The American Capitalist Initiative,
Advertising In Music

In March of this year, we featured an essay about Tin Pan Alley and provided a brief history of the American popular music publishing industry. In that article, we mentioned that promotion and advertising were early innovations and were instrumental in the success of a number of the powerhouse publishing firms in the early 20th century.

Beyond marketing of popular songs, the American capitalist initiative created new ways to exploit the new medium of music. Popular sheet music was perhaps one of the very first mass media, after the newspaper of course. It certainly was the first real entertainment medium that entered the consumer's home. There was no radio, no TV and shows could only be seen in a theater. Motion pictures were in their infancy so sheet music represented the first real opportunity for advertisers to get into our home on a broad basis. Better yet, the nature of sheet music and the parlor music experience resulted in sheet music being seen time after time and often on display for visitors to see time and time again. How clever those people were!

In fact, the idea of using music as a way of advertising goes all the way back to colonial times when street vendors hawked their good to the tune of a melodic chant. Of course we also know that music has been used often as a way of fixing a product in our mind. A memorable tune that "sticks in your mind" (don't you hate it when that happens?) is the marketer's dream. As we have seen in our feature this month, music that was written for a company or industry often benefits the entire industry. One of the first industry wide musical plugs (no pun intended) was for the tobacco industry through songs such as the 1836 song Think & Smoke Tobacco, by John Ashton and Pipe de Tabac by John Hewitt. Advances in transportation were hailed through such works as the 1828 Rail Road March and the 1870 work The Iron Horse. Numerous other songs of the period praised the telephone, typewriters, sports and even the postal service through the Post Card Galop in 1864.

Lyrics also played an important part in the use of music as advertising. Just as a catchy tune could assail your senses, a good "jingle" or cute lyrics could become a part of society for quite some time. The power of this form of advertising is formidable, just stop for a moment and think of how many of these jingles you can remember. It seems the musical ads are the ones that most stay with us. A great example from 1883 is the Vegetable Compound jingle from 1883:

Mrs. Brown had female weakness,
She could have no children dear,
Till she took two bottles of Compound,
Now she has one every year.

Jingles like that one and others were often circulated on trade cards that further spread the message.

With the advent of Tin Pan Alley and the popularity of songs such as the multimillion seller After The Ball in 1892, the stakes went up at a colossal rate. Imagine, in the days before mass media having the opportunity to get your message to three, four or five million people! What a temptation and what an opportunity. From the start, publishers used the back page of sheet music to promote other songs and composers. It seems since the beginning of printed music, the back page has always been a billboard. But, with the advent of mass sales of music, advertisers began to turn to more obvious messages, such as we saw in this month's Bromo Selzer feature. It wasn't long before the advertising message went beyond the advertising copy on the cover or back to more direct means such as the music itself.

Rather than being general industry plugs, we moved into music that became the advertising message itself. As we see in our featured songs this month, many companies bought the rights to songs and reissued them with more prominent advertising for themselves (see the Mendelssohn reissue of Hiawatha as an example). The Sterling Piano Company of Derby, Conn. commissioned an entire series of works for piano that carried their name. Music such as the Sterling Hesitation Waltz and the Sterling March and Two Step (below) allowed the company to promote it's wares and make sure that their name was prominently displayed.

Here we see the Sterling March (click to hear it, only available in SCORCH format) in all its glory. Written by Charles D. MacDonald & Charles E. Hunter, this song no doubt found its way to many a home and piano salon. Whether it sold many pianos we will not know but it undoubtedly kept their name top of mind and through the free copies distributed, resulted in a great deal of goodwill. Any advertising person can tell you that top of mind and goodwill are two of the most valued results of advertising.

Other companies joined in with more commercial songs that helped promote their product or company name. Perhaps one of the first was American Petroleum published in 1864 by William Hall. In 1895, Koala Gum published My Koala Girl and soon thereafter, Wrigley's published Oh You Spearmint Kiddo With The Wrigley Eyes. Lyrics got pretty weird in order to accommodate the corporate themes with lyricists struggling to find just the right way to get in all the plugs and product features. For example, the Wrigley song has the line "Every kiss is loaded with bliss peptonized". Well, sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn't.

Sometimes songwriters indirectly advertised for products by using a company name or product in their song. Often this was done only because the company name allowed for some novelty or humor to be interjected as in Harry Von Tilzer's Under The Anheuser Bush in 1903. Then of course there were songs entirely devoted to massive product mentions such as the featured song I Saw It In The B.R.T. and the 1925 song by Nicholas Slonimsky that took entire passages of ad copy from the Saturday Evening Post and set them to music.

Of course, the songs did not always plug companies or products. In some rare cases, songs were written to advertise an event or place such as the song Nineteen Fifteen, Frisco. This song, published in 1913 was a two year in advance plug to attend the World Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. See the lyrics and listen to the music in SCORCH format by clicking on the cover. It is a romantic song that speaks from a woman's point of view about getting married at the exposition. Not only does this song promote the place but also notice that on the cover, we have two businesses jumping aboard; The Broadmoor Theater and Golden Star Furniture Polish. This one is a triple play for the advertisers!

By the late 1920's - Early 30's radio began to become a feature in most homes so the use of sheet music as a medium began to decline. However, music associated with products still was an important advertising strategy, but in a different form. Rather than full length songs we find ourselves facing the radio commercial with the frequent use of rhymed lyrics set to music (the jingles we mentioned earlier). And, as is often said, the rest is history.

We have seen this month that music and advertising have been linked for much longer than any of us would have imagined. From the earliest days of street chants to the constant pounding of our senses on TV and radio, music has played a key role in selling products, companies and places. In most cases, the association has been a good one with our society being all the richer for it. Who can deny the enjoyability of the songs we have presented here this month? Even the jingles bring us some entertainment, how can we ever forget them and the nostalgic images and smiles they can bring to us?

Pepsi Cola hits the spot,
Twelve full ounces, that's a lot,
Twice as much for a nickel, too
Pepsi Cola is the drink for you.

And, if that isn't enough..

You'll wonder where the yellow went,
When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.


Rick Reublin August, 2000

Photos displayed in this essay are from the Library of Congress collections or from the parlorsongs collection. A major source for much of the text discussion is from The new Grove Dictionary of American Music. See our references page for details of our complete bibliography used for research for this and other essays in this series..

Parlor Songs is an educational website about American popular music and the history of the genre

If you would like to submit an article about America's music for publish on the website, contact the email on the main page. I also welcome suggestions for subjects for future articles.

All articles are written by the previous owners, unless otherwise stated.

© 1997-2024 by Parlor Songs (former owners Richard A. Reublin or Richard G. Beil). Before using any of these images, text or performances (MIDI or other recordings), please read our usage policy for standard permissions and those requiring special attention. Thanks.

I respect your privacy and do not collect or divulge personal information.

Return to Top of Page