Copywriting Lessons From 'Beowulf' and Mother Goose

Creatives Need to Get Over Their Resistance to Rhymes and Alliteration

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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 succession -- not to mention two soft A's. In other words, Coca-Cola is a name bubbling over with mnemonic devices: alliteration and rhyme.

The two devices don't have a lot of today's ad folk behind them.

"There's a lot of stigma attached to alliteration," says Chris Bettin, associate creative director at Moroch Partners in Dallas. "From the creative standpoint, it's not a real accomplishment to come up with something like that, to be proud of."

Oh, yes. What creative could possibly be proud of Tony the Tiger? Hamburger Helper? "Don't dream it, drive it?" 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, alliteration is an amazing memory aid, and possibly the oldest one on earth. "Beowulf" was written alliteratively sometime around the year 1000 -- "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," says R. Brooke Lea, a psychology professor at Macalester College, where he studies 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 Ws ("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 the participants of another and brought the whole thought right back. In other words, a simple, familiar sound worked recall magic.

"When you think about advertising, what we are all trying to do is 'unaided recall,' right?" asked Deborah Armstrong, a senior VP at Mediaspace Solutions. And yet, she said, alliteration, with all its recall power, has fallen out of favor. When she was brand manager at Creative Playthings, the company used it all the time.

People still tend to associate alliteration with childish things, maybe because of all those nursery rhymes: "Wee Willie Winkle," "Bah, Bah, 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 peppers did Peter Piper pick?)

"We've got all these great new ways of communicating -- podcasts, banner ads. But we've forgotten how simply humans are wired," said Angie Sparks. She's an account exec at Mustang Marketing in California, where they give out M&M's to reinforce their mighty, memorable moniker.

Rhyme works the same way alliteration does, making a name or slogan easier to remember: "It takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin.'" 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."

So here's a little ditty I just coined. "Seeking to sell? Alliterate like hell."

And rhyme.
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