A Spoonful of Sugar

Posted by on August 19, 2013

A Monday Morning Memo from The Wizard of Ads

The cozy melody rises to greet you like a familiar friend and its lazy, carefree meandering takes you away to a quiet place, reminding you of the warmth of a peaceful afternoon in the Tom Sawyer summer of your childhood. You are listening to the theme song from M.A.S.H.

Were you aware the melody has lyrics? I discovered this bit of trivia as a result of wandering through a video rental store without a specific title in mind. Scanning the shelves for movies I had not yet seen, I suddenly realized that everyone in America saw M.A.S.H. in 1970 except for me. I rented the movie.

Much like the TV series that followed, Robert Altman’s film opens with a helicopter scene and that amazingly innocuous theme song. The subtle difference is that in the movie, Johnny Mandel croons to the melody with the bright-eyed innocence of a child, “Through early morning fog I see / Visions of the things to be / The pains that are withheld for me, I realize and I can see … / That suicide is painless / It brings on many changes / And I can take or leave it if I please.” Following a few more stanzas, Mandel brings the song to closure with the serenity of an angel: “The sword of time will pierce our skins / It doesn’t hurt when it begins / But as it works its way on in / The pain grows stronger watch it grin… / Suicide is painless / It brings on many changes / And I can take or leave it if I please… / A brave man once requested me / To answer questions that are key, / “Is it to be or not to be?” / And I replied, “Oh why ask me?” / Suicide is painless / It brings on many changes / And I can take or leave it if I please… And you can do the same thing if you please.”

The movie is forgettable, but the melody of that theme song is so utterly seductive that I have breezily sung of suicide for the past three weeks, never once realizing that I was sipping psychological hemlock. Such is the power of music.

“So I guess you’re saying that it’s good to use jingles in our broadcast ads?” Let me answer plainly: there is nothing better than a good musical jingle and nothing worse than one that is average. Most jingles are average.

“But Roy, if music has the power of echoic intrusiveness to enter an unwilling mind and the tenacity of echoic retention to remain, then shouldn’t we use it in all the ads we create?” In theory, the answer is yes, but to say that all music is memorable is as silly as saying that all speeches are memorable. Just as it requires an unusual combination of words to engage the listener’s imagination, it requires an unusual combination of notes and rhythm to surprise and charm the mind. A powerful tool, music is the language of the soul in the hands of a master, but counterproductive in the hands of anyone else.

You know at least a dozen dazzling writers of words, but do you know any masters of melody? It is far easier to master the language of men than to master the language of angels.

Roy H. Williams

PS When you read the title of this chapter, did you think of Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins singing,

“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…?” If so, you experienced an associative memory. We’ll talk about how you can use these in another chapter.

Roy H. Williams

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