Commentary

Now Hear This!

Audio has never been particularly exciting to media buyers — except, of course, when it was the only electronic broadcast medium (radio). But recently, audio is looking interesting again, because new distribution channels for talk and music are being adopted wholesale by consumers. 

In parallel, advertisers are looking for new channels, as ad -upported TV wanes at the hands of streaming, “supply chain” issues taint open web advertising, and governments put walled gardens under scrutiny.  

Last year, out of the blue, Procter & Gamble became the top buyer of radio.  Maybe they know something? According to Insideradio.com, “Network radio is on fire.” Now add streaming music. Now add Internet radio. Now add podcasts. 

From Podcastinsights.com.:

  • 50% of all US homes are podcast fans (Nielsen, Aug 2017)
  • 51% (144 million) of the U.S. population has listened to a podcast – up from 44% in 2018 (Infinite Dial 19)

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For comparison, the Nielsen Household Universe is 119 million, while podcasting fans live in half of U.S. households. That makes podcasting, by itself, big-reach media. 

Coincidence?

Add it all up and audio is crushing it, but why? Why audio, and why now? 

Try this on for size. 

In a world of multitasking (busy) people, it’s easy to do other stuff (e.g., drive, do dishes, walk) while listening, and dangerous while watching a screen.  

A second possibility might have to do with media overload. Maybe the media universe has grabbed too much of our attention, so we are fighting back.  It’s whiplash from ubiquitous screens, or maybe some sort of clawback for mental bandwidth. The visual system, after all, is the most energy-consumptive system in the brain by far. 

It’s easy to see the rise of audio as a response to the explosion of pixels in our lives, but advertisers will want to know how and when to use audio effectively. Because audio is an established advertising medium, there is a lot of info out there on what works. However, the stew of possibilities is now so rich we might want to reframe rather than act out of rote.  

Our brains are deeply connected to our ears.  Sounds are part of how emotions are hard-wired to the most primitive parts of your brain.  The theatre of the mind has a pit orchestra, and it’s in every little AI speaker in your life. 

In audio, we have a sensory input that can adapt to any distribution channel, communicate any idea, and is deeply connected to emotion. And no line of sight is required.  When neuroscience looks at the role of sound in advertising, it explains the power with terms like arousal, semantic memory, and associative memory. 

Rethink the Role of Audio?

All these factors make audio wildly appropriate for advertising, and fodder for creativity. However, creative directors, despite a general charter to tell a memorable story, seem always to make pixels the center of the plan, leaving the audio budget with leftovers.  

That’s too bad, because if a story is associated with an audio meme, it gets into heads, and there’s no stopping it. There’s a reason “I can’t get that song out of my head” is a thing.

Despite this, the soundtrack, once a star, now seems like a bit player. The jingle, once a fixture of advertising, and visceral connection to brand equity, is pretty much dead. The use of iconic music in advertising is rare, too. The opportunity to associate a popular song with a brand (creating associative memory) is rarely exploited.  

For something more experimental, look at the phenomenon known as ASMR. with thousands of audio-centric videos on YouTube that claim to be able to cause your brain to tingle. Seriously.

Similarly, last year a chocolate company exec told me that a music streaming service had offered him the opportunity to advertise next to music that goes with chocolate. Now that’s creative. 

So, audio distribution is having a renaissance, and audio creative will not be far behind.  There are four new Cannes Lions categories for Audio Innovation.  

The opportunity is to break through the clutter, surfing sounds into the subconscious, any time, and any place. It’s true that listening and clicking don’t go together naturally, but as our audio world begins to listen to us, that problem will go away (and be replaced by a worse problem). 

Throw all that into a Super Bowl and stir. What we have is a chance to reinvent and rethink across a huge swath of advertising communication.

5 comments about "Now Hear This!".
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  1. Mark Avnet from Converging Arts LLC, May 2, 2019 at 2:45 p.m.

    Great stuff, as usual, Ted. There's a lot of talk about this being "the year of voice," as though we've never used spoken language before - but I think it's important to look at the difference between sound as content (what you're talking about) and sound as interface (Echo, Alexa, Siri, whatever that other one is that no one uses). Simply sticking a voice interface in front of a static broadcast may make it easier to access, but it misses out on the combined power of multisensory input and processing that you describe. One is a remote control for a radio. The other is potentially a movement towards a new medium (which is, paradoxically, the original medium - stuff we bring in through our various senses). I'd love to see/hear/feel/taste/smell/sense more of that.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, May 2, 2019 at 4:46 p.m.

    My wife listens to music on her phone all the time but not hearing any ads with her Apple subscription. In the car it’s satellite radio instead. 

  3. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, May 2, 2019 at 10:36 p.m.

    Podcasting's growth is slow but steady. Entertainment focused programs aside, one of the major advantages for advertisers is in podcasting's long-tail content ability. While audience delivery and reach might be modest by typical media measures, there is also less waste circulation and more modest pricing; not to mention, mobile access, brand safety, word of mouth, and content & native ad opportunities. While we have no vested interests in the podcasting game, we do believe many brands could benefit by experimenting.

  4. Jonathan Latzer from MarketJon, May 4, 2019 at 8:06 a.m.


    I read your piece “Now Hear This” with anticipation because anything written buy anyone outside the daily audio industry is important. Radio, which is going through tectonic shifts like other traditional mediums is better defined by the term “audio” as it is both live and on-demand and coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes (Am/Fm, satellite, streaming). Unfortunately, the word “radio” is largely pejorative in many decision makers minds and relegated to a corner shelf like a Toy Story doll. There are reasons for that especially in a digitally driven world but as you point out there are creative ways to build a unique and lasting message with audio. The lasting jingle or the use of music as you note. This however, requires creative minds who have historically (and currently) are more visually driven than audio driven. Couple that with the requirement today to build ROI data points linked to the marketing dollar and you have radio/audio relegated to its current position.

    The solution of course is for those who live the audio world daily to market that message to media directors, CMO’s and decision makers who will understand what P&G understood about the medium of audio when they made their pivot last year. The ear has a magnificent connection to the mind. It’s just hard for many to understand how to engage it.

  5. Ted Mcconnell from Lucid Llc. replied, May 4, 2019 at 10:52 a.m.

    Thanks Jonathan. Seems like this message is similar to the key points you are making to adveertisers. In fact,  I worked on the Board of Directors of a Radio Station Group for many years, so going in, I am pretty familiar with the issues. I also ran a recording studio for 15 years, so I know sound.  The question at the center of the piece is about why consumers are consuming more audio suddenly. I was speculating,  but it woud cool to see the audio industry create reasons beyond mine, (or validate mine!)  and even invest in some basic research about why consumers are consuming more. While I was at the ARF we did a significant body of work on Audio (David Marans lead it), so that might be helpful. 

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