The Power of Sounds in Advertising

You’re watching your favorite television series when, once again, it goes to commercial break. You reach for your iPhone and start scrolling through your emails, occasionally checking Instagram or Twitter. Commercials all seem to blur together, not deserving of your attention. Suddenly, as you open that new text message, the Star Wars theme song plays from the television and it reminds you of your childhood. You glance up at the screen to notice the commercial, drawing you in with it’s familiar sounds and feel good tones.

In an era where we are constantly bombarded by sounds, marketers must be aware of the powerful effects of noise. From the beginning of advertisements on the radio, marketers have used the influence of sound to their advantage. Living in a modern society, humans are constantly exposed to noise. While people pay less and less attention to television advertisements, companies must find a way to make viewers pay attention to their commercial. It is important to investigate the effects of sound on emotions and how that corresponds to buying potential. Commercials frequently use background music and strategic human or familiar sounds to influence the consumer’s perception of a product. The emotion viewers feel while watching a commercial directly relates to how effectively they remember the product. Different sounds connote different meanings, leading the consumer to associate the commercial and the product it advertises with a variety of corresponding feelings.

Companies spend billions of dollars developing marketing strategies to influence consumer behavior. Sound is an important aspect of marketing a product. If a consumer views a steak in a commercial, they can be convinced that the steak looks delicious, but by hearing it sizzling on a grill, the consumer craves the steak. This power of sound creates a sense of reality for the viewer. Studies show that, “consumers are not only influenced by what they see, but what they hear as well” (Lewis 82). By engaging multiple senses of a viewer, companies can more effectively promote their products or messages.

Studies have been done that focus on commercials and their effectiveness. An article in the American Journal of Management focuses on better understanding how consumers emotionally respond to common advertisement sounds. In a highly rated commercial from the 2011 Super Bowl, sounds were used to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. It was a commercial for the Volkswagen Passat involving no spoken words, yet the message was conveyed through familiar sounds. The commercial can be viewed here: Volkswagen Passat Commercial: “The Force”. Sounds in this commercial included the Darth Vader theme song, a dog barking, and a car turning on. The Star Wars soundtrack links the music to the child in the costume. The child makes several attempts to exert his power over things using “the force”, but only the car is responsive. It is the sound of the car starting that signals his success. When the car engine is heard starting up, there is the connotation of a powerful force. This leads the viewer to believe that the Passat is a mighty car. The dog barking leads viewers to associate the car with an all-American way of life. Bringing in the sound of the dog is one way Volkswagen is trying to connect and influence its target consumer. The commercial provides an example of how sounds can elicit meaning and emotion.

In another study, student volunteers listened to 20 sound clips each prepared to reflect a different emotion. They then rated the intensity of the evoked emotion based on a scale: not felt, low, moderate, high. All of the sound clips were common sounds that participants should have been familiar with. The results concluded that emotion was highly correlated with familiarity, interest, and attention. A sound that captures the attention of the listener has a higher level of emotional response. In the study, “Hypothesis 2 suggested that as a sound produced more interest, the level of emotion felt toward that particular sound would also increase” (Lewis 82). This is consistent with the results of the study.

According to the Journal of Applied Business Research, advertisements often improve their effectiveness by including background music during a television commercial. Based on the context of the commercial, sound is used to influence consumer preference. The Law of Extreme Hypothesis suggests that “an emotional presentation has an indirect influence on consumer behavior, through the amount of attention paid to an ad” (14). There is a direct relationship between the emotion felt during the commercial and subsequent brand attitudes. In television, consumers are bombarded with commercials, one after the other.  Only certain commercials grab their attention and only for a brief period of time. There are two approaches to television advertising, one where the information of the product is most important, and the other where the advertisers goal is to appeal to the emotions of the viewer. The first category of commercials can be exemplified by obnoxious commercials like this one, OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover Powder Commercial. The high tempo background music and concise dialogue connotes a message to the consumer that the product is efficient, easy to use, and trustworthy.

However, an example of a commercial that uses sounds and advertising techniques to evoke emotion can be seen here, The Wish Writer Macy’s Commercial. This commercial tells a story through music accompanying the visual images. Although this is a commercial for Macy’s and promotes their connection with the Make-A-Wish foundation, the store is not mentioned until the final seconds of the video. The purpose of this commercial is not to push a product in your face. Instead, it is to grab the viewer’s attention and have them become emotionally invested in the story that the advertisement is telling. The tempo of the music allows the viewer to experience the shifting emotions of sadness, excitement, wonder, disappointment, and ultimately joy that the advertisement is trying to evoke.

Studies have shown that incorporating background music into commercials has the ability to influence brand attitudes. A study by Moore sampled over 200 undergraduate students. Two hypotheses were formed; the first hypothesis was that a neutral emotive cue will exert an influence on brand attitudes which is less favorable than either negative or positive emotive cues in high involvement situations. High involvement situations occur when the consumer creates connections between his or her own life and the stimulus. The second was that negative, neutral, and positive emotive cues will exert a progressively enhancing influence on brand attitudes in low involvement circumstances, where a personal connection has not been made. A low involvement circumstance is considered to be more effective for broadcast media because it appeals to a more general audience. The study took a single commercial of soap and overlaid it with three different sound tracks.  Some participants listened to a positive soundtrack which was comprised of major chords and fast paced music. Those participants had an overall better view of the product than the participants who listened to the negative sound track. The negative sound track consisted of minor chords and a slow pace. The third soundtrack was considered a neutral soundtrack because it did not have a distinctive tempo or tonal quality. In comparing the reaction of the viewers to each soundtrack, the positive sound track was proven to have more purchasing power than the negative sound track. Although consumers were likely to remember a product that was the main focus of a commercial, like the OxiClean example, importantly, consumers were more likely to purchase a product that had a positive message associated with the commercial.

