After These Messages:

What’s Thumbtack?
Rhythm and Message in America’s Hottest Spot

Abstract: Thumbtack’s “Do You Know A Muffin Man” distinguishes itself by using an old-fashioned jingle to present its message. While it does an undeniably excellent job at communicating Thumbtack’s brand promise, certain details of the music’s rhythm inhibit Thumbtack’s product identity from being efficiently impressed upon the viewer. In this essay, I will attempt to answer the following questions:  1) Why is it hard to acquire and retain Thumbtack’s identity 2) Is there an easy fix for this problem, and 3) Are there principles embedded in this solution that can be applied to future projects outside of Thumbtack?

Meeting the Muffin Man

As we enter Mid-June of 2015, Thumbtack’s new “Do You Know A Muffin Man” is easily my favorite broadcast advertisment of the moment. Its jaunty music, sympathetic plotlines, and friendly wit all combine to make for an engaging and memorable 30-second spot in which a variety of hapless do-it-yourselfers turn their small tragedies into small triumphs with the help of the professional service providers found through the Thumbtack app.

Based on my experience as a viewer, ‘Muffin Man’ is clearly an attention-grabber that does an excellent job at educating the viewer about Thumbtack’s brand promise. The situations the characters find themselves in are highly amusing yet also highly relatable. I can immediately understand the types of problems in my life that this app will solve. However… after three or four viewings of the spot, I realized that I still had little to no idea of the product identity. That is, I knew there was an app that would fix my lights, my deck, and my life, but I didn’t really know that it was called Thumbtack.

Why is this? After thinking about it, I believe that the reason it was difficult for me to process and retain Thumbtack’s product identity stems from some extremely specific interactions between the words and rhythms of the jingle. Please join me on the other side for a closer inspection of the ad and its music.

We’ve Got Rhythm

How do the rhythmic details of a simple song change what we take away from it? Is there something in the actual music stopping me from remembering that Thumbtack is the name of the ‘Muffin Man’ app? In order to answer these questions, we need to look a little more closely at the actual construction of the music. I understand that many of you are not musicians and/or have little to no understanding of music theory. But fear not, gentle reader! The concepts required to understand this article are minimal and easily explained. To those of you with a basic understanding of musical meter and accent, please feel free to skip to the next section. The rest of us will catch up shortly.

Have you ever listened to a song and tapped along with your foot or your pencil? Congratulations! You’ve discovered what’s known as the music’s pulse (often referred to as “beat”). These pulses are usually grouped together in what’s called a meter. Think of a meter a repeating count of the pulses. If you’ve ever heard someone count “one, two, three, four” along with the music, they’re counting the meter. Most music we hear in our daily life uses a four-count, but not all music does. “The Star Spangled Banner”, for example, uses a three-count or, as it’s more commonly put, is “in 3.” For the record, the ‘Muffin Man’ song is counted in 4. Also, please note that one full counting cycle is known as a measure.

If you aren’t listening to the absolute crappiest of crappy deep house tracks, I can all but guarantee you that one or more of the pulses will be accented in some way. In music, an accented note refers to a note that is given some sort of special emphasis. This emphasis can take many forms. A dynamic accent, for example, makes a note louder than the ones surrounding it (boom-boom-BOOM-boom). An agogic accent, on the other hand, is when a note is markedly longer than the notes that surround it. Finally (for our needs), a syncopation is a kind of double emphasis (an accented accent if you will) caused by playing an already accented note somewhere where it doesn’t line up with the pulse, such as a note that sounds halfway between pulses two and three. The frenetic, angular rhythmic quality you find in music like James Brown or Igor Stravinsky comes from the extensive use of syncopation.

What good are accents?

Musical accents often direct a listener’s attention in the same way that visual indicators can guide a reader. In the last paragraph, you can see that I used both bold and italic text to alert you to new and important terms. The eye responds to those typographical emphases in the same way that the ear responds to the sonic emphasis of a musical accent.

Now, let’s think of a simple, powerful line of text like “I love you.” Say this to yourself several times. Each time, emphasize a different word and feel how the implied meaning changes.

“I LOVE you.” emphasizes the feeling.

“I love YOU.” emphasizes the love object.

“*I* love you.” emphasizes that it’s me (and not that other
skeezball) who loves you and deserves your heart.

But Who Loves the Muffin Man?

Armed with our newfound music theory arsenal, we can hear that the most musically distinctive feature of “Do You Know A Muffin Man” is the syncopated agogic accent that occurs nearly every measure between beats 2 and 3. This musical accent pairs with the third syllable of each measure’s line. If you don’t immediately know where I’m referring to, listen at the beginning for the words “know” and “man” and then follow along accordingly. I’m convinced that this accent is the reason I found it so hard to come away with a sense of Thumbtack’s identity as a company.

Dramatically, the commercial divides into two halves: problems and solutions. It isn’t until the start of the second half that we hear the name “Thumbtack.” This make perfect sense, after all, since we don’t want the brand associated with the problems portrayed in the first half of the commercial, only with the solutions portrayed in the second half. The lyrics to the second half of the song begin with this:

Thumbtack knew the perfect pro…

This is, in my humble estimation, an almost perfect piece of copy with which to establish the brand promise of Thumbtack – an absolutely clear and direct expression of what they did for the cast of the commercial and what they can do for the audience. The problem arises, at least for me, when this line is paired to the musical melody. The word “Thumbtack” falls on the first beat. Most of the time, putting the most important information on beat 1 is the right thing to do. In this case though the music has already spent half of the commercial telling us that the important information will come in-between beats 2 and 3 – at the point of the frequently repeated syncopated agogic accent. As a result, I miss the reference to Thumbtack and leave the commercial without a clear sense of its ownership.[1]

Changing the rhythmic placement of the word “Thumbtack” would, I suggest, lead to a more effective advertisement; one that clearly conveys the product identity of its stakeholder. Simply by moving the word Thumbtack to the third and fourth syllables of the line, the name of the company now coincides with the most musically important gesture. This reinforces the importance of Thumbtack as an identity and helps the listener acquire and retain a stronger, more lasting impression of the company.

There are several lines of copy that will do this. For example: “I used Thumbtack and found a pro…” “Download thumbtack and find a pro…” etc. These may (or may not) be inferior lines in isolation but, in my opinion, they would be much more effective within the musical context. Here are the two versions presented in musical notation. Even without the ability to read music, you can see how much more space (and therefore attention) is taken up by Thumbtack in the recomposition.

Muffin Original

Original Version

Recomposed Version

Recomposed Version

In Conclusion

In conclusion, not even the best copy is immune to the power of music. A good song has its own internal logic and consistency which can, and often does, override the word. Music bends to its will the natural rhythms and emphases of speech and writing. In its wake, crucial elements of the text can often be altered and obscured. When using lyrics to communicate a message, always examine what the music is giving and what it’s taking away. Even if you aren’t running a jingle house, it can prove invaluable to have someone on your team who can understand and analyze music.

[1] Anecdotally, I asked my wife about the commercial. She immediately knew the ad, but could not name the advertiser.

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