Could Advertising Learn More From Hollywood?

hollywood sign

By Paul Riggio, Creative Director, Composer & Partner, Groove Guild

Most would probably know the Star Wars opening theme. However, only the diehard fans would be able to sing Leia’s theme, or even the more widely used, Force Suite. When heard, they are instantly familiar. For many, the notes and orchestration would be familiar, but finding those who know the utility of that theme in relation to the story, would be rare. The subconscious relevance, however, is clear. When one hears certain notes, they are instantly connected to the Star Wars brand. No need for explanation.

Films and episodic TV shows are using themes to connect the audience with the story and its characters, and I wish advertising would learn by example. For years now, films have been trending away from classic, Jaws-style, or Cinema Paradiso-style themes, while advertisers have held strong with the condensed version of a theme that we call a mnemonic. Both film and advertising use themes for branding purposes, but films have more themes baked into their elongated stories and use them as storytelling devices. Even with trends away from hit-you-over-the-head themes, themes are very much alive, well, and being used to great effect in films and episodic TV. Let’s dissect how advertisers could use melodies and instrument choices to connect with their audience.

Like it or not, you are being subconsciously manipulated by music in all forms of media, even when music is absent. The classic example of the power of silence in music is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: Da Da Da Daaaaa (pause) Da Da Da Daaaaa (pause). That pause leaves you with a powerful sense of anticipation, expectation, and tension. We’ve come to expect films and adverts to have music. When it’s not there, we are strongly affected by its absence. That said, I don’t want to go too deep into the power of silence. Let’s stick to the topic of themes and how we might be able to better utilize them in ads.


As a composer for both ads and film, I’m quite interested in the ways music is used to communicate stories and emotions without words. I nerd out all the time on this, and am always learning from what I hear and questioning the choices that brands, agencies, composers, and directors make when choosing or creating music for a campaign. Recently, I’ve been catching up on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” There are some very clear themes and deliberate uses of orchestration. Some are more obvious than others. Basically, the human, intimate stories are told by more acoustic elements, while the evil element (Gilliad) is more of a cold, synth-based theme.  Episodic shows like this need to be very careful about not hitting you over the head with these themes, because the binge-watchers will get distracted by them if they are too obvious. That said, having individual themes or a set musical pallet for characters and storylines helps connect the audience to the show and all the subplots therein.

Advertising has a different format, generally being shorter in length, and typically uses one character (the brand itself or a spokesperson) and one theme/mnemonic across multiple campaigns. While this is effective, I believe more can be done with music to connect the audience to the campaign. Incorporating more musical themes into campaigns would benefit from an episodic mindset on the part of the copywriters and the brand. That has been done before (mayhem from Allstate). Having the main character is as critical for an ad as it is for a film. But supporting, recurring characters add interest and increase the chances of connecting with the audience. You may not really like Luke Skywalker, but you love Han Solo. I believe the same is true for musical themes. Maybe the main Star Wars theme annoys you, but man, that the Imperial March/Darth Vader theme is amazing! There’s variety while being simultaneously unified, making room for more people to love the whole film.

I believe there is room for more nuanced musical connective tissue in advertising, that would open up the story-telling benefits achieved in film and TV scores. It’s typical for a theme suite to be developed before a composer has a full edit of a film. With the right sonic strategy, the same can be done for a brand. There’s generally different messaging required based on what the brand is looking to communicate during any given quarter. Without tying the hands of the creative teams that come up with the brilliant advertising for the brand, and using the right discovery process; the right musical toolkit inspires creatives and keeps the brand’s fans connected to the ads in a whole new way. I’m talking about thinking beyond a mnemonic and working with the same precise and dynamic musical tools that captivate audiences. Why wouldn’t advertising use the same musical tools used by the masters of entertainment?

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