Contributions From a Musical Perspective on Advertising and Consumer Behavior

Judy I. Alpert, St. Edward's University
Mark I. Alpert, University of Texas at Austin
ABSTRACT - The role of music in advertising has recently attracted considerable interest in marketing and consumer psychology. This paper will discuss the role of formal analysis of musical structure in advertising, noting that music's effects must also consider key elements of the culture, the ad and what preceded it, consumer perceptions, moods, and involvement, and the fit between the music and the theme of the ad. A tentative musical hierarchy presence model is suggested, which describes the salience of music in different advertisements, and a framework which integrates the key moderators of musical influence in advertising is advocated.
[ to cite ]:
Judy I. Alpert and Mark I. Alpert (1991) ,"Contributions From a Musical Perspective on Advertising and Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 232-238.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 232-238


Judy I. Alpert, St. Edward's University

Mark I. Alpert, University of Texas at Austin


The role of music in advertising has recently attracted considerable interest in marketing and consumer psychology. This paper will discuss the role of formal analysis of musical structure in advertising, noting that music's effects must also consider key elements of the culture, the ad and what preceded it, consumer perceptions, moods, and involvement, and the fit between the music and the theme of the ad. A tentative musical hierarchy presence model is suggested, which describes the salience of music in different advertisements, and a framework which integrates the key moderators of musical influence in advertising is advocated.


The role of music in marketing and consumer behavior research has been addressed in education, psychology, communication, and other fields to determine its effects on behavior, mood, and preferences. As a result of this body of work, we know that in some instances music appears to increase communication effectiveness in the context of advertisements. In other circumstances, music may decrease effectiveness, for reasons that are not self-evident (e.g, "When is 'popular' music an inappropriate background?") Discussing how, when, and why music works seems to be appropriate to understanding the role of music in communications.

In an effort to provide possible explanations, this paper will discuss the structural elements of music in the surrounding context of an advertisement and its interaction with the consumer. However, although knowledge of formal musical analysis can assist in drawing inferences regarding how listeners may be affected by particular musical passages, it is also necessary to consider the context in which the musical and advertising "communication" takes place. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to detail the links between musical elements and specific processing effects, we shall provide reasons why music seems to work in certain situations and not in others. This is not intended to be an all inclusive review, but one based on some of the research done so far in the area. Accordingly, we shall consider musical structure, its interactions with important moderators such as involvement, processing, sociological factors, (e.g., peer pressures and preferences in music), familiarity and prior associations, and the like.

Musical structure consists of elements such as sound, harmony, melody, and rhythm. Key factors in how these musical elements impact on the ad and the product are: 1) the consumer, through different levels of involvement and cognitive or affective processing; 2) the consumer's subjective perception of the appropriateness of the music as it relates to the central idea of the ad ("fit" as defined by MacGinnis and Park, 1990), and, 3) the organization of musical elements. There has been interest in examining how musical elements influence affect and processing (Alpert and Alpert, 1990; Bruner, forthcoming). These relationships are moderated by the level of consumer involvement, processing, and perceived "fit" of the music to the ad. Knowledge of cultural and social conditioning in forming musical taste as well as products can help in this prediction (Farnsworth, 1976; and Holbrook and Schindler, 1989). Given a target market's demographics, we can predict with some accuracy its musical and product preferences and tastes. Although level of involvement and processing may vary across individuals, we may know with some degree of certainty how they might perceive the appropriateness of certain musical select-ions with the overall message of an ad. An examination of these elements may offer some explanation of how, when, and why they contribute to the effectiveness of music within an ad. Applying relevant research to this problem is hampered by the fact that many studies do not isolate variables dealing with levels of involvement and processing. Others focus on particular issues in isolation. We shall attempt to bridge the gaps and build an integrative framework for understanding music in advertising.

Within an ad there are many messages. They are musical, verbal, non-verbal, and visual messages which interact and impact each other and the viewer. The consumer brings with him or her an existing set of conditions, which impact on how the music and the ad will be perceived. At some point, the music, along with the other stimuli in the ad, will change these existing conditions. This produces constant feedback between the stimuli and the viewer's perceptions and responses to them.

