I’m trying to remember the last time an advertising jingle got lodged in my noggin. It’s nothing new, but lately I’ve been revisiting J.G. Wentworth’s operatic 877-CASH-NOW while I feed my dogs. (“I have two lit-tle gentlemen, and they need food nooowww.”) But out of all the earworms I’ve hummed in the shower, it’s hard to deny the appeal of the McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle. That telltale “ba-da-ba-BA-BAAA” is tight, catchy, and tonally agnostic. But where did it come from, and why is it so damn catchy? Dallas Taylor of the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast recently dove deep on an episode titled “I’m Lovin’ It,” an exploration of McDonald’s longest-running, most successful marketing campaign.
Turns out, the jingle was born out of desperation after the chain’s stock plummeted in the early 2000s. Before that, it was all sunshine, daisies, and white-faced clown men for Mickey D’s—but after decades of riding high on over-the-top promotions, the company’s stock price was at a seven-year low. In 2002, Fortune reporter David Stiles penned an article titled “Fallen Arches McDonald’s has had six straight earnings disappointments,” writing that the chain’s sense of joy had been, well, Hamburgled. The company needed a million-dollar idea, so it challenged 14 ad agencies to pitch a new campaign. This would be McDonald’s first unified global campaign, so it needed to connect with people in every culture. It needed to work in every language. It needed to be the jingle heard ’round the world.
The slogan came first. Taylor reports that German ad agency Heye & Partner came up with the slogan “Ich Liebe Es,” which roughly translates to “I’m Loving It.” But they needed to put the slogan to music. To do that, the agency reached out to a music production company called Mona Davis, founded by Tom Batoy and Franco Tortora. Batoy and Tortora spent days tinkering with the jingle—that is, until they cracked the code during one white wine-fueled night. After hour upon fruitless hour, Batoy and Tortora landed on those five notes: “ba-da-ba-BA-BAAA.”
The key was in the melody’s simplicity. “It wasn’t big science,” Batoy said on the podcast. “It was basically more that you hear and you develop something, and then emotionally get grabbed. Always, with a lot of things we do, we get emotionally grabbed by something, and then we say, ‘Oh! That’s the thing!’”
Once Batoy and Tortora nailed the melody, they had to convince the McDonald’s leadership that the tune could work in every country and every possible musical style. Franco says:
“We had to develop long versions. We had to develop short versions. We had to develop costs. We had meetings like all the time. So we would just be sitting for a week in air-conditioned rooms and developing the realization of this campaign worldwide.”
Then came world domination. According to Taylor, at the time, McDonald’s in every country had its own separate marketing team and agency. Batoy and Tortora had to get every single international team on board with the new sound. “We had these huge meetings and they had to tell them, ‘You have to stop all your work, because from now on, this will be the thing you have to incorporate in all your work,’” Batoy says on the podcast. “You have to use this no matter what.” Batoy goes on to explain that some countries even had to cancel brand-new campaigns to make room for the jingle.
Right away, McDonald’s knew it had a winner on its hands. This wasn’t just any jingle: this was a jingle worthy of a guerrilla marketing campaign. Taylor reports that McDonald’s worked with veteran record executive Steve Stoute to launch “I’m Lovin’ It” as a standalone pop single Trojan-horse style. As in, listeners would develop a “positive association” with the song long before they heard it in a commercial or associated it with McDonald’s.
A version of the track featuring Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes on vocals mysteriously “leaked” and hit the airwaves early in 2003—with nary a mention of McDonald’s. It wasn’t until later that year, after the song started to circulate, that McDonald’s announced the partnership with Timberlake. The earworm had burrowed its way into listeners’ brains for good, just in time for McDonald’s to launch the “I’m Lovin’ It” ad campaign featuring a flirty J.T. surrounded by “breakdancers, skateboarders, surfers, BMX bikers... and a few cheeseburgers.” Timberlake later embarked on a sponsored tour entitled “McDonald’s Presents: Justin Timberlake Lovin’ It Live.”
The campaign was originally scheduled to run for just two years, but the jingle lives on to this day. Like any fast food touchstone, it’s not without its fair share of controversy. (You’ll have to listen to the full podcast episode to hear about rapper Pusha T’s claims that he wrote the entire song.) But if we can learn anything from the “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign, it’s that desperate times can inspire award-winning ideas. Speaking of which, where did I put the complex Rube Goldberg machine that I invented to pay my exorbitant quarterly taxes?