Mind Control Music: the dark art of supermarket sounds

Supermarket DJ's, geniuses or machines?

Supermarket DJ’s, geniuses or machines?

In an enlightening piece of research Getintothis‘ Roy Bayfield delves deep into the world of supermarket playlists, and simultaneously the human subconscious. 

I was in the canned vegetables aisle of Morrisons when Patti Smith Group’s Because the Night started playing over the supermarket’s sound system. Up until then I hadn’t consciously noticed what background music was playing, but this got my attention – the intensity of Smith’s voice and Lenny Kaye’s luminous guitar solo sending me into a reverie, the process of looking for chick peas temporarily forgotten.

The next song was Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark, another pretty decent track, also about loneliness, lust and love – and didn’t Springsteen co-write Because the Night? Who was making this playlist – some knowledgeable DJ, exploring meaningful connections from track to track? An AI computer in Morrison’s headquarters? One of the staff in this particular store?

On subsequent visits I started actively listening out the background music, curious to determine if the Smith/Springsteen moment had just been a fluke, or if the music was actually pretty decent. My assumption had been that it was randomly selected current chart slurry, but maybe I was wrong.

The first thing I noticed is that it is often hard to hear the music at all. Supermarkets are pretty noisy places, what with the rhythmic swooshing of refrigeration units, endless hiss of air conditioning, bleeping of tills, percussive crashes of trolleys, people talking, announcements over the speakers and the repeated computerised mantra of ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’.

Weird that all this sound washes over us largely unnoticed – no wonder J.G. Ballard wrote that we inhabit a ‘sonic inferno’. An ambient recording made in a supermarket could easily pass for a challenging piece of experimental electronic music from the 70s. Depending where you are positioned in the store, the ‘background music’ can be so far in the background that only faint echoes are audible. Hearing just a shadow of a beat and the odd snatch of melody within the mass of other sounds can give rise to intriguing auditory hallucinations, as the brain assembles a known song by filling in the gaps in the confusing mass of input – can they really be playing The Stooges Funhouse? Surely that can’t be Psychic TV’s Roman P? …

I decided to use technology to make my fieldwork a bit more effective by figuring out what tracks were actually playing. Every time I went to Morrisons I would turn on the Shazam app on my phone and let the device figure out what was being played. Even this was only a partial success initially – due to the surrounding noise clutter the app was only ‘hearing’ about one track in six. So I figured out where the speakers were in the ceiling and started pointing the phone directly at them.

It occurred to me that standing motionless in rapt attention scanning the air with an electronic gizmo, like a ghost hunter, or a UFO enthusiast hungrily watching the skies, may have looked incongruous in this setting. As far as possible I tried to make it look as if I ‘just happened’ to be standing in front of the mineral water shelves reading an important text for several minutes, rather than dowsing for insights into barely-audible piped music.

After a few weeks of this practice, baffling my partner by continually finding reasons to go to the shop, I had a playlist helpfully stored by Shazam in my phone as a small sample of the range of music being pumped into the retail environment to enhance the shopping experience. The playlist starts unpromisingly with Brotherhood of Man Save Your Kisses for Me, then picks up with Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. The appearance of these popular oldies in an afternoon slack period led me to think that at times of day when the shopper demographic skews towards the older generation, the music is configured to press nostalgia buttons. Perhaps this triggers a frenzy of purchasing retro products, Wagon Wheels and tinned potatoes flying from the shelves…

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The next visit yielded a track that was a new one on me, Crystal Fighters Boomin’ in Your Jeep. This selection seems to be aiming to bring a bit of joyous escapism into the shopper’s mindset – a subconscious image of ‘Race the car down, all the way to San José… all night to the sunrise’ is a pleasant counterpoint to the reality of pushing a trolley through a supermarket in Ormskirk, basically a simple feel-good tactic: thank you, supermarket, for adding a bit of enjoyment to our day. But wait – this ‘Jeep’ to which they refer – is it simply a recreational vehicle, or is it, like the ‘rocket’ in the pocket of Jimmie Lloyd or the ‘squeezebox’ possessed by The Who’s mama, some kind of sex thing? ‘Who can blame us, balling like we’re famous / Wake the neighbours boomin with you night and day’… a definite hint of an erotic undercurrent.