Which set of conditions the consumer brings to an advertisement and which ones will be evoked during the ad can vary in viewing situations. So, whether and how a consumer will respond to the musical aspects of an ad may depend on some of the following variables which researchers have isolated for investigation: 1) whether there is high, low, or affective involvement concerning the product and the ad (Park and Young 1986), and whether there is central or peripheral processing (Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann, 1983), 2) whether the music evokes a receptive mood (Fried and Berkowitz, 1979). Receptivity may depend upon the following factors: a) familiarity and liking of the music (Russell, 1987), b) whether the music brings forth pleasant thoughts and associations, memories, and imagery (MacInnis and Park, 1990; Dowling and Harwood 1986), c) how musical structure is organized (Milliman, 1982; Smith and Curnow, 1966; Holbrook, 1981; Alpert and Alpert, 1990; Infante and Berg, 1979), d) what effect the program content has in which the ad is seen (Goldberg and Gorn, 1987), e) whether positive or negative association with the brand are "conditioned" by the music (Gorn, 1982), f) whether the ad's musical content is perceived to be consistent (fit) with the meaning of the advertisement (Park and Young 1986), and g) how important a role music has been assigned within the ad (Stout and Leckenby, 1988). Hence it is clear that the effects of music are dependent upon a host of personal, environmental, and musical factors. The following discussion will elaborate on these factors, citing examples of research relevant to different areas within consumer information processing.

Music Exists In A Context

Music does not work alone. It exists within an advertisement with complex visual, verbal, and other nonverbal stimuli. How all of these are perceived depends on the complex interaction of internal (biological) and external (social, cultural influences) factors which also affect when and how musical taste is developed (Holbrook and Schindler, 1989; Farnsworth, 1976). This paper takes the view that music is primarily a cultural and social phenomenon and reflects the values and attitudes of a subculture (Radocy and Boyle, 1988). Sociological forces affect images and preferences about products that are desirable, and music, if it fits with those images, may enhance the following variables: 1) persuasion through prior learning and verbal association, (Farnsworth, 1976), 2) recall, (Stewart, Farmer and Stannard, 1990), 3) overall ad effectiveness, (Evans, 1975), 4) preference for the product (MacInnis and Park, 1990), and 5) facilitation of mental images (Bae, 1985; Bilotta and Lindauer, 1978). The following-discussion will elaborate further on the topic of music as a facilitator of mental images, and its role in advertising, education, communication, psychology, and marketing.

The Importance Of The Role Assigned To Music In An Ad

How music is actually used in an ad, and under what conditions music will assume a salient role in advertising executions influences communication effectiveness. Stewart and Furse (1986) examined the relationship of many executional variables, and performance measures of recall, comprehension and persuasion scores. They found that the brand-differentiating message was the single most important executional factor for explaining both ad recall and persuasion for an established product. Stout and Leckenby (1988) studied the relationship of emotional and cognitive viewer responses to specific musical variables. They found that the roles music plays in ads can influence information retrieved by consumers from the ads. Also, purchase intent was higher with ads that had music in it, and generally, subjects had more negative attitudes toward ads without music.

It seems that the salience of music in an ad will depend on whether the ad is primarily affective or cognitive based (Park and Young, 1986; and Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982), who the target market is, and how well the message communication goal (meaning) of the ad will fit with the music. Consequently, we suggest a tentative hierarchy of musical presence model, to define the role assigned to music in communicating the advertising message. Basically, the degree to which music is assigned a dominant role is revealed by the degree to which it will be in the foreground, be distinctive, will be noticed, and will be more likely to be part of an affect-based ad. The degree to which music is assigned a less dominant role is the degree to which it will recede into the background, be less distinctive, be less attention-getting, and the ad will be less likely to be affect-based.

This model is based on observation of about 60 advertisements on day-time T.V., and is presented here as way of summarizing the role music plays going from a most dominant and distinctive to a barely noticeable presence, to no presence. Since many ads have a combination of cognitive and affective components, with degrees of emphasis on one or the other, the role of music will tend to follow this degree of emphasis in the advertisement. That is, all things being equal, the more salient the role music has in the ad, the more affect-based the ad is likely to be, and We less salient role music has, the more cognitive-based the ad will be.

The hierarchy of musical presence model is suggested as follows, going from most to least salient:

A. in ads where music primarily carries the entire message and meaning, music will be used in the following ways:

1. when music with lyrics carries the ad's verbal message and meaning, it has been assigned a dominant role in also providing an atmosphere, creating an image, setting a mood, and influencing affect throughout the ad. The ad will be primarily affective-based, appealing to feelings. In this case, music will always be in the foreground, with very little voice-over, if any. Sometimes music composed especially for the purpose of the ad, or a fairly well-known song for example, such as "April in Paris" (for rich French roast coffee by Maxwell House), can be used primarily to carry the message of the ad. The use of "April in Paris" reflects the age of the target market, desire for foreign travel, and its taste in style of music;

