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  • Why do rhymes get stuck in our minds?
  • Why do rhymes get stuck in our minds?
    Blue Mountains Library, Creative Commons (2015) ©

Why brands are using spoken word

Rhythm and rhyme have been around since the beginning of time, and spoken word is now booming in Britain, with brands like the BBC and McCain harnessing this ancient art form in their campaigns. But what makes poetry more persuasive and engaging than non-rhyming prose in advertising?

Location United Kingdom

Bards have long been using rhythm and rhyme to communicate, but now brands are jumping on the bandwagon. McCain employs ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke to flog chips for tea, while London-based spoken word artist James Massiah tells us to turn our BBC radio stations up.

As spoken word emerges from the margins and into the mainstream, what makes poetry so persuasive? And how should brands looking to utilise this ancient art form go about it with integrity and authenticity?


From nursery rhymes to niche art
“I think we’ve always spoken in rhyme” says Dean Atta, a writer and performance poet. “It’s how we teach our children so many things. I think that kind of basic rhyming is appealing to the child in us.” [1] This idea that poetry can cognitively transport us back to our younger selves is shared by Sean Haldane, a neuropsychologist and poet; “A poem you really feel has a kind of compelling rhythm and I think it does bring one back to childhood,” he says. “When children first discover words, they love the sound of them. We use millions of words in our lives and don’t pay that much attention to how they sound – but a child does, and a poet does. Ordinary speech exists just at the surface of our consciousness, but in a poem, something happens and there's a sort of eruption from underneath – so you’re going to move your audience with your advert.” [2]

​Performance poetry has evolved significantly from the alternative scene it existed in during the ‘60s, yet it has remained a somewhat underground art form, with some considering it to be too ‘urban’ or too pretentious. [3][4] But no more. Performance poets are appearing on advertising campaigns, posters for their books can’t be missed on public transport, and various brands are harnessing spoken word in a bid to engage and enthuse audiences.

The playfulness of rhyme can send us back in time The playfulness of rhyme can send us back in time
Amanda Tipton, Creative Commons (2013) ©

How rhyme can change our minds
Haldane describes poetry as “a rather strange phenomenon that occurs involuntarily and involves all sorts of activity in the brain that isn’t deliberately controlled. If [a poem] is concocted with your voluntary system (e.g. how do I describe this tree? How do I describe that person sitting below it?) and you start calculating it, then it’s not a poem. How do you know whether it is or it isn’t a poem? It's whether it moves you.” [2] Yet this view doesn’t take into account the fact that deliberately constructed rhymes (whether technically poems or not) have been changing our minds for tens, if not hundreds, of years.

The rhyme-as-reason effect is a proven cognitive bias that means we perceive sayings or aphorisms to be more accurate or truthful simply because they rhyme. [5] ‘Birds of the feather, flock together’ and John Cochrane’s ‘If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit’ defence of O.J. Simpson both demonstrate how the first half of a phrase can be reinforced in the memory if the second part rhymes, so it’s no wonder they’re widely used in slogans and jingles. [6] But can long-form or vers libre (free verse) poetry – like spoken word – be as cognitively impactful as snappy and repeatable couplets?

If you want a thought to stick, why not use a limerick? If you want a thought to stick, why not use a limerick?
Francisco Osorio, Creative Commons (2013) ©

Spoken word at its best and worst
The tradition of spoken word means that it works best when delivered with authenticity. “You can tell when something has been written and performed by a poet rather than a copywriter,” says Atta. “When you see a spoken word poem performed by its writer it is more human, it feels more real.” [1]

But brands have been known to fall foul of this mark. McCain’s Chips for Tea campaign, though voiced by ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke, was written by three copywriters, which may be why one critic notes that it “sound[s] like he’s spelling every word in his head before he says it aloud.” He further notes that “combining third-rate poetry with a gospel arrangement of a 19th century hymn doesn’t make you down with the kids.” [7] So how might a brand go about sounding cool through poetry?

Enter the BBC, which has used spoken word on everything from trailers for Guy Garvey’s Sunday show on 6Music to the nationwide ‘Turn it up’ campaign for BBC Radio. It has even launched Words First, a show dedicated to the art form on Radio 1Xtra. Atta believes it would be ‘foolish’ of brands like the BBC not to be reflecting the popularity of spoken word in their output. “Sometimes they lead and tell us what to be interested in, but I think a lot of the time the BBC just follows what the public are into,” he says. “So where British poets are going viral online, where the spoken word scene across the country is really thriving, where poets have a real voice – like Warsan Shire being featured on Beyoncé’s Lemonade – it would be foolish of the BBC not to cover spoken word quite extensively because it is a phenomenon right now in the UK and across the world.” [1]

There’s not much worse than flogging chips in verse
McCain UK (2013) ©

The dangers of dumbing down
Perhaps brands like McCain or Cathedral City are guilty of oversimplification. A study published in 2013 used brain scans to prove how challenging – as opposed to basic – literature shifts mental pathways to inspire fresh thought in readers. ‘Challenging’ text resulted in greater electrical activity in the brain, while also boosting connections between the two hemispheres. “Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain,” says the study’s author, Professor Philip Davis. “The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike.” [8]

A separate study, also published in 2013, found that more emotionally charged writing boosted activity in regions of the brain that are normally involved in processing music. These same areas are also responsible for that ‘shivers down the spine’ feeling experienced when listening to a particularly moving piece of music. The research specifically compared poetry to prose, discovering that “poetry activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection.” [9] In other words, poetry has the potential to make us feel tingly and re-evaluate ourselves – which brand wouldn’t want to be able to do that?