Next track: Los del Mar, Macarena: ‘They all want me / They can’t have me / So they all come and dance beside me’. OK, vaguely raunchy. A-Ha, Touchy! – well that could be somewhat sexual too I suppose – at least very mildly so, a licking-a-battery level of stimulation. I guess that makes sense, the supermarket pumping out enough subliminal sexuality to get people in the zone of vague, unfulfilled desire while they shop, but keeping it at a low enough level not to cause an outbreak of uncontrolled intercourse in the aisles.

Possible effects of poorly-judged background music choices

Possible effects of poorly-judged background music choices

But then the playlist lurches into male angst territory with Justin Timberlake Say Something, and stays there with Jungle Happy Man. As well as introducing an undertow of melancholy these songs seem to be questioning the value of shopping with lyrics like ‘Maybe I’m looking something that I can’t have’ and ‘Buy yourself a dream and it won’t mean nothing’, which seemed counterintuitive, like playing black metal in church. I had thought I was beginning to sense some logic, but now seemed to be losing the thread, still not much wiser as to why the music is used. I decided to do some background reading.

The first thing to say is that this is fairly big business. The Performing Rights Society netted £21.1m from shops in 2017, over 10% of its total public performance income (PRS figures), so clearly retailers believe that background music has some sort of effect. Research suggests they are right. Whether or not shoppers consciously notice that it’s there, background music affects behaviour. Fast music makes people move through the shop more quickly – too fast and sales levels drop. Familiar tracks also speed people up. Subliminal suggestion plays a part, with one experiment showing that playing French music increased sales of French wine, German music German wine even if the customers had no memory of hearing it. Retailers may also upgrade their shops by installing new shelving for shops to make their customers’ shopping experience more efficient and enjoyable.

The mode of music is also a factor, with slower sadder music being, perhaps surprisingly, better at raising sales. So why doesn’t all all background music comprise slow-tempo tearjerkers? Well, some shops may still win if people move through the store more quickly, freeing up tills and parking spaces to increase the overall number of customers. And the genre of music has been shown to be a factor: for instance playing classical music rather than Top 40 encouraged customers to buy expensive wine in a wine shop. Fitting the genre to the shop is thought be the key, with music creating an emotional landscape that fits with the shop’s brand.

All of this can seem manipulative but then any retail environment is a machine with one purpose, generating sales. Opting to play the role of customer we opt to have our emotions prodded and pulled in ways that make us want to buy stuff. Succumbing to the dark art of subliminal manipulation is part of the price we pay for comfort and convenience – at least those of us who can afford to do so.

Back to my local shop/subconscious disco, my analysis is that Morrisons are positioning themselves as a populist brand, with generally upbeat music to stimulate brisk movement through the store. The familiar tracks contribute to a down-to-earth image, the reliable folksiness their current ‘Good to know it’s Morrisons’ campaign invokes.

Credit: (c) Love Art Noveau Harrods Food Hall, Brompton Road, London; CC BY 2.0

Not a pic of Morrisons: Harrods Food Hall, Brompton Road, London; Credit: (c) Love Art Nouveau CC BY 2.0

Writing this gave me a sudden flashback to my one visit to Harrods, a shop at the opposite end of the market from Morries it’s fair to say. Moving through Harrods is like moving through a gorgeous dream or ascending into a gilded afterlife. Subdued lighting, sculptures, gently glowing screens and wafts of perfume all work to create a blissful, hypnagogic experience with the sense that a high-end purchase will somehow enable you, a simple human being, to own a piece of this joy – to return from the realm of the gods clutching a blessing that will last forever. Harrods too use pop songs to weave the mood. The time I was there I heard The Beautiful South How Long’s a Tear Take to Dry?, reminding shoppers that ‘The flowers smell sweeter, the closer you are to the grave’ – make of that what you will.

