September 22nd, 2021


What's Old, Cheap and Memorable?

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published August 25, 2017

What's Old, Cheap and Memorable?

Coca-Cola. I think we can all agree that's a pretty good brand name, right?

Ever think about why?

It's not just the billions of ad bucks behind it. It's all the "k" sounds — three of them in quick, cute, clever secession — not to mention two soft a's. In other words, Coca-Cola is a name bubbling over with literary devices — alliteration and rhyme.

The two devices a lot of people find tacky today.

"There's a lot of stigma attached to alliteration," an ad executive once told me. It's considered too cheesy to be proud of.

Oh, yes. What advertising copywriter could possibly be proud of Tony the Tiger? Hamburger Helper? Wonder Woman? Or that silly little chain Jamba Juice, started by some guys who came from Dunkin' Donuts, which itself competes with Krispy Kreme?

The fact is that alliteration is an amazing memory aid, possibly the oldest on earth. "Beowulf" was written alliteratively about 1,000 years ago — "Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings" — before poetry even rhymed. And now comes new evidence of just how powerful alliteration is.

"Our cognitive system is sensitive to overlapping sounds," said R. Brooke Lea, a psychology professor at Macalester College, where he studies, among other things, how the mind retrieves words and ideas. He and his colleagues came up with a way to study that "sound sensitivity." They buried a simple word — "barn" — in a free-verse poem. Several lines later, the experiment participants were asked whether "barn" was part of the poem.

The ones who'd read it in a sentence filled with alliteration — "all along the way-winding road, wary whispers of the old barn" — were much quicker at remembering it if they were asked about it right after they read another phrase with lots of w's, "the wooden willowy warp of wild-carrot leaf." (Hey — no one said it was great poetry.)

What happened, according to Lea, is that one sound reminded them of another and brought the whole thought right back. In other words, a simple, familiar sound worked recall magic.

The job of advertising is to make us recall something with the least possible effort: "I'm hungry. Where should I go? McDonald's? I'm lovin' it! With a Coke maybe? Open happiness!" Those slogans have won through sheer repetition, not inherent memorability. That's because alliteration, with all its recall power, has fallen out of favor.

People still tend to associate alliteration with childish things, maybe because of all those nursery rhymes — "Wee Willie Winkie," "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," etc. But the fact that those ditties have lasted centuries does not prove alliteration is for kids. It only proves how universal and catchy it is — and how long it stays in the brain. (Quick, how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?)

We're surrounded by an entirely new media landscape, from Snapchat to Facebook to Slack. But maybe all we really need is a good old-fashioned super-simple slogan, awesome in its allegiance to alliteration.

And don't forget to add in rhymes, because that almost-as-ancient device works the same way alliteration does, making a name or slogan easier to remember. "It takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'," for example. Lea says there's even more concrete evidence of rhyme's power. Students given a list of unfamiliar aphorisms that rhymed ("Woes unite foes") rated them far more "true" than students given sayings that didn't rhyme ("Troubles unite foes").

That's because rhymes go down easy, said the professor. "And stuff that's easy to process, you think is right." This could even be why people teach their kids "stranger danger," even though the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they know.

So remember: Should you seek to sell, alliterate like hell.

And rhyme.

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