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Is rhyme past its prime?

By Richard Shotton, Deputy head of evidence

July 22, 2017 | 6 min read

Beanz meanz Heinz

Beans Meanz Heinz has recently celebrated its 50th anniversary

Beans Meanz Heinz has recently celebrated its 50th anniversary

We all adore a Kia-Ora

You only get an oo with Typhoo.

Three iconic straplines, all harnessing the power of rhyme. But is their use of rhyme essential or incidental to their success?

Work by two psychologists from Lafayette college, Matthew McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh, suggests that using rhyme was more than an incidental detail. In 1999 the academics asked 60 students to rate the comprehensibility and accuracy of 30 aphorisms on a nine-point scale. The twist in the study - and there’s always a twist in psychology experiments - was that the students didn’t all receive the same list of aphorisms.

Each group received a slightly doctored list of sayings. Sometimes sayings rhymed, while others were tweaked so they didn’t. In both cases the meaning of the saying was consistent, only the rhyme changed. For example, one group heard that, “children and fools shouldn’t play with sharp tools”, while the remainder learned that, “children and dunces shouldn’t play with sharp tools”. (If you learn nothing else from this article then at least you’ve picked up pretty sage advice about playing with scissors).

The appliance of science

The results were significant. Rhyming sayings were judged as 22% more accurate than non-rhyming ones. The academics attributed the greater power to the “enhanced processing fluency” of the rhyming aphorisms. That’s academic speak for being easier to understand. It seems that the participants conflated ease of understanding with truthfulness.

This is relevant for marketers as it suggests that using rhyme, alongside other literary devices, makes messaging more effective.

Is rhyme past its prime?

At first glance publicising the power of rhyme seems a statement of the obvious. As the examples above show, marketers at Heinz, Kia-Ora and Typhoo are aware of the power of rhyme. But look at those taglines again. What do you notice?

They are all more than thirty years old. The Typhoo line stretches back to 1984, Kia-Ora from 1982 and Bean Meanz Heinz was penned in 1967 by Maurice Drake of Young & Rubicam. These three strap-lines are by no means the only examples. Consider this list of classics:

Once driven forever smitten

It’s a lot less bovver than a hover

Once you pop you can’t stop

A great fibre provider

Nothing sucks like an Electrolux

Get busy with the fizzy

I could go on. Now try and think of modern examples. It’s harder.

The decline of rhyme isn’t anecdotal. Alex Boyd and I quantified the usage of rhyme by looking at hundreds of print ads from 1977 to the present day. We found that in the last decade only 4% of the ads used a rhyming strapline or headline. This compared to 10% for the preceding thirty years. The simple rhyme has fallen out of fashion.

But if there’s robust psychological evidence, and a body of case studies, proving the effectiveness of rhyme why has this happened?

Dave Trott, responsible for some of the greatest straplines of the last thirty years, attributes it to advertisers failing to understand their key task:

I think it depends on what end of the process you start from: Broadcast or Receive. If you start from the “Broadcast” end you start with what you want to say. You then execute that in a way that pleases you. You then sit back and wait for the response from the audience. If you start from the “Receive” end you start with the person you want to reach. They will be on the end of about 2K advertising messages a day. Most of it they automatically just block out, so it’s invisible. So the brief is how to break through into their mind and become one of the very few they notice and remember.

In his opinion, using rhyme or other rhetorical devices, such as assonance or alliteration, are tactics that increase the odds of being noticed. Unfortunately, too many professionals take noticeability for granted.

“Clients and agency people think the job of advertising is for them to like the ads”, says Trott. “So they do their ads believing they will be inspected like paintings in an art gallery. When actually nine out of ten adverts are ignored.”

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme

There’s another problem. Marketers have fallen for the myth that people have fundamentally changed since the mass adoption of the internet. This leads to a belief that tactics effective in another era are anachronistic. But that’s flawed thinking. Technology has evolved but that is just a lens through which human nature is filtered. Our fundamentals remain the same. As Bill Bernbach said,

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

We need to spend less time throwing ourselves at every passing bandwagon and instead learn what influences our unchanging nature. Rhyme is one of those time tested tactics.

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD. He tweets @rshotton


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