2. when the lyrics of the song do not carry the ad's message directly (the words are about things other than the product and do not contribute to the atmosphere or mood), but the music is in the foreground throughout the ad, and is the primary form of communication;

3. when instrumental or electronic music (without lyrics) is in the foreground, there is almost no voice-over, and the verbal message is brief and in written form, music has also been assigned a dominant role and will provide the above-mentioned attributes;

B. in ads where the message is carried primarily by a voice-over, music is used in the following ways:

1. music is in the background, very quiet, generally not distinctive, resembles "elevator music," and the voice-over continues throughout the ad;

2. the music background lasts for the duration of one or two short verbal phrases, usually at the end of the ad. It is used to emphasize a phrase as in a key brand attribute, or logo;

3. no music.

Although most commercials use music (Stewart and Furse, 1986), some research has indicated that music may distract from message processing (Park and Young, 1986; and Stout and Leckenby, 1988), and other research supports the facilitating effect of music (Hecker, 1984). While musical characteristics or elements do shape overall musical meaning, a musical selection can distract or enhance message processing, if placed in an inappropriate advertising context, where the ad's intended meaning and the music are not a good St (MacInnis and Park, 1990). While music may enhance processing in one setting, it may distract in another. It's impact largely depends on how well it fits with the advertisement's meaning, and the audience's level and type of ad involvement. In trying to determine what musical selection fits with what advertisement, a clear communication goal of the ad is required (cognitive, affective), along with knowledge of the intended target market's musical taste, preferences, and if possible, the meanings and feelings associated with particular musical selections. Finally, it is useful to possess an understanding of the musical characteristics or elements of the designated musical selection, as these often affect the above variables. From the musical presence hierarchy model, we note through preliminary observation that the more salient music is in an ad, the more affect-based the ad is. In general, advertising practitioners have used music which was familiar with their target market, and which fit with the ad's meaning. Note that under conditions of high cognitive involvement, music is seldom used, and when used, seldom effective.

How, When, Why Music Works In Imagery Production

A number of studies find that music is considered a valid facilitator of mental images (Bilotta and Lindauer, 1978). Music also has been used as a stimulus to evoke images in educational and therapeutic settings (Kaser, 1986). Music used simultaneously with words and sounds was found to increase image production (Bae, 1985; and Bilotta and Lindauer, 1978).

Farnsworth (1976) reports that music evokes very little universally similar mental imagery beyond what appears in all cultures, such as the use of soft melodies for mothers' lullabies. He also states that in western culture most people of the same subculture have similar imagery stimulated when presented with a descriptive narrative with specific imagery using concrete words. These words used to accompany music make for powerful, learned associations, so that when we hear the "Star Spangled Banner," we hear the words that go with it and we all tend to have similar visual imagery (Farnsworth, 1976).

Since the same music may not evoke uniform imagery among listeners, there is uncertainty regarding whether or not high and low imagery music can be 1) agreed upon, and 2) distinguished by the type of music represented. Although the designative meaning of music is made up of individual images, thoughts, and memories associated with a particular musical piece (Meyer, 1956), and is therefore frequently individualistic, musicians have often written programmatic music with titles which encourage similar imagery. For example, Mussorgsky used pizzicato strings to represent what he labeled "chicken clucking" in his "Pictures at an Exhibition." Advertisers of course supply "labels" with verbal statements about the product (emphasized by music) and/or lyrics of jingles. It appears that prior learning and verbal associations, when paired repeatedly with certain pieces of music, are likely to evoke more nearly uniform mental imagery among listeners.

In a marketing and advertising context, imagery impacts consumers' knowledge in many important ways (MacInnis and Price, 1987). Imagery systems contribute to a definition of product imagery and affect how a brand "communicates" with the consumer. Imagery is a process through which sensory information is stored in working memory (MacInnis and Price, 1987). Since memory imagery involves sensory and concrete representations of ideas, feelings, and memories, it can allow a visual reconstruction of an event in one's mind which has been experienced before and stored in memory.

Among the variables that can produce imagery-in an advertisement are words, imagery instructions, and music. Stewart, Farmer, and Stannard (forthcoming) note that in those situations where image advertising uses music, the use of a musical cue provides the opportunity to elicit images, beliefs, and associations. Their forthcoming study's results indicate that music with lyrics is statistically significant in eliciting more image types of responses referring to people, actions, or setting than verbal cues. Findings in this study suggest that the musical cue is a more sensitive measure of memory than verbal product and brand cues. Another example where imagery plays a part in the degree of fit between the music and the meaning of the advertisement is in the romantic, nostalgic song "I'll Be Seeing You." Used as background for a FTD florist ad, this song may prove effective. However, if paired with the packing up of a seasonal, everyday item like a portable fan, the effect will be somewhat comical. The organization of musical elements remain the same in the song, but the context surrounding the music has changed from a romantic, nostalgic setting (a good fit in terms of imagery) to a more mundane one. Therefore imagery of the product and the ad can be affected by the f t between musical meaning and the meaning of the ad.

