’Take me now! I need satisfying! pounds 4.99 a minute.’ This is one
of the tamest examples of the burgeoning market in commercial sex phone
lines, whereby an increasing number of men spend up to pounds 5 a minute
to achieve a nirvana which is merely voice activated.
Even second-hand sounds possess aphrodisiac qualities, hence, ’Eavesdrop
on phone sex - secretly listen in, only pounds 1.99 a minute!’. And
there are accompanying telephone ads to seduce listeners to spend in
order to listen.
There’s no doubt that they work.
Sound is so powerful you can paint pictures with it. Radio, like the
telephone, is not only a visual but a multi-sensory medium and its
subliminal nature and invisibility is its chief strength. Yet radio ads
often appear as if the creatives didn’t fully believe this. A better
understanding of the science behind how we listen may help the ad makers
take full advantage of radio’s potential.
A radio ad aspires to be selected for our attention, ultimately leaving
a desirable imprint in our memory. However, the ad does not pass
directly through our ears into our ’retail’ memory. First, it
reverberates in our sensory memory - an initial holding tank - for up to
three or four seconds. Most of the information fades rapidly or is
replaced by new distractions.
However, if the listener listens to the message selectively, it is more
likely to be stored in deeper levels of memory, or ’moved upstairs’.
Radio advertising has an advantage over visual ads, since studies show
that spoken information remains in the sensory memory up to eight times
longer than visual data. This provides the listener with valuable time
needed to attend to it fully. This has enormous potential for ads.
But what factors increase the likelihood that listeners will remember an
ad - preferably with fondness?
Humans are wired biologically to respond to speech far more than any
other sound. Speech is, without question, a radio ad’s primary code, and
the voice is life’s primary code. Despite the belief that dishonesty can
be best gauged by watching someone’s eyes, the truth about lying is that
it’s actually in the voice.
We are unaware of the degree of multi-dimensional analysis that we
engage in when we hear a voice. Our ears and brains act as sonic
Ads that work successfully connect in some way with the listener at a
basic psychological level. Authenticity of voice is of paramount
importance, yet the voices employed in ads often seem to suffer from an
While script writers may prefer not to hear this, the power of speech is
derived more from the way the words are spoken than from what the words
themselves actually mean. When the singer, Little Richard - who was by
no stretch of the imagination a professor of psycholinguistics -
screamed, ’A whop bop aloo bop alop bam boom’, he understood that great
commercial sound successes are not word-led, but instead, led by
phonetic appeal. The levels of connotative (ie suggestive) meanings that
can be introduced through the way in which words are spoken is
All of this can be achieved through careful consideration of factors
such as stressing certain words through altering the pitch, tone,
volume, speed, to imply different emotional intensities.
Returning to the sex phone line example, it is quite clear that what
enables the owners to command pounds 5 a minute is ultimately down to
the sexual and emotional authenticity achieved through the connotative
meaning in her voice.
Accents, on the other hand, arouse the listener to place the voice
socially and culturally. In Britain, accents are the principal method of
social coding, with assumptions about class and education being made
For example, a recent study by Professor Burnice Mahoney found that
’people with ’nice’ accents are considered smarter, more attractive and
less likely to blow their noses on your curtains. Brummie speakers are
regarded as thick, clumsy and more likely to be criminals.’
Other studies have shown that speakers with higher-status accents are
perceived as more competent, intelligent, successful, good looking,
taller and even cleaner than speakers with working class accents - even
by working class listeners themselves.
The present political climate emphasising social equality has been
accompanied by an increase in the use of ’estuary English’ in radio
advertising. Kim Wheeler, voice agent at the voiceover agency, Calypso,
says: ’There has been a significant change in the market over the last
three years. Producers want the ’natural’ bloke or woman in the London
street vox pop, as opposed to middle-class accents.’
However, psychologists would argue that the gratuitous use of ’the
people’s accent’ contributes little to achieving a genuine feel. When
choosing an appropriate accent, advertisers should have a clear and
intelligent rationale that extends beyond ’it’s ’in’ to sound working
class/American/black’. Street credibility does not automatically confer
The key to getting an ad through the ears and stored in retail memory
requires a producer or director who has psycho-acoustic ’tendencies’,
who understands sound intuitively and responds to the sheer musicality
of voice. In essence, someone who can act as the ultimate lie
Dr Aric Sigman is a writer and broadcaster.