Just over a year ago, we were invited to a pitch for Play-Doh. Seeking to capture the sentimental hearts and minds of millennials who now have children of their own, one of our leading concepts was driven by a rhyming ditty designed to be turned into an anthemic, nostalgic piece. The defining line read:
“And play can come back in the simplest way. Just sit down with Play-Doh and bring back the play …”
Early in the pandemic, I started writing poetry. Somewhere between extolling nature through words and basking in the beauty of column and verse, I felt compelled to take my many years of copywriting training and harness it in the service of rhythm, rhyme, and metaphor.
As a linguist and student of etymology, I couldn’t help but notice an uptick of poetic devices in today’s advertising, and I wanted to know not just why that was the case. But also, to better understand the role poetry played in building the foundations of communication. As we all know, a pithy phrase is every young copywriter’s hole in one. But it turns out rhyming in advertising is age-old—and almost as fundamental as storytelling itself.
Some of the oldest stories in the world were passed on through oral tradition. And to accomplish this great feat of mass memorization, alliteration was employed. Beowulf is one of those alliterative stories that carries with it a rhythmic—and occasionally rhyming—poetic device that makes it wildly pleasing to the ear from generation to generation.
Fast forward nearly a thousand years to the era of advertising jingles, brands began using pithy phrases to capture consumer attention. And as attention spans shortened in correlation with the sheer volume of advertising, it was an all-out battle between brands for holding a place in the consumer’s mind.
Rhyme wasn’t new in the 1920s, but it was relatively new to advertising. Pioneered by one of the most famous advertisers of their era, Burma-Shave became famous for breaking up their advertising across miles on quippy roadside billboards. Instead of squeezing it all into one sign, their communications effectively leveraged a rhyming poetic line to breadcrumb drivers with a desperate desire to complete the entire thought. And that thought requires ponderance and reflection. It almost demands it.
So Neat & Trim
Red Riding Hood
Is Chasing Him
Poetry itself employs the extension of a phenomenon called The Spacing Effect, which suggests long-term memory is enhanced when learning events are spaced out, versus jammed together. (How well did “cramming” for an exam work out for you?) Savvy marketers understand this and leverage the principle in ways that lead consumers on a successive campaign designed to move them. Be that by creating better line breaks in communication or successfully feeding an audience in intervals that give the mind space to work. These days, while we leverage science more than intuition, the use of this particular storytelling device remains the same. In fact, one could suggest that Burma Shave was the pioneer of the drip campaign—and far ahead of its time!
But back to rhyme: It isn’t just for fairy tales. It’s also backed by science. In 1999, two psychologists at Lafayette College conducted a study that tested and rated the comprehensibility and accuracy of 30 aphorisms (or pithy sayings) against a control group of non-rhyming aphorisms. Those that rhymed were considered 22% more accurate than those that didn’t. The takeaway? When things are crafted in rhyme, they are stickier in the mind.
While the use of rhyme has ebbed and flowed in advertising—much like the use of puns, which also seems to be on the upswing—it is once again enjoying a resurgence. New campaigns like Taco Bell’s Breakfast Burrito Bedtime Stories feature a narrated bedtime story of Gen Yers who just can’t wait to fall asleep so they can wake up and get a breakfast burrito from Taco Bell. Complete with a viewable, illustrated, and rhyming bedtime story, the book promises to help you get to sleep that much faster. Believable? No. But Taco Bell gets brownie points for creativity. Another current example is DeVry University’s campaign Out With The Old School. It leverages a near-constant rhyme to create stickiness and introduce DeVry as an institution of higher learning that’s preparing students for the world we live in today (i.e., the “new school”).
While it’s easy to look down upon rhyme as a simple turn of phrase from an all-too-eager copywriter, consider its power for your next campaign. Intrigue is intrigue. And when communication is configured with an incomplete thought that begs for the next line to be read, our curiosity and long-term memory kick in. It’s what brands everywhere desperately seek. The ability to get into people’s hearts and minds—and stay there a good, long time.
Tim Dyer is Chief Storyteller of Manifesto, A Brand Courage Agency. Manifesto has offices in Milwaukee, Portland and Nashville.