Music Also Affects Important Mood States

Music not only enhances recall for a product or an ad through an evoked image, but it may evoke a mood, feelings, emotions, and behaviors. Consumer behavior theorists have conceptualized how consumers' attitudes, affective states, and behaviors have been impacted by moods under central and peripheral processing, as well as affect -and behavior conditioning.

In a recent paper (Gardner, 1985), mood was defined as a fleeting, temporary feeling state, usually not intense, and not tied to a specifiable behavior. Moods can be positive or negative, such as cheeriness, peacefulness, or guilt and depression. According to Clark and Isen (1982), feeling states are general, pervasive, and occur frequently, and do not usually interrupt on-going behavior. In fact, the impact of feeling states on behavior is not immediately obvious. Feeling states or moods are distinguished from emotions, which are usually more intense, obvious, and are said to involve a cognitive component.

A number of studies have shown that mood has an impact on attitudes and behavior. We shall summarize major works in this stream. Given that mood is relevant and of increasing interest in consumer behavior, its sensitivity to the influence of music in commercials is worth examining. Research has shown that mood states have an important influence on behavior, evaluation, and recall (Gardner, 1985). While this general conclusion may not hold in all cases, Gardner notes that mood states appear to bias evaluations and judgments in similar directions to mood, and she reviews studies detailing this process (1985).

The association between mood states and affective responses, judgments, and behavior can be seen as both direct and indirect. A direct affective reaction may be viewed as a conditioned response when there are direct linkages in associations in memory between mood states and affective reactions (Griffitt and Guay, 1969), and mood states and behavior (see Gardner, 1985 for additional references). Indirect associations between feeling states and affective responses and/or behavior include the influence of information processing, or cognitive activity. Mood may affect evaluations by evoking mood-congruent thoughts and affect the performance of the behavior by increasing the accessibility of positive associations to the behavior (Clark and Isen, 1982; Goldberg and Gorn, 1987). To the extent that associations are direct and involve little conscious information processing, mood's effects may be seen as via the peripheral route. Indirect associations may operate via the central route when other salient cues are processed to yield attitudes in a manner affected by mood.

The likelihood that a host of behaviors may be performed appear to be enhanced by positive , moods (Gardner, 1985). Negative moods' effects on F behavior may be more complex than the effects of [ positive moods (Isen, 1984; Cialdini and Kenrick, 1976). For example, helping may be enhanced by some negative mood states such as sadness (Baumann, Cialdini, and Kenrick, 1981) and not by others such as frustration. This may be due to some evidence that negative mood states are not as homogeneous as positive ones (Isen, 1984), and that behaviors seen to reverse unpleasant mood states (e.g., helping) may overcome tendencies to enact mood-congruent behavior (e.g., withdrawal).

Variables Affecting Mood

Moods can be affected by many different variables. Gardner (1985) discusses studies of independent variables found to induce mood states, such as weather and temperature variation, positive test feedback, finding a dime in a phone booth, winning a computer game, receiving a free gift, getting cookies, and receiving good news and bad news. Participation in activities such as smiling or frowning, reading stories, and recalling or imagining emotional experiences may also induce mood changes.

In view of the fact that music is a common element in commercials, and one which has a long history of mood inducement in a variety of contexts, the next section will focus on how music has been used as an independent variable to affect moods, as well as other dependent variables of interest to marketers. For brevity, this section will highlight key studies. Details on these and other studies are in Alpert and Alpert (1990) and Bruner (forthcoming).

Music Effects

Gorn (1982) suggests that peripheral influences such as background music used in commercials may become associated with the advertised product (in memory, even if not consciously), and influence product choice through classical conditioning. Mere exposure did not lead to liking, which apparently depended on whether the target product, a pen, was presented with liked vs. disliked music.

The second experiment by Gorn (1982) provided support for his hypothesis that when subjects were not in a decision-making mode, the commercial's impact appeared to be more influential in its appeal when presented with musical background as opposed to product information. He concluded that through classical conditioning, the product becomes associated with the positive feelings of liked music.

