More Than Subliminal: On Music In TV Commercials


I really loathe TV commercials. Whenever possible, I’ll watch recorded television (sports or shows about sports, cooking shows or shows about cooks, or are you ready to see your new house?! home improvement shows) and zoom through the ads on at least triple speed, preferably quadruple speed. At this point my wife turns to me, You really hate commercials, don’t you? Yes, I say, but not because someone is trying to sell me something (“These days everybody is talking about reverse mortgages: here are the facts, not the hype…”) but because of how music is mobilized in the ads. Commercials force music into a position of involuntary labor. Music is up for the job though: if you pay attention to how it’s used you might start hearing it as the most subliminally, emotionally manipulative of the arts. Actually, it’s more than subliminal because the manipulation is right there in music’s affecting presence—embodied in the chords and melodies, in the timbres and rhythms, in the tempo and in the overall aura of the music’s particular design. The ads are trying to sell you things and the advertisers are using music as the ultimate selling tool because music, after all, is inherently about swaying and persuading us.

In his article “Technology and Magic” (Anthropology Today, vol 4, no. 2 [April 1988], 6-9) the anthropologist Alfred Gell (one of my favorite academic technicians who has also written about the anthropology of time) describes the arts as technologies of enchantment that we employ “in order to secure the acquiescence of other people in their intentions or projects” (7). In visual art, music, dance, rhetoric, and even gift-giving, Gell sees technical strategies used to “exploit innate or derived psychological biases so as to enchant the other person and cause him/her to perceive social reality in a way favorable to the social interests of the enchanter” (ibid.). From Gell’s perspective, it’s this enchanting power that advertisers make use of when they use say, a rock song in a truck ad, or ambient music in a luxury SUV ad. There’s layers of subtleties in play too. Sometimes we recognize the music—whether it’s an arrangement of an oldie by The Who or a new electronic soundscape meant to evoke an epic Hollywood film soundtrack—and this recognition in turn triggers cascades of associations within us. The psychology of music perception is complex, isn’t it?

Anyway, the “psychological bias” that TV ads seek to exploit through their uses of music is our capacity for empathy and our tendency to want to understand the emotional sense of whatever we see playing out in front of us on the screen. We can’t help but want to perceive reality in the way the advertisers want us to because their strategic use of music naturalizes their vision of reality–it makes it sensible. Once you pay attention to how music works–in other words, how it labors–in TV ads, it’s difficult to return to that more innocent time in your life when you never noticed the music at all. The next time you’re watching TV, hear its soundtrack for what it is: an enchanting, yet manipulative technology for pushing you towards feeling one way or another (or in multiple directions at once). Music in advertising reminds us of how all music makes aimed and calibrated claims on our attention.

Clearly I watch my share of TV: you can read more of my thoughts about music in commercials for Apple (here and here and here and here), Lego, Rolex, and Lacoste.

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