So pop provides soundscapes for shopkeepers at all levels. There are other choices of course. Mood music specially designed for background use has been around for a long time, such as the piped elevator sounds exemplified by the Muzak brand. Whereas pop comes laden with emotion and driven by a beat, Muzak-style mood music was ‘subdued, unobtrusive, even remote or alien’, as described in Joseph Lanza’s entertaining Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak Easy Listening and other Moodsong.

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Muzak is now owned by Mood Media, ‘the global leader for Experiential Design and Marketing Solutions’. Mood Music’s UK arm claim clients including Boots, Sainsbury’s and Primark. However Mood Media’s website offers ‘customised playlists’ and ‘handpicked songs’ so maybe that’s the way today’s ‘muzak’ is made – using pre-existing songs as readymade building blocks, just like the tracks synced to TV drama songtages. What the background music vendors do offer is ‘curation’ of tailored playlists with smoothed-out sound levels and commercial licensing taken care of – which, I guess, is preferable to getting some guy from the supermarket’s customer service desk to plug an old iPod into the tannoy system.

And then there’s the most radical choice of all – the type of music that John Cage described as being ‘seductive as the colour and shape and fragrance of a flower’ – silence. This is the choice made by Marks & Spencer, who removed music from their stores in 2016, citing customer preference.

As bricks and mortar stores battle for market share with online, and high streets look for innovative ways to survive, ‘experience’ is a major area of focus. Stores want to be ‘immersive’ and ‘interactive,’ making the most of their physical existence as a place where humans go. Brands are on a quest for distinctiveness with a ‘signature’ ambience. In this scenario music is clearly part of the retail marketing toolkit and definitely here to stay in many places. On the plus side this adds another strand to the diverse income streams that benefit musicians – but only the few that are already succeeding across the board, and whose work makes it through a filtering process that favours the bland and generic.

Armed with my new knowledge I walked into town for a final Shazam-enhanced visit to Ormskirk Morrisons. I made a pact with the spirits of retail that I would immerse myself in the supermarket experience and interact with it by buying something directly suggested by the background music.

Supermarket senses fully attuned, I wandered the aisles, listening intently to the fragments of tunes I could make out. The songs seemed to be merging into one long riff on isolation and meaninglessness. ‘You can call it another lonely day…c’mon baby and rescue me…I feel like a zombie going back to life…what if I left and it made no sense.’ The lyrics were surprisingly lacking in prompts to buy things. ‘And I know you digging my fabric’ sang Zayn feat. Party Next Door, but there aren’t many cloth-based products in this branch of Morrisons.

It’s covered in all the coloured lights’ sang Hugh Jackman, Keala Settle, Zac Efron, Zendaya and the Greatest Show Ensemble, but the Christmas stuff wasn’t out yet. ‘If I could fall into the sky / Do you think time would pass me by? / Cause you know I’d walk a thousand miles / If I could just see you tonight’ sang Vanessa Carlton… I was in the baking products aisle at the time and the ‘thousand miles’ lyric sparked a childhood memory of ‘Hundreds and Thousands’, brightly coloured sugar strands on cakes and trifles; warmth, light, laughter. The perfect product to be sold by the mood music, unnecessary and virtually content-free; an antidote to the yearning absence of the songs. I picked up a jar of them, 80g, 95p, suitable for vegetarians – another tiny moment of empty consumer sweetness within the sonic inferno.

Have YOU been affected by issues mentioned in this article? If so you might want to listen to this playlist, specially curated by our global team of experts to detoxify you mind of all subliminal commercial messages. Ignore Alien Orders!