Bierley, McSweeney, and Vannieuwkerk (1985) extended Gorn's studies. Preference ratings for stimuli that "predicted" (preceded) pleasant music were significantly greater than preference ratings for stimuli that predicted the absence of music. In another extension of Gorn's work, researchers questioned the theory of affective-conditioning and suggested the mood position theory of Bower (1981) and Isen (1984) as a possible explanation (Allen and Madden, 1985). Results indicated that there was an interaction between subjects' thought processes and the moods invoked by the "background" stimulus in the ad (in their case, liked vs. disliked humor). Music in advertising's possible effects on audience moods may thus complicate the effects of "simple" conditioning by the music. A recent replication of the Gorn study (1982) by Kellaris and Cox (1989) failed to reproduce the positive effect of liked vs. disliked music, after controlling for musical structural elements and possible demand effects. They call for research on the influence of music's structural characteristics on cognitive and affective responses (such as consumer mood) toward the ad and the product.

Park and Young (1986) extended Gorn's work by examining the impact of music on attitude toward the brand, the ad, and behavioral intention under conditions of high cognitive, high affective, and low involvement towards the advertising situation. Under high-cognitive involvement, they found music to be a distraction, lowering these dependent variable scores, because it was unrelated to attribute-based message contents. In the low-involvement condition, they found that music (which had been preselected as popular and liked) was associated with more positive attitudes towards the brand than was no music. Under high-affective involvement, the expected positive effect of music on brand attitude was not found, probably because the music selected did not really fit the image of the product and affective theme. As Park and Young note, the music, "The Tide is High" by "Blondie" may have been incongruent with the stylish classic beauty of Ingrid Bergman and the consumers' intended self-concept stressed in the hair shampoo commercials for which this music appeared as background. Subsequently MacInnis and Park (1990) supported this notion. They found that music which aroused emotion-laden memories which were congruent with the ad's primary message created positive feelings and ad attitudes. Music which aroused emotions and memories not congruent with the key ad message distracted from message processing and lowered advertising attitudes and feelings.

Since many commercials are viewed by consumers who are interested in the programs, and not in the commercials, the audience may be largely comprised of potentially uninvolved, non-decision-making consumers rather than cognitively active problem solvers. In this context, emotionally arousing components such as music, colors, or lighting may exert strong but subtle influence on viewers' product attitudes and choices. Some of this impact may come via associations conditioned and linked to the advertised products. Others may come through an indirect route resulting from music's influence on mood and other emotional responses, which in turn affect information processing.

An illustration of music's power to affect subjects' emotional responses was reported in a study by Rohner and Miller (1980), where sedative music showed a trend to decrease anxiety. Another study dealt with persuasion, among other variable Subjects had greater affective arousal, persuasion affect, and attitudinal acceptance of the song's message with guitar accompaniment than without guitar accompaniment (Galizio and Hendrick, 1972). Thus changes in the presentation of music influenced subjects' responses.

The key basic research relating musical elements to emotional responses was reported by Hevner (1935), who presented subjects with identical pieces, controlling for all elements but major and minor modes. She concluded that all of the historically affirmed characteristics of the two mc were confirmed in her study. In later research, sh also reported associations between musical elements such as fast tempo, loud dynamics, lively and varied rhythm, and high register with perceptions of the music as happy, merry, graceful, playful. Musical elements such as slower tempo, quiet dynamics, unvaried rhythm, and low register were reported to be sad, dreamy, and sentimental (Hevner, 1935, 1936). She noted that, although mode is never the sole factor which determines the way music is perceived, it is the most stable, generally understood, and influential of any of the elements expressing the affective mood of music.

Recently, Alpert and Alpert (1990) replicated Hevner's findings, concluding that equally liked b unfamiliar music produced emotional responses predictable from analysis of its structural profile 4 musical elements. Interestingly, music affected mood and buying intention for greeting cards, without affecting central route processing of card attributes.

Summary - Toward An Integrative Framework

Music is a powerful language, and it interacts with other nonverbal and verbal advertising elements. The extent and effectiveness of its use in advertising depend on many factors, including amount and type of audience involvement, familiarity and associations of the music with the target audience and culture, product and advertising messages attempted, and the "fit" among these elements and the musical meanings communicated.

A number of studies have looked at elements of this process in isolation, or occasionally in pairs. Further research that examines multiple factors discussed here, preferably experimentally, should prove to be productive in aiding the understanding about music's roles in advertising. To this end, initial cooperative efforts between academic researchers and industry practitioners applying musical theories to advertising executions should be pursued, so that hypotheses about how, when and why music works in advertising can be subjected to empirical testing.


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