular music and verified their ability to map with a song’s commercial success.


Theme Usage varies over Time

To complement the presentation of the primary and secondary themes and the associated descriptor words that com- prise them, a graphic representation of the results provides additional insights.

The usage of themes is presented in these figures as a relative level of appear- ance. Namely, one can evaluate the relative

use of a single theme across decades and loss Desire Aspiration Breakup Pain Inspiration Nostalgia the relative use of various themes within a specific decade in relation to a mean level of appearance. One can see that the use

Figure 1  Occurrence of Primar y lyrical Themes by Decade


of the primary lyrical themes in the 1960s and 1970s was relatively less than that of the 1980s–2000s, which could indicate that themes other than the primary ones were more dominant in the first two decades or that no clearly dominant themes emerged from songwriters during those periods (See Figure 1).

The 1960s and 1970s in the United States were a socially turbulent time frame and, although one might expect themes such as loss, pain, and nostalgia to be well repre- sented in those time periods, the primary themes uncovered here are more closely tied to personal loss, pain, and so on (e.g., romantic  relationship)  than  to  societal issues (See Figure 2).

Interestingly, Coca Cola’s now infamous “Hilltop” television-advertising campaign tapped the “Inspiration” theme through the use of original lyrics (e.g., “I’d like to teach the world to sing”) that mapped closely to one of the two relatively dominant themes of the 1970s. By contrast, the 1980s and 1990s were relatively less turbulent, and the 2000s again brought about an increased degree of social turmoil and a strong resur- gence of the “Inspiration“ theme.

Certain patterns of usage emerge from the primary themes analysis:

  • The “Inspiration” theme shows a dra- matic evolution from its relative non-use in the 1960s to its prominent appearance in the 2000s.
  • The “Nostalgia” theme virtually stands distinct from the other primary themes in the 1970s, and  yet  it  decreases in   usage   until   the   2000s.   “Loss” ., personal loss) is a dominant theme in the 1980s and 1990s—decades gen- erally viewed as times of personal abundance in the United States. It is interesting that these were the two relatively least environmentally vola- tile of the decades evaluated and could indicate that popular lyrics during tur- bulent times focus less on individual loss and more on collective or other broader issues.
  • With the exception of the 1970s, the “Loss” and “Pain” themes appear to be offsetting.
  • Among the primary lyrical themes, the “Breakup” theme appears to be used fairly close to mean levels with far less fluctuation across decades than


the other six themes. This could either indicate that, outside of the 1960s and 1970s “Breakup” is a relatively under- represented lyrical theme or that is a theme that is constantly represented among commercially successful lyrics and not as subject to temporal or envi- ronmental fluctuations as are the other primary themes. The “Breakup” theme historically also has been used to pitch an assortment of goods ranging from cleaning products and electronics to automobiles and Yellow Pages.


When examining the secondary lyrical themes, the greater disparity in the bal- ance of theme usage relative to the primary themes is striking. The previous pattern of relative underrepresentation of themes in the 1960s again is present, with the excep- tion of the “Rebellion” theme. There is a substantial fluctuation in the use of “Rebel- lion” across the 50 years, indicating that its usage ties closely with environmental cues. In the 1970s, the authors noticed a sharp contrast in the usage of the “Rebellion” and “Jaded” themes relative to the others. Interestingly, this was the peak relative usage for both themes.

The “Desperation” theme generally is underrepresented until the 2000s, where it dominates. This is reminiscent of the patterns exhibited by the primary themes of “Pain” and “Desire” and could track closely to the post-9/11 social environ- ment. Though the use of “Desperation” in advertising may be more suited to mental health and pharmaceutical goods, the rela- tive emergence of this (or any) theme in top hits could serve as an environmental

indicator of the general level of need for certain product classes.

There also is an intriguing juxtaposition between the “Rebellion” and “Confusion” themes across each of the decades, sug- gesting that, at times when “Rebellion” themes are most well received, individu- als are least confused and vice versa. The “Desperation” and “Escapism” themes track similarly across the decades, with “Escapism” rising in the 1990s and “Des- peration” elevating in the next decade. It could be that those periods of time where individuals are searching for escape and fantasy are followed by periods where they feel trapped and helpless.

In sum:

  • The 1960s were marked by themes such as “Pain,” “Nostalgia,” and “Rebellion.”
  • The 1970s exhibited the dominant themes of “Nostalgia,” “Rebellion,” and “Jaded.”
  • The 1980s popularized “Loss,” “Aspira- tion,” and “Confusion.”
  • In the 1990s, the most widely used themes among the top songs were “Loss,” “Inspiration,” and “Escapism.”
  • The first decade of the 2000s was punc- tuated by themes such as “Inspiration,” “Pain,” and “Desperation.”


Interestingly, McDonald’s media commu- nications over the last 50 years have closely mapped to the contemporaneous environ- ment, evolving from the extended use of the word “you” in the 1960s and 1970s to more “Escapism” tones in the 1990s to the more recent upbeat use of the “Desire” theme and the emphasis of the word “smile” across their advertising mix.


