The Impact of Background Lyrics on Recall of Concurrently Presented Verbal Information in an Advertising Context

G. Douglas Olsen, University of Alberta
Richard D. Johnson, University of Alberta
[ to cite ]:
G. Douglas Olsen and Richard D. Johnson (2002) ,"The Impact of Background Lyrics on Recall of Concurrently Presented Verbal Information in an Advertising Context", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 147-148.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 147-148


G. Douglas Olsen, University of Alberta

Richard D. Johnson, University of Alberta

Music in advertising has generated considerable research in marketing (e.g., Alpert and Alpert 1990; Bruner 1990; Dunbar 1990; Gorn 1982; Gorn et al. 1991; Kellaris and Cox 1989; Kellaris, Cox and Cox 1993; Kellaris and Mantel 1996; Kellaris and Rice 1993; MacInnis and Park 1991; Park and Young 1986; Stewart, Farmer and Stannard 1990; Sullivan 1990). It may, therefore, be rather surprising that issues pertaining to the impact of lyrics in advertisements have received little consideration. Yalch (1991) suggests that consumers may remember a slogan when it is sung in a jingle better than when it is merely spoken. Until now, no marketing research has examined the ability of lyrics in the background of the advertisement to capture consumers’ attention, or the potential for information contained in background lyrics to interfere with the processing of concurrently presented verbal information.

Information Processing theory suggests that lyrics in the background may be expected to interfere with attempts to memorize target material (see Belsham and Harmon 1977; Davies and Shackleton 1973); for example, recent research has demonstrated that irrelevant speech in the background impairs recall for concurrently presented information (e.g., Buchner, Irmen & Erdfelder 1996; LeCompte et al, 1997; Martin-Loeches et al. 1997; SalamT and Baddeley 1989).

In a study more closely related to the research presented here, SalamT and Baddeley (1989) found that memory for target material is impaired by background music that contains lyrics, even when instructions are given not to attend to the song and the lyrics are in a language foreign to the listener. We propose that this finding cannot necessarily be applied to an advertising context, for two reasons. First, like most work in psychology, SalamT and Baddeley (1989) employed a directed learning paradigm; whereas, incidental learning (i.e., where participants are not aware that they will be required to recall information) is more typical in a naturalistic advertising situation. Second, the distracter music or speech is usually extrinsic to the target material in the typical psychology experiment (i.e., it is completely different from the information to be remembered); but lyrics are usually intrinsic to product information in an advertisement. Hence, the attention grabbing value of lyrics which interfered with processing of target information in the SalamT and Baddeley study (1989) might actually enhance attention to the advertisement and, therefore, increase retention for the target information. In Experiment 1, the presence of meaningfl background lyrics had a significant positive impact on recall for product information, compared to advertisements for which the backgrounds were just a rhythm section, an instrumental melody line, a vocal melody line, or nonsense lyrics.

Experiment 2 replicated the finding that meaningful background lyrics enhance recall of product information, relative to the condition where only instrumental music is present in the background. However, memory was not enhanced when lyrics appeared at the beginning of the advertisement and ceased when the announcer’s script began.

We interpret the results of the first two experiments to indicate that, in an incidental learning situation, meaningful background lyrics enhance attention to the advertisement and thereby increase memory for the target information. Experiment 3 examined recall in a directed learning task and found no differences in recall between the lyrics condition and the instrumental music condition. This is consistent with the interpretation that the benefit of background lyrics is to elevate attention to the advertisement. This heightened attention has no effect in a directed learning paradigm because the experimental task maximizes attention irrespective of background music.

In conclusion, these experiments establish that background lyrics enhance memory for target information in an incidental learning task and suggest that the effect occurs because lyrics draw attention to the advertisement. These results are especially valuable to marketing researchers because they employ an incidental learning paradigm that is more similar to a natural radio listening situation, compared to the directed learning paradigm used in previous related studies. It should also be noted that background lyrics were never observed to harm recall, relative to conditions where no lyrics were present. Several interesting avenues for future research are suggested.


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