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Passive Impressive: How Audio Ads Grab Us — Even When We’re Not Paying Attention.

Whether it’s an annoying earworm song or a carefully constructed advertising campaign, sound infiltrates our brains — whether we like it or not.

According to one industry leader, radio advertisers need to recognize how the attention-focused metrics used to measure TV ad effectiveness can miss one of radio’s great strengths as an advertising medium — the ability to penetrate the human mind even when we’re not paying attention.

In a July 15 opinion piece on, Mark Barber of the UK organization Radiocentre argues that successful ad campaigns balance passive (hearing) and active (listening) sound consumption. They do so by employing consistent sound elements and structures, taking advantage of listener engagement with their chosen radio content and, where possible, relating to other activities people may be doing while listening.

“At a very simple level,” Barber writes, “if something is not looked at, then it cannot be seen. However, if something is not listened to, it will still be heard.”

He cites a 2014 Thinkbox TV Advertising study that found sound to be the most effective way to draw people’s eyes back to a TV ad when they’re distracted or inattentive.

“As part of the human early warning system, our ears are constantly open, monitoring ambient sounds to identify potential threats and feed these directly to the amygdala to trigger fight or flight response,” Barber writes. “In an increasingly visual-attention deficit world, the benefit to advertisers of our always-on audio radar is that simply being heard allows ads to work their way into our consciousness and trigger changes in behavior.”

A Radiocentre study called “Building Shelf Awareness” shows audio’s ability to communicate and stimulate a positive response, even when people are focused on something else. “Having been passively exposed to radio ads when experiencing a car journey to the supermarket,” Barber writes, “respondents were 11% more likely to notice the advertised brands on-shelf and 30% more likely to buy them.”

By acting as an “emotional multiplier,” Barber says, a radio program can make a listener more receptive: “Radio’s mood-boosting editorial effect extends into the ad break, enhancing engagement with advertising by 30% compared to when heard preceded by silence.”

Citing another Radiocentre study of 300 radio campaigns, Barber argues for the consistent use of elements like “music, voice [and] ad construct” because they “allow the hearer to access relevant memories associated with the brand to assist the listening process and enhance active engagement with the ad.”

Radiocentre’s research shows that audio ads are even more effective when they reference what the listener is doing or experiencing at the time. Such ads benefit “from significantly higher levels of engagement and memory processing,” Barber writes. “Further analysis shows how these effects are so powerful that they can turn average ads into star performers.

According to IPA Touchpoints, radio listeners are taking part in other activities 90% of the time, and, Barber concludes, “radio is able to provide advertisers with a multitude of opportunities to engage mass audiences using relevance targeting in this way.”

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