Brilliant Marketing Researchers Study Pop Music, Find People Like Love

March 18, 2014 | Andy Cush

In an effort to better equip advertisers for convincing you to buy products you don’t actually want or need, marketing researchers at North Carolina State University studied the lyrics to chart-topping songs over the past 50 years. If people respond to certain themes in lyrics, the thinking goes, they’ll respond to those same themes when they’re used in ads.

What they found was less than shocking. PhysOrg reports:

The researchers identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs. These themes are loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion. But while these themes are common across the 50-year study period, the most prominent themes have varied over time. “Rebellion,” a prominent theme in the ’60s and ’70s, did not break the top 10 in the ’80s – and was in the middle of the pack in the ’90s and ’00s. The themes of “desperation” and “inspirational” leapt to the top of the list in the ’00s for the first time – possibly, Henard notes, due to the cultural effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

People, it turns out, really like breakup songs. What valuable insight! Of course, savvy ad men won’t bombard potential customers with all of these ideas at once. “We’re not saying that every marketing effort should center on one or more of these themes,” explains Dr. David Henard, who led the study. “But the implication is that efforts incorporating these themes will be more successful than efforts that don’t.”

“These themes overwhelmingly reflect emotional content, rather than rational content,” Henard continues, keeping the hard-hitting analysis coming. “It reinforces the idea that communications centered on emotional themes will have mass audience appeal. Hit songs reflect what consumers respond to, and that’s information that advertisers can use to craft messages that will capture people’s attention.”

What’s perhaps most frustrating — beyond the reducing of people to a set of emotions to be manipulated with words — is that the study doesn’t appear take music into account at all. I can’t imagine “(I Just) Died in Your Arms,” for instance, hitting number one solely on the strength of Nick Van Eede’s beautiful poetry. And melody is a perfectly good manipulative tool, too! Haven’t these guys ever heard of The Gotye Interval?