We rarely pay attention to audio content as consumers, but it’s a powerful force that surrounds us in a way that no other can. In a sense, you can’t easily escape sound; it’s just there, and only fingers jammed into your ears and a deliberate, loud “I’M NOT LISTENING!” chant will drown it out. And because it’s always there, echoing through the aisles of peanut butter and kitty litter, it can make you want to spend more time meandering through that florescent-lit store in a way that no other subtle piece of marketing can.
Why is it that those creepy, crazy-silent anechoic chambers make people go crazy after only 30 or 40 minutes? We can handle darkness or brightness or uncomfortable temperatures for far longer. There’s just something truly unsettling about hearing your own blood pumping in your head compared to tanning on a sun-drenched beach.
Sound is important. Whether you like a quiet room when you sleep or are one of those mythical New Yorkers who will buy a noise machine to replicate the sounds of subways and taxis honking on the streets below, you’re likely to have a strong opinion on this.
We don’t talk about it often enough, but sound is omnipresent and always affecting us. Only recently have researchers begun to consider the manifold ways in which music can influence everything from our moods to our purchasing decisions. Whether it’s a commercial soundtrack designed to evoke an emotional connection with a product or simply the perfect burrito-eating playlist, there is a burgeoning interest in the exacting science of sound.
It’s easy to discredit sound as “noise”—or something irrelevant to the task at hand—but when it comes down to it, it is so much more. In the post-Napster era of streaming everything, we no longer take music listening as seriously as we once did. Craving a song? Simply click and it’s on. Sick of it after the first chorus? Next!
Still, the throwaway feelings imparted by that instant gratification are also accompanied by the idea that what we listen to is so important that we are willing to acquire it at any cost; we download multiple apps onto our phones just to ensure we always have just the right soundtrack for the moment. Ride the subway to work on any given day and you’ll find that at least half of the passengers are wearing headphones.
If people aren’t listening to their morning pump-up jams or evening wind-down tunes, they may very well be as addicted to Serial as the rest of the nation. It’s a pretty good bet, considering podcast listenership is at an all-time high. Fifteen percent of Americans (39 million people) have listened to podcasts in the last month, up from 9 percent in 2008. And that number is expected to continue growing as audio content enjoys a major resurgence—a major low-hanging fruit for advertisers.
An interesting sidenote: Internet radio listeners are almost 30 percent less likely to turn off or change stations during advertisements than listeners of FM/AM radio.
Listeners perceive podcasts and custom-tailored Internet radio stations as highbrow and more specific to them. The value of subtle sound advertising cannot be overstated. Captive audiences salivating over the next chapter in a “whodunit” saga have no choice but to listen to promotional considerations from legal foundations, and it’s a safe bet to assume that those who have downloaded podcasts on the monastic brewing process in Belgium are certainly more likely to listen to an advertisement about craft beer than the general population.
When those ads are subtly integrated into the sonic texture of a podcast or Internet radio—whether with impossibly idyllic narrators or background music that fits the station it’s interrupting—listeners perceive them as more credible and pertinent than, say, the fast-talking ad guy on a local FM station.
Perhaps you’re averse to awkward silence, or maybe you’re curious about why exactly you prefer Chipotle over Qdoba. Either way, the science of sound can help. And if you want to sell someone on something—or get a good night’s sleep—taking a long, hard look at how sound influences our decision-making process can help.
As an aside, as I was writing this article, the playlist in the coffee shop ended abruptly, and people looked up from their computers and cappuccinos. True story.
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