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What Role Does Music Play in the Most Viral Commercials?

Reading Time:6 mins July 23, 2013

Music can often be the leading factor in what elicits an emotional reaction from media viewers. Auditory queues play a significant role in how we interpret an advertisement, much like they do in TV shows and movies. They often set the stage for the scene, giving us an idea of how we should be feeling and what can be expected from the next few moments.

Many of the most successful commercials contain some sort of music, and its applications run the gamut from somber anthems to hilarity-invoking jingles. But if we intend to dissect the music behind the most viral advertisements, there are a number of questions we need to ask.

So, What Makes a “Successful Commercial?”

There are many ways to measure an advertisement’s success, some more complicated than others. But one of the most telling and accessible metrics available is its popularity on social media.

High views on YouTube reflect the commercial’s viral popularity, or how many people were interested enough to spend their time watching it (and in many cases sharing it with their peers afterward). View count is a real-time measurement of a commercial’s exposure and effective reach, giving us valuable insight into the audience it has reached.

Now let’s get down to business. Below are the statistics I’ve gathered after reviewing the 50 most-viewed commercials on YouTube (from a search for the term “commercial”; note that I’m not referring to the sponsored ads that appear before other videos). I narrowed it down to only professionally produced, English language advertising for legitimate products and services.

How Many of These Commercials Used Some Sort of Music?

86% of the commercials used music in some degree. You don’t need me to tell you that a majority of commercials contain music in some form, and the same was true in this study.

11.6% used music in only part of the segment. Only a small portion of the commercials I reviewed included partial use of music. Generally when music was chosen for a commercial, it was used throughout the entire run time.

But sometimes letting the music jump in later in the video can add an element of surprise or create a climactic effect. Depending on the message a commercial is trying to send, the partial use of music can sometimes offer an advantageous way to suck in the viewer.

What Types of Music Did the Commercials Utilize?

Of the commercials surveyed that contained music, here’s a breakdown of how they used it:

62.8% used instrumental music. Instrumental music is generally used as a “soundbed” for commercials with spoken words or voiceovers in the foreground. Other times it’s useful for illustrating a humorous situation or somber scenario. The four most-watched commercials I analyzed possessed instrumental scores, two of which were used behind dialogue.

Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” ad from the 2012 Super Bowl is a solid example of a well-placed instrumental score in a commercial, creating a grave but hopeful ambiance to work alongside Mr. Eastwood’s moving dialogue. This commercial was also the 25th most-watched with 11,573,969 views at the time this survey was conducted.

37.2% used lyrical music. Lyrical music is added to commercials to add a more concrete association between the music and visuals, or to present a pop-culture reference that will get instantaneous recognition from viewers.

The 36th commercial on the list (with 8,350,865 views) is a 2013 Super Bowl commercial for Pistachios. Featuring Korean pop star PSY, the advertisement’s music was a pistachio-appropriate parody of his hit song “Gangnam Style”.

30.2% of the music present was directly related to the advertisement’s content. When the music used is directly connected to the ad’s premise, it can reinforce the strength of viewer retention.

This commercial for the new Toyota RAV4 features Skee-Lo’s hip hop hit “I Wish”. Although used only in the last few seconds, the music matches the advertisement’s theme to create a catchy, fun association with the brand.

30.2% of the commercials utilized well-known pieces of music. Big-budget brands have the resources to spend thousands or even millions on licensing the rights to use a hit song or hire a star for their commercials, and will often do so if it can result in viral popularity.

Volkswagen’s “The Force” Super Bowl commercial attained immense popularity after it aired in 2012, and is now the 2nd most-watched commercial on YouTube. The music featured is the world-renowned Imperial March, originally composed by John Williams for the original Star Wars films.

11.6% used diegetic music (where the source of music is part of the scene). The use of diegetic music can provide a more tangible and realistic feel for the viewer. When the source of the sound is present and visible, though, musical choices need to be planned more extensively and worked into the shooting of the commercial. This can complicate the process and facilitate the need for higher budget productions.

88.3% used non-diegetic music (where the music emanates from the background with no visual reference). This is by far the most common way music is used in advertisements. It’s more convenient to film and produce with the freedom to change the background music later on. And if a popular track is being used, it’s far less expensive (by comparison) to license the rights without additionally recruiting the artist to act in the ad.

After examining the musical mechanics behind viral advertisements, it’s time to figure out what we can take away from these statistics.

What Can We Learn from All of This?

There’s no magic music to make your commercial a success. Of course, the inclusion of hit songs can certainly increase your chances of going viral. But if you’re a smaller company lacking a multi-million-dollar budget, that possibility is out of the picture anyways. So here are some words of wisdom that hold true in the most successful commercials today, regardless of musical genre and scale.

The music used needs to correspond to and flow with the visual elements to make the commercial a cohesive work, and convey the message effectively. The music should elicit an emotional response from your viewers, whether it’s hilarity, awe, reverence, excitement or tears. Your musical choice should also speak to the viewer’s interests, making the advertisement stand out and enthralling the audience’s attention.

Remember that a large majority of commercials utilize music in some way. If you’re producing on a budget, instrumental tracks used in a non-diegetic context can save money and complications while providing effective results. Using music selectively in part of the commercial can aid in setting up a scene, surprising your viewers or providing a climactic conclusion.

If you’re in the business of creating a commercial for your company, take note of the techniques used by viral successes to help your own efforts along.

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