Implications for Practice

The authors sought an audience perspec- tive on communication themes using one of the most popular forms of human com- munication—music. The song lyrics evalu- ated in this research should be viewed as those derived from songs that were best received by a broad audience.

This research allows one to affirmatively answer the first two research questions, and the practical implications for song- writers are obvious. Yet, the third question asks for the practical relevance that the results have for advertising and marketing professionals. Broadly speaking, there are three overarching findings:


  • Lyrical communication themes from commercially successful songs can be identified and are observed consistently over a 50-year span of time.
  • These themes are overwhelmingly composed of emotional versus rationale content.
  • These themes vary in relative usage across this time span.


The results support the view that a suc- cessful communication is likely to use a narrow range of symbolic cues or themes (Smith, 1982; Thompson, 1994). One prac- tical implication of this is that advertisers should identify which cues or themes best resonate with their core audience.

For instance, Dove’s acclaimed “Evolu- tion” campaign relied on emotional themes such as “Desire,” “Inspiration,” and “Pain” that were timeless and well understood by their target consumers whereas Samsung’s recent “The Way We’re Wired” commer- cial overtly emphasizes the “Aspiration” theme across a spectrum of recognizable life events.

Similar to songwriters,  advertis- ing professionals face pressure to pro- duce commercially successful material. Media communication entails a distance between the communicator and the audi- ence and, because message production and consumption occur across a space, this distance generally is bridged in prac- tice via a combination of organizational strategies, presentational devices, and shared understandings. These understand- ings develop over time and define  the legitimacy, normality, and boundaries of the communication process.

When themes are used repetitively over time, the result is a connection with the audience that extends beyond the power of any individual message in isolation (Moriarty, 1996). Coca Cola’s repeated use of the word “real” in advertisements and tag lines across several decades is one example of this repetition as is their sea- sonal use of iconic images of Santa Claus in holiday ads.

Thus, one implication from this study’s first finding is that practitioners need to identify themes that consistently reso- nate with their specific target audience on a deeper, innate level and consistently weave that theme throughout their inte- grated marketing communications.

This current research highlights a rep- ertoire of widely accepted communica- tion themes for consideration. The active role of audiences in media communica- tion is important and, to create a success- ful message, practitioners should focus on universal values and shared experi- ences (Condit, 1985). Similar advice holds for global advertisers looking for ways to standardize international ad messages. For example, Absolut Vodka’s “In An Absolut World” campaign used numerous appeal approaches yet consistently touched on the universal themes of “Inspiration,” “Nostal- gia,” and “Escapism.”

The authors do not argue that media communications should always center on one or more of the 12 themes identified here; yet, the implications of these findings are that the incorporation of these or simi- lar themes in consumer communications likely could foster greater commercial suc- cess than a media communication in which they are absent.

The communication themes identified resonate with a diverse and large popu- lation of consumers and extend beyond the field of music. These themes are uni- versal in the sense that most individuals have experienced them at some point and can relate to the message presented. They transcend geography and time and are themes that are replete across classical literature and art, thus demonstrating their rigor.

Each of us experiences pain, loss, and confusion. At some point in our lives, we—as consumers—each seek inspiration, aspire to greater things, or reflect nostalgi- cally on the conjured idealism of the past. Likewise, we can become jaded, desire something different, and rebel against our current situation. These themes are univer- sal. They are classic. They speak directly to our core humanity. They are communica- tion themes with broad applicability and have stood the test of time, and that can help advertisers connect with audiences.

The second broad finding was that the successful music themes were over- whelmingly emotional in tone, which complements previous findings on the role of emotional appeals and advertising effectiveness (Binet and Field, 2009). The Beatles might have been slightly wrong with their prescription that “all you need is love” but, with so many thematic facets of the emotion identified here, there is lit- tle doubt that communications centered on  emotional  themes  will  have  mass audience appeal.

Effective emotional appeals tend to be more generalized than cognitive appeals and rely on a well-formed frame of reference in the audience, which gives emotional appeals a broader target audi- ence and broader appeal (Bettinghaus, 1973). Coupling this view with research demonstrating that the affective inten- sity of communication appeals are cap- able of evoking strong and non-random emotional responses (e.g., Bruner, 1990; Edell and Burke, 1987; Holbrook and Batra, 1987; Larsen and Diener, 1987; Moore, Harris, and Chen, 1995), it is rea- sonable to expect that emotional themes will resonate with broad audiences well and that themes identified in commercially successful songs should translate into successful advertising communications as well.

Advertising professionals have great leeway in how themes are tactically com- municated to consumers. For example, Sprint currently uses humorous twists on the “Breakup” theme. Nike’s Inspiration- themed commercials take numerous media forms, yet the company now is actively expanding the theme via multiple social media vehicles such as YouTube, Twitter, and various sponsored blogs. Apple has been successful in multiple mediums by leveraging the “Desire” theme and Dodge, in keeping with the current social and environmental context, increased its “Nos- talgia”- and “Inspiration”-themed message with the “Freedom” campaign.

