While driving to the airport, I was rehearsing a presentation I was to give later with the radio barely audible in the background. Later in the security line, I caught myself humming the Maxwell House coffee jingle, which after checking with Media Monitors, I discovered had aired while I was in the car.
It happened again recently as I found myself repeating a phone number while walking out of the house on the way to the train. I had no idea where this number came from and out of curiosity dialed it. It turns out it was for ADT security, which I had heard on the radio that morning. While multi-tasking and preoccupied, a radio commercial very effectively penetrated my psyche.
The study of how radio messaging influences listeners is important for marketers. While it's generally believed that only a certain percentage of listeners are fully engaged and thus receptive to commercial messaging, the examples above and some recent research confirms this is not the case.
One of the world's leading thinkers in this space, Robert Heath from the U.K., has spent years studying how the human mind absorbs commercial messaging. Several of his articles have been published in the Journal of Advertising Research. His research describes and explains how advertising is processed at different levels within the human brain, even by people who are only partially engaged or even completely disengaged from the commercial message.
He's identified several ways in which people learn, retain and absorb commercial content while paying little or even no attention to the messaging:
1. Passive learning Low attention cognitive process that requires partial attention and deployment of cognitive resources.
2. Implicit learning An automatic non-cognitive process that requires no attention or any deployment of cognitive resources.
As it relates to media, Heath defines the third type of learning as "explicit," which occurs when all of one's cognitive resources are focused on the printed page, the radio or television. But unlike print, which requires total attentiveness, radio and television messages can also be absorbed passively as well as implicitly -- a distinct advantage for electronic media.
Additionally, explicit learning has been linked to the rational processing of commercial messages, while passive and implicit learning tend to appeal to the more enduring and influential emotional processing of commercial messages. This is another benefit for electronic media as in the fast pace of everyday life, "considered" or rational decisions tend to be subservient to "intuitive" or emotional decisions. Consumers simply don't have time to think through the pros and cons of every purchase in many product categories and thus rely on their gut, which is emotion-based.
Due to the human race's audio radar that is on 24/7, we have developed the ability to suppress some sound stimuli, which has meant in some cases that our relationship with sound becomes largely unconscious. Not any less effective but unconscious. It wasn't until reading about Heath's studies that I became "conscious" enough to note the examples referred to above. It is time to acknowledge the importance and effectiveness of these other two forms of learning that the human mind embraces, and give radio and other electronic media their due for excelling in this extremely important form of commercial processing.
You can never underestimate the brain's ability to process information. Humans are quite capable of multitasking. Indeed, we can walk, talk and even process radio commercials while chewing gum.