Welcome to My Earworm hell – How Empathy Matters in Marketing

A couple of times a year, an earworm strikes. You know when you get a tune in your head and it sticks, sometimes for days? Even when you love the song, you end up wishing you’d never heard it.
Right now I’m in the middle of a beauty, a record breaker, probably the most persistent earworm of a lifetime’s earwormery. And I’m going to have a crack at putting how it feels in writing. Why? Because, as I discuss later, empathy matters in marketing. 

Meet my earworm – Welcome to a fortnight of auditory hell

Two weeks ago Joannie Mitchell’s Carey hit me hard out of nowhere, loud and clear. Very loud, and awesome in its acoustically perfect clarity. I went with the flow as usual. There’s no choice, I’ve tried more than a hundred times. An earworm is coming, like an auditory horseman of the apocalypse. I gird my loins.

The earworm pattern slams in for the duration

The usual twice-yearly pattern slots in immediately. I can almost feel it inside my head, a click followed by a winding up sensation like an old cassette tape machine. At first I love it. It’s like being Joni Mitchell, in surround-sound, magnificent, lyrics intact, every fiddly bit and curly vocal reproduced beautifully. Bang and Olufson would adore it inside my head. They’d freak.

When things get nasty

After a couple of days of fun, things get nasty. I start looping and sampling. I pick a few bits out and arrange them into a round, so they dovetail together in different ways, like London’s Burning, the children’s song.
I do the loops and samples with different instruments, including drums, strings and brass section. I chop and change, repeat loops ad infinitum and then start over with a whole new set of permutations, all with the original song still playing in the background, in its entirety.
Nuts. By this time I am going nuts. I am considering banging my head against the nearest brick wall for the blessed distraction. I wake up in the night for a pee and it’s there, like flicking on a switch. It accompanies my typing, I tap my feet to it, walk in time to it, chew in time to it. It drowns out the telly unless I’m completely absorbed, and the same goes for reading. On, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on… and bloody on.

Tune two adds to the misery – Off we go again

Next, doom and gloom, another few days later, a second tune fires off and adds to the cacophony. FFS. This time it’s We built this city with rock and roll by Starship, a song I dislike. Seriously dislike, so I know I’m in for a particularly rocky ride. Rinse and repeat, as above, with Joni in the background or foreground. Or both. By this time, in unguarded moments, I’m reduced to swearing point, muttering to myself with half-focused eyes. People must think I’m on drugs.

Cut off at the knees by Neil Young

I’m side-swiped yet again a day later, cut off at the knees by a Neil Young tune, the one about a horse with no name. I love it, but it slammed into my brain from the top left hand side – I felt it – and now there are three. Three of them, three of the fuckers playing and looping, interchanging, coming forward and backwards, endlessly, loudly or insidiously, never silent, 24/7.
I’m reaching crisis point by this stage, but at the same time there’s light at the end of the earworm tunnel. I know from experience that this spirit-breaking three-tune finale marks the beginning of the end of my two week ordeal. In a couple of days it’ll die down to a whisper, then my earworms will completely disappear for a few months, sometimes a year.

Who’s in charge? Not me

I’m not doing it. At least not the conscious me. I don’t encourage earworms, nor do I try to avoid them when I’m not having one. I can’t pin down a cause. It feels separate, automatic, unstoppable, a runaway train. The same way, perhaps, that people who get migraines can tell when one’s coming. And it’s a miserable thing to have to go through: intrusive, loud, insistent, obstructive, all-consuming, exasperating and tedious to the point of tears. Usually a stoic, I have almost wept. I am very thankful it’ll soon be over.

I feel your pain – empathy in marketing

That’s written from personal experience. I hope I’ve given you a glimpse into how horrible earworms can be. But everyday human-to-human empathy means every good writer can put themselves in other people’s shoes under all sorts of circumstances.
Most humans are hard-wired for empathy. Like everyone except the sociopaths amongst us, I can imagine what feels like to be suddenly disabled, lose a loved one, split up with your partner, the tragedies of everyday life. It’s the trick to really good marketing, putting yourself in the shoes of your customers rather than trying to make them wear yours. Even when you’re selling insurance or soap powder.

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