Radio: The Power Of Sound - Hearing is arguably the most powerful sense. Dr Aric Sigman explains how that advantage can be better used in radio ads

’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.

’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

integrity problem.

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

true credibility.

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.

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus