Advertising Sound: Is It Part Of Your Company's Brand Guidelines?


Application of sound in advertising should be planned and carefully implemented in accordance with brand image and the campaign message. It should reflect brand values and appeal to the target audience; its concept should be thought through in line with Brand Guidelines (BGs) to maintain consistency and support the effectiveness of brand communications.

Advertising sound is all the sound involved in TV or cinema commercials, comprising voice, music and sound effects, with the whole definitely greater than the sum of the parts.

One form of advertising is pure sound, of course. Radio advertising has been around for many years, so it is clearly effective. Research by Radio Ad Effectiveness Lab produced results that have been found before: people form a deeper emotional bond with radio than with press or TV, and they find advertising on the radio more personally relevant. This is probably because of the more passive, intimate nature of hearing compared to seeing. When we read a paper, or watch TV, we are doing something (looking) and we can't really do much else. When we listen to the radio we simply allow it in, and we very often are doing something else, like driving or ironing, or (according to recent research) browsing the Internet, which has forged a potent link between hearing and buying.

At its best, radio becomes part of us, not part of the outside world. Also, we generally hear one voice on the radio, and we happily and knowingly subscribe to the convention that that voice is talking only to us. Radio is seen by many people as a companion in a way that other media rarely are. In this context it's no surprise that radio advertising is enduringly effective.

There have been several academic studies on the way music affects responses to TV or cinema advertising (though much less research has been done into the other aspects of sound, such as the voiceover, sound effects, mix and volume). It is clear from the public domain research that music in advertising can have a significant effect, increasing recall and producing positive or negative associations. This comes as no surprise: if agency internal research hadn't been showing this for years, then advertisements would have long since been music-free. A typical finding from the academic world is that of Alpert and Alpert in 1989: "Variations in the formal music structure of background music in commercials may have significant influence over the emotional responses of an audience."

In tune with this result, Park and Young (1986)[i] found that music can enhance attitudes to brands. Anyone who remembers the long-running Hamlet cigar TV advertising in the UK can testify to the strength of the association between Jacques Loussier's cool version of Bach's Air on a G String and the Hamlet brand, which developed overtones of coolness, class and wry humour as a result - not bad for a low-cost, mass-produced cigar.

Morris and Boone (1998) found that: "Music may not always significantly change pleasure, arousal, dominance, brand attitude, or purchase intent in an emotional advertising condition, but it can change how the viewer feels when watching the advertisement."

It is still a matter of debate whether music achieves increased advertising effectiveness by creating positive associations, or by actually changing the viewer's values about the product, or both. However it works, well-chosen advertising music, like film music, can send a shiver up the spine or make a commercial eternally memorable. The multi-award-winning Guinness White Horses ad would surely never have been the experience it was without the inspired choice of the opening section of Leftfield's Phat Planet as its main sound. Coca-Cola's Real Thing ads in 1970 were not the first, and will not be the last, to spawn a hit single or make a career in the music business. A recent survey by McCann-Erickson in the UK revealed that the Wall's Cornetto reworking of the Neapolitan folk song O sole mio (Just one Cornetto) was the best-remembered advertising jingle of all time: 70 per cent of those surveyed still remembered it, 24 years after the campaign finished. The tune was re-enlisted in a new commercial as a result.

Advertising sound might be called the frivolous younger sibling of film sound, and it certainly borrows many of its strengths and techniques from that source. The film industry is the most experienced in the world at using sound for emotional effect; it has done so since the beginning of sound in cinemas. In a wonderful article called Sound Tricks of Mickey Mouse, which appeared in a publication called Inventions way back in in 1937[ii], Earl Theisen writes: "Through study and experimentation Walt Disney and his engineers have found that by introducing music or various sounds and noise frequencies into the cartoon, the response of the audience is varied and controlled. By combining noises of certain pitches or tempos the psychological values of the cartoon music is emphasized in keeping with the story requirements. Sound of sixteen cycles is deep toned and may be used for conveying heavy or depressing moods, whereas the sound of a higher frequency is what William Garity, Chief Engineer at Walt Disney's, calls the ‘pain sensitive region.' Noises of this higher pitch make the hearer alert and may be carried to the point of actually causing distress, such as a ‘file on glass' noise. The average ear is very sensitive to sounds of 2,000 or 3,000 cycles and unless some sound of this pitch is added to the cartoon background noise, the audience is less responsive to the effects."

There is plenty of good analysis of the science and art of film sound over its long history. French composer and author of several books on the subject Michel Chion concludes in his excellent book Audio Vision:

"Sound, much more than the image, can become an insidious means of affective and semantic manipulation. On one hand, sound works on us directly, physiologically (breathing noises in a film can directly affect our own respiration). On the other, sound has an influence on perception: through the phenomenon of added value, it interprets the meaning of the image, and makes us see in the image what we would not otherwise see, or would see differently. And so we see that sound is not at all invested and localized in the same way as the image."

All too often, however, music is an afterthought in the production of TV advertising. A commercial can cost six figures to make and take months to plan and shoot, and then music is chosen in a rush right at the end. I have many composer friends who have suffered at the wrong end of this process: the call comes in asking for a complete piece by tomorrow, with a brief from hell along the lines of "make it like the theme from Rocky but sensitive" and, if they are really unlucky, a session with eight or nine people from client and agency sitting behind them as they work, chipping in with random and conflicting requests based on their personal musical tastes.

If every brand has its BrandSoundTM guidelines (BGs) in place, this will not need to happen. Music for advertising can be made consistent (which does not mean all the same) so that, over time, each brand is expressing itself more and more powerfully through the music it commissions or chooses.

That still leaves the problem of finding the right track among millions available. Technology is of limited help: the digitisation of music, combined with modern database technology using tags, is only now starting to crack the problem. There are several websites offering music lovers an automated service that suggests or plays music they are likely to like based on their preferences, either entered by them or imputed from what they've been listening to: and Pandora are two interesting examples. There are also plenty of very smart people working in more sophisticated algorithms based on the actual characteristics of each piece of music, so this is going to be a lively area to watch. It is as yet far from the finished article due to the complexity of music - not to mention the fact that nobody knows how it really works.

For commercial applications, London-based Ricall uses technology in a more basic way: its database of three million tracks is searchable by tags for mood, activity, demographic, tempo, lyric, instrument, chart and ‘soundslike', and when the track is chosen Ricall also automates the complicated and extensive paperwork involved in securing all the licenses required to use it.

A more refined solution may be to use human experience and human ears, which is how Ruth Simmons of soundlounge and her team work. As noted above, music is notoriously difficult to analyse digitally. Sometimes choosing the perfect track, whether it's for a party compilation or a multi-million dollar TV commercial, requires that flash of insight that can only come from an experienced and knowledgeable human mind; in addition, the value of contacts and reputation can be very high when negotiating rights contracts person to person.

Along with the right music, any voice art that's used must be the brand personified. Choosing voice-over styles campaign by campaign should be resisted unless there are good reasons to change. In the BGs there will be a clear definition of the voice of the brand in terms of age, gender, accent, style, tone, timbre and so on, and these parameters should be adhered to in order to build consistency. Without consistency, where is the brand? It's very rare for any brand to change its visual logo or strap line from campaign to campaign, for this exact reason. Why should sound be any different?

By starting with BGs and then considering the needs of each individual campaign, we can at last ensure that sound will take its proper place as a major contributor to the effectiveness of any TV or cinema campaign, at the same time adding to the power and familiarity of the brand.

Julian Treasure - a global expert in the evaluation, strategic planning, implementation and deployment of sound in business; the chairman of The Sound Agency - a leading audio-branding consultancy; the author of Sound Business, a seminal book on how to apply sound for business benefit, and the creator of BrandSoundTM : a strategic framework for the effective use of sound in brand management.



Julian Treasure is author of the book ‘Sound Business’ the first map of the exciting new territory of applied sound for business, and he has been widely featured in the world’s media, including TIME Magazine, The Economist, The Times, UK national TV and radio, as well as many international trade and business magazines. His TED talk on the effects of sound has been widely viewed and highly rated.

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