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Sound Sells

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The psychology of persuasion - what makes us buy one product over another - has been widely researched and the importance of visual triggers in influencing buying decisions is widely understood. However, the importance of what we hear is often overlooked.

I work in advertising as a sound designer and the people I work with are in the ideas business - they make ads. They know that sound is important in bringing their ideas to life, but not many appreciate sound as a form of persuasion. So how can we make sound work harder at selling?

To answer this I think it’s important to know how sound works.

Our ears are always listening - awake, asleep, even during a coma. You just can’t switch them off.

Luckily we’re very good at subconsciously identifying sounds and for the most part ignoring them. A baby murmuring while we’re sleeping doesn’t wake us but if that murmur turns to a cry, we leap out of bed.  Hearing links to memory and the primary function of this is to alert us to danger.

Our ears work by turning vibrations in the air into electrical signals that are decoded and distributed by neurons to different parts of our brain, giving us information about volume (amplitude), pitch (frequency) and time (duration) etc.

Frequency information can help us filter out unwanted noise and focus on what we want to hear.  And the time difference between sound arriving at each ear helps us identify where the source is located. For this reason we can selectively listen to individual conversations in crowded, noisy rooms. Try using voice commands on your Smartphone in the same environment and it’ll just “hear” unintelligible noise.  Technology still has some way to go to decode complex sounds in the way we can.

Msot of the tmie aynawy.  Smeotmies our ears paly tirkcs on us.

Our brain works on expectation - it hears the beginning of a sound it recognises and fills in the blanks.  Early sampling synths with limited memory exploited this by using just enough of the real sound at the start to trick the brain into thinking the rest of the (synthesised) sound was real. In the same way this expectation of what something should sound like allows the mp3 format to delete large amounts of data from a sound file because your brain doesn’t miss them when they’re gone.

Similarly, our brains recognise sound patterns that have become familiar. Now this is really helpful in identifying people’s voices, but rather annoying when the jingle from that advert comes on.

Sounds also trigger memories.  But since every person has different memories attached to different sounds it’s hard to predict an individual response. There are however many sounds that provoke a universal response.  For instance, research shows that in most people wind chimes provoke a feeling of restlessness for some reason.

Associated autobiographical memories once again play an important factor in music. A song you associate with a particular event can trigger either happy or sad memories regardless of where you subsequently hear it.  Last year I heard a piece of music I know at both a funeral and a wedding.  Interestingly the song didn’t make me sad at the funeral and happy at the wedding, it made me sad at both.

So how can we exploit all this information?

Well that’s the exciting thing; we can do loads with it – in sound design we just need to think more carefully about the sounds and music we use and give thought to how most people will respond to them.

I already use this information, along with other psychoacoustic tricks in the art of persuasion, when creating sound for commercials, but sometimes there’s a problem – how does the product itself sound?

When I put sounds to a vacuum cleaner commercial, I design the sounds to sell the product. The motor noise needs to be silent, the attachments need to click into place with authority (think Hollywood hit man assembling a weapon) and the suction needs to sound smooth and powerful. All well and good but if the product sounds like it runs on 2AA batteries I’m in trouble.

Luckily product designers are increasingly aware of the importance of sound, not least in the design of cars. If you build a car, how it’s going to sound is crucial to who’s going to buy it and how much you can charge for it. The famous “it sounds like a Golf” commercial for VW aptly demonstrates this.

There are other areas where sound can influence a sale and these are at the point of sale. Research shows that the tempo and mood of background music can influence our buying and consumption habits. For example loud, fast, upbeat music played in a bar makes us drink 39% quicker than if it’s quieter, slower and downbeat. If you run a restaurant, slower music will increase the time a patron spends there and they’ll spend more per head on food and drink.

So the next time you’re wining and dining your clients, see if the maître d’ can up the tempo a bit. With the money you save, you’ll be able to spend a little longer on the sound for your next commercial!   

Chris Turner is a Sound Designer and Creative Director at Jungle

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