Likewise, understanding the historical relevance of themes can provide a guide to assist in generational targeting campaigns using popular songs or song themes from an audience’s formative years to target them in later years as demonstrated by Cadillac’s “Break Through”  campaign in the 2000s that featured the music of Led Zeppelin.

In sum, this research validates insights across several academic disciplines by highlighting the fact that commercially successful communication themes in popular music are those that resonate with core human experiences. They employ a relatively narrow range of themes that evoke emotional reac- tions, have a historical context, and complement the audience’s contemporary social environment.

As such, the authors believe that com- munication themes gleaned from popu- lar music’s most commercially successful songs provide advertising professionals with a strong indication of which themes best resonate with a mass audience at a particular point in time.


Implications for Research

Though even something as simple as the frequency of music use in commercial messages largely remains unknown, the more concerning issue is that there is no definitive answer as to how music works in a marketing sense (Allan, 2008). Past research successfully has looked at the impact of music, needledrop, or jingles (e.g., Alpert and Alpert, 1990; Gorn, 1982; Oakes and North, 2008; Scott, 1990; Zhu and Meyers-Levy, 2005) and has provided us with strong insights.

The current paper is presented as an additional step in deconstructing music for its potential advertising applications and in creating future research avenues for aca- demics. When developing original music for advertisements, themes, or other com- munication efforts, marketers undoubtedly will draw on the intuition and training of professional musicians (Bruner, 1990). It is hoped that this research can make these efforts more productive. Those research- ers specifically interested in the construc- tion or use of music in advertisements can keep tunes constant while changing lyrics to test the isolated effect of particular lyrics or lyrical themes on individuals in a vari- ety of settings.

Future investigations could examine thematic use across specific song genres or determine how well themes resonate across certain demographic characteris- tics. Likewise, future research can explicate the impact that cross-cultural audiences have on the commercial effectiveness of lyrical or other communication themes. Those researchers interested in a more precise return on investment can expose lyrical themes to explicit measures of financial return.

Research indicates that songwriters use the same types of language in songs as are found in real-life communication and rela- tionship situations (Kuhn, 1999), and the linguistic analysis of song lyrics to inves- tigate an individual’s use of language has also sparked recent research interest (e.g., DeWall, Pond, Campbell, and Twenge, 2011; Pettijohn and Sacco, 2009).

Thus, the focus in the current paper on song lyrics has a practical bearing on the composition of broader marketing com- munications and serves as a first step for other researchers interested in the impact of themes on audience communication. By analyzing communication themes across 50 years of music, the authors were able to identify the evolution of certain communication themes.

The observation of emotional relative to cognitive themes was expected, yet the lopsided usage is insightful and begs for additional research to understand why

such a disparity exists. Additional research mapping the commercial or psychologi- cal (in)effectiveness of specific themes to specific brands also could provide prac- titioners with insights into how certain brand-theme pairings do or do not reso- nate with consumers.

The real content of an electronic com- munication is the relationship between the composition, the message, and the stored information in the minds  of those who receive it (Schwartz, 1981). Social identity does not rest in individu- als but in a network of social relations (Meyrowitz, 1994), and advertising can play a role in the establishment of these identities, often acting as a mirror that reflects back an image of society to itself (DeWall et al., 2011; McQuail, 1987).

Most well-accepted models of com- munication discount the assumption that individuals simply receive messages from communicators and account for the desire to express themselves and their views to other individuals about current events (Pingree, 2007). As such, academics should conduct cross-disciplinary research aimed at uncovering the contemporary and historical social realities of vari- ous audiences with the goal of enhanced audience communication.

Similarly, a congruency analysis of con- temporary song themes and popular pub- lic opinion might provide researchers with insights into themes that are likely to be successful in the near term. The authors’ results also indicate a thematic carryover effect across congruent decades. Such knowledge can be used to construct and test communication themes that assist practitioners with timely and targeted message development.

Beyond lyrical analyses, the CRA tech- nique represents an empirical leap over previous word-count methodologies and can be applied to a host of marketing communications including advertising copy, e-mail communication, promotional materials, blogs, and the like.

In the advertising profession, where the spoken or written word plays such a prominent role, the ability to empirically evaluate copy presents both practitioners and academics with a strong analytical tool. Future research can identify which themes,  either  independently  or  comspanned across songs) and not the com- mercial effect of a specific song.

The true reach of a communication medium is difficult to accurately ascertain and never can be more than an approxi- mate estimate of who is being reached (McQuail, 1997), yet the use of the Billboard Hot 100 data provided the researchers with as precise a measurement of purchase and message approval as possible. By restrict- ing their analyses to only those songs that reached Billboard’s top spot (as opposed to all 100 Hot 100 songs for a given period), the authors effectively are dealing with the efficient frontier of songs and song lyrics. The inclusion of non–number-one songs in the analysis could produce additional themes that might be under-represented in the authors’ sample.



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