A rhyme too cheesy could leave listeners queasy
Cathedral City (2009) ©

If brands are stories – could they be poems?
A 2015 paper entitled ‘Profit from poetry: bards, brands and burnished bottom lines’ posits that poetry is profitable in a literal, figurative and instrumental sense. To delve into one of the figurative aspects in more depth, the authors write: “Poems are sequential as well as spatial. They possess the narrative component that’s integral to the ‘brands-are-stories’ school of thought” – an idea that is firmly established, quantifiable and growing. [10][11][12]

Taking this one step further, they suggest that brands can also be poems. “Poems are things, punchy, powerful, pungent, plangent – and intangible, inasmuch as poems are typically packed with a plethora of meanings.” Here, poetry’s ambiguity is advantageous because “the traditional notion that brands are crisp, clear, cogent, coherent ‒ tangible things that managers command and control – is giving way to the realisation that brands are less controllable and more intangible than before.” [10]

Ordinary speech exists just at the surface of our consciousness, but in a poem, something happens and there's a sort of eruption from underneath – so you’re going to move your audience with your advert

Sean Haldane, neuropsychologist and poet

But how does that sit with Atta’s theory that spoken word is on the rise because it “feels real, straight-to-the-point, and undiluted?” [1] Perhaps performance poetry offers brands an attractive middle ground between clarity of message and the opportunity for consumers to imbue their own meaning.

The paper also highlights that ambiguity in poetry “encourages individual consumers...to go back to them again and again and again in order to unearth ever more insights.” [10] One can see how a brand could view this as a vehicle to achieve deeper engagement through creating communications that we want to watch/listen to repeatedly ‒ an advantage poetry has over non-poetic forms of advertising.

Brands seem more exciting when they use poetic writing Brands seem more exciting when they use poetic writing
Info-graz, Creative Commons (2014) ©

Insights and opportunities
Atta doesn’t see a conflict between the often political motivations of the oral poetry movement and the commercial ambitions of brands using it today. “Poets deserve to make money just like everyone else,” he says. “If they've been reading, writing and performing on the circuit, if they’ve put in time to become masters of their craft and people recognise that, then it’s their choice to be paid for it.” He adds that paid work can allow artists to pursue their passion projects, but that he’s turned down commercial work from brands he felt didn’t reflect “what [he] is about” – and this aligning of values should go both ways. [1]

Atta’s advice for brands looking to utilise spoken word is to really love an artist's work and to foster a meaningful relationship. “I wouldn’t say just use poets for your adverts – use poets to help your company and your staff find their own voice as well,” he says. “It’s really important that they know the poet’s work, not just that they know they’re popular – I don’t think that’s good enough.” He believes using artists as poets-in-residence is much more valuable than McCain-style voiceovers; “We’ve put years into exploring our voice as a poet, so I think we’ve got a lot to offer in terms of helping a company find its voice and helping staff feel more confident in using their voice in the workplace.” [1]

I wouldn’t say just use poets for your adverts – use poets to help your company and your staff find their own voice as well

Dean Atta, writer and performance poet

Haldane also doesn’t see a conflict between commercial gain and artistic integrity. “It isn’t usually done, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be done” he says, though his approach would be to “find a poem that has the emotion that you want your product or service to convey” and apply that to a campaign. As the poet will have written it from an autonomic place, it will therefore speak to a listener/reader at an emotional level. “Some people have said this before, but a good poem has to surprise the poet – and only if it surprises the poet will it surprise the reader.” [2]

Perhaps what Haldane describes as ‘surprise’, is the same as Atta’s ‘angle’; “I get commissions from the BBC to write poems on topical issues,” Atta says, “and that's really fun because they might suggest what they want you to write about but then it’s down to you to make it your own and find the angle you’re passionate about.” [1] So with the right blend of integrity, emotion and honesty, this blossoming art form can evolve into a powerful weapon in a brand's arsenal.

Kat Morrisby is a Senior Behavioural Analyst at Canvas8. She has worked with academics, semioticians and anthropologists for household brands like EE, Kingsmill and Kellogg’s, and has helped shape new fundraising events and campaigns for leading charities like Cancer Research UK & Scope.

1. Interview with Dean Atta conducted by author
2. Interview with Sean Haldane conducted by author
3. 'National Poetry Day: The rise and rise of performance poetry', The Independent (October 2015)
4. 'Spoken word poetry', 1883
5. 'Rhyme as reason in commercial and social advertising', Scandinavian Journal of Psychology (July 2013)
6. 'How ads take advantage of our cognitive biases', Better Copy (August 2015)
7. 'Bad poetry in advertising', Big Group (January 2015)
8. 'The power of poetry: how serious literature can boost the brain', The Reader (January 2013)
9. 'Poetry is like music to the mind, scientists prove', University of Exeter (October 2013)
10. 'Profit from poetry: Bards, brands, and burnished bottom lines', Business Horizons (October 2015)
11. 'Brand storytelling: narrative theory', Marketing Week (July 2013)
12. 'Brand story', The Story of Telling


Kathryn Morrisby is a writer and researcher. She has worked with academics, semioticians and anthropologists for household brands like EE, Kingsmill and Cancer Research UK.