In A Nutshell
Long before jingles on TV commercials became mainstream, these short, memorable tunes made their debut on radio stations. Of course, advertisements, and even musical ads, were around since the very beginning of radio, but it wasn’t until 1926 that General Mills introduced the first, legitimate commercial jingle. The ditty was promoting Wheaties breakfast cereal and was so successful that it saved the brand and motivated businesses everywhere to create their own jingles.
The Whole Bushel
Similar to the Internet today, early radio broadcasters were operating in a new industry and faced the challenge of figuring out how to make money while giving away free content. It seemed selling ad space was the best (and perhaps the only) way to monetize their stations. And so radio ads were born, after which melodies naturally worked their way into the ads, and then those tunes gradually evolved into jingles. Thus, jingles have been around in one form or another since the start of commercial radio in the 1920s.
Since they were developed gradually over time, no one can claim to have “invented” the jingle. However, General Mills is recognized as being the first company to create a stand-alone, commercial jingle. It aired on Christmas Eve 1926 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and featured an a cappella group, known as the Wheaties Quartet, who sang the following lines in a rhyming, albeit somewhat slow tempo (especially compared to today’s jingles):
Have you tried Wheaties?
They’re whole wheat with all of the bran.
Won’t you try Wheaties?
For wheat is the best food of man.
They’re crispy and crunchy
The whole year through,
The kiddies never tire of them
and neither will you.
So just try Wheaties,
The best breakfast food in the land.
The jingle was such a success that it saved the now-famous breakfast cereal from being discontinued. In 1929, General Mills was going to put the kibosh on the failing brand until the advertising manager pointed out that over half of all Wheaties boxes were sold in the Minneapolis area—the only place the jingle was being aired at the time. Instead of giving up on the cereal, General Mills decided to run the ad nationwide, and it didn’t take long for Wheaties’ sales to skyrocket. Even after 80 years, it is still one of the most popular cereals out there.
The success of the “Have You Tried Wheaties” song was the spark that lit the fire of the jingle movement, and by the 1930s businesses were using catchy, repetitive melodies to advertise everything from food to tobacco to personal hygiene products. Besides being an easy, memorable way to expose potential customers to brands, advertisers also liked jingles because it allowed them to skirt a certain broadcasting rule. Radio stations were forbidden from broadcasting direct advertisements during prime time hours, but because these songs were often placed at the beginning or end of radio programs and viewed more as entertainment than a sales pitch, advertisers could get away with playing them any time of day.
Ultimately, we have Wheaties to thank for launching the genre and ensuring certain songs never (ever) get out of our heads.
Show Me The Proof
NPR: First Radio Commercial Hit Airwaves 90 Years Ago
HowStuffWorks: How Commercial Jingles Work
The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture, by Timothy D. Taylor
Original “Try Wheaties” jingle (video)