Over time sounds associated with commercials have changed. In the late 1970s, commercials used popular songs to engage and relate to the viewer. In the past, jingles and slogans have been the primary marketing tool to appeal to the ear. This advertising method, seen here: Coca Cola Commercial, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” uses past experiences and common songs to interest the viewer in the commercial. It also uses the lyrics of the song to present the message of the product as one that brings different people together in peace. A recent commercial plays on the same technique of altering popular songs to contain the product in them, ‘Gangnam Style’ Wonderful Pistachios Commercial. Not only does this commercial gain your attention because of the ridiculous dancing pistachios, the song by Psy is well known and catchy. Both of these commercials use familiar songs to lure viewers into actually paying attention to their commercial.

However, more recently advertisers have needed to alter their marketing methods to fit the ever changing world. It is not uncommon for multiple televisions to be playing at the same time in a house, and there is a constant level of noise pollution society has adapted to. Since people are used to omnipresent sound, sometimes to gain consumers attention, advertisers must oppose the norm of loud commercials by using the power of silence. One commercial noted for its effectiveness was a Chevy truck commercial that used silence to evoke an emotional response in their target audience. The commercial for the truck begins with a simulation of a television turning off seen here: Chevy 4G LTE WiFi Commercial. This silence is followed by simple words on the screen and then later pump-up music and a visual of the actual product, the truck. By beginning the commercial with silence, the viewers are disturbed and intrigued. The conscious absence of noise can have as great an effect on viewers as using any sound. In present society, constant noise is the norm. When there is a deviation from the norm, there is a call to attention.

In advertising, sounds have the power to affect a consumer’s emotion, buying habits, and memory recall. It is important to understand how music makes an audience feel. Generally, when promoting a product, the company would associate positive sounds with it. Negative sounds could also be useful for commercials that degrade political opponents. I performed a study to test the effects on emotion and memory after watching a set of three commercials. The first commercial had a popular song as the background music: Acura TLX, the second had a positive soundtrack ‘Inspire Her Mind’ Verizon, and the third had a negative soundtrack: Verizon Better Matters. I asked 10 volunteers to watch all three commercials and answer questions about them.

Acura TLX Commercial:

Verizon Inspire Her Mind Commercial:

Verizon Better Matters Commercial:

Questions: How did this commercial make you feel?

Acura Commercial: Majority of the volunteers felt that this commercial inspired them to go out and explore. Responses included feelings of excitement and intensity. The soundtrack of this commercial features the track “Wild Horses” by Bishop. Volunteers said that the song made them pay attention to what was going on in the commercial. Some reported that they felt the song made the car seem fast and sleek.

Inspire Her Mind Verizon Commercial: This commercial was noted to evoke feelings of hope, happiness, and joy.  Soft tones of piano can be heard in the background music. One volunteer stated that, “the music contrasts the words since you can hear uplifting sounds with little girls happily playing and exploring but then a parent’s voice is overheard putting the girl down for getting her hands dirty.” Of the 10 volunteers, 6 were female. 5 out of 6 of the females said they could relate to the message this commercial was portraying.

Better Matters Verizon Commercial: Volunteers reported feeling slightly bored during this commercial. The sounds associated with the negative actions on the screen of products malfunctioning were orchestral chords. Instruments such as a violin and piano can be heard with a slow tempo. Most volunteers stopped paying attention to this commercial before it finished.

Which commercial is the most memorable?

Of the 10 volunteers, 4 found the Acura commercial most intriguing. 6 found the Inspire Her Mind Verizon commercial. None found the Better Matters commercial to be the most interesting out of the three options. This is significant because the advertisement with the negative sound track was the least engaging. I believe that if I was able to increase the sample size of the study, there would be an even split between viewers who enjoyed the positive commercial and viewers who enjoyed the commercial which included a popular song.

Hearing is an important sensory input that advertisers often undervalue. Regardless of the visual images seen in a commercial, the sound behind the message is extremely influential. In order for a commercial to evoke the best short term response, it should portray a positive, uplifting, and inspirational activity. However, it is important to note that when the volunteers were asked to recall the commercials one week later, 40% of the volunteers forgot what company the Inspire Her Mind commercial was for. All of them could recall the basic idea of the commercial, and remembered they enjoyed it, but did not associate Verizon’s brand with the commercial. 80% could not freely recall the company that was being advertised in the Better Matters commercial. All 10 of the volunteers could remember that the car commercial was for Acura. This information makes an important point about memory. While people enjoyed the Acura commercial just as much as the Inspire Her Mind commercial, in this study, a commercial connected to a popular song rather than one evoking emotion appears to be a more effective advertising method.

Sound clearly has a powerful impact on advertising. Its ability to help viewers connect with the content and elicit an emotional response should not be overlooked. Further studies on the effectiveness of sound in advertisements on purchasing power and brand attitudes should be conducted.



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