A Pair of Ears Beats a Pair of Eyes

We read everywhere, including on ClickZ, that advertisers need to remember we are visual beings. True, we are bombarded with more visual marketing stimuli than ever before. But to say that because we’re being buried in visual stuff we’re visual beings is like saying because we periodically fill ourselves up with air we’re balloons. We aren’t nearly as visual as a lot of people like, perhaps need, to assume. The premise that “going visual” is the cure-all for advertising ills is a path to advertising doom.

At Future Now we usually write articles, columns, and a newsletter about how to increase online sales. Though we know a great deal about advertising, it’s not our specialty. Our specialty is persuasion. Having recently graduated from the Wizard of Ads Academy, produced by Roy H. Williams, a world-renowned authority on advertising and marketing and a best-selling author on those subjects, I feel compelled to respond to some serious misinformation that could cost you money and customers.

Forget Broca… and Go Broke

The hard fact is that few ads, on- or offline, actually produce any measurable results. Marketers like to cover up this fact by calling it “branding.” Remember the recent Nissan TV commercials with G.I. Joe and BARBIE. jumping into his car? It had outstanding viewer recognition, but sales spiraled downward at an incredible pace. That kind of “creative” thinking ignores how the human mind works. And ads that don’t respect the workings of the brain are likely to fail.

If we’re going to pursue an activity that not only engages the brain but also, hopefully, causes it to motivate a specific action, wouldn’t it help to know at least a little about how the brain works?

In 1861 Paul Broca identified the section of the brain involved in speech production. It assesses the syntax of words while listening to and understanding what is structurally very complex. Partially the brain does its job by learning rules about how we talk and then almost skipping over the parts of what we say that are predictable based on those rules. This is just some of the scientific evidence behind Williams’s advertising medium of choice: sound. According to him, success in advertising is about surprising Broca’s area, and you can best do that by using sound.

When you think about it, it seems almost too obvious. Humans are drawn to things that are surprising, shocking, catastrophic, and chaotic. Anything predictable is boring. Yet “predictable” describes most ads, doesn’t it? A century and a half after Broca’s discovery, some people still aren’t paying attention.

Proof Is a Button Away

So what about visual versus auditory, pictures versus sound? Here’s something you can try at home: First watch your TV with the sound off, then listen to your TV with the picture off. You can prove to yourself in just seconds, for free, with no fancy research (although there’s plenty out there if you want it), that when it comes to conveying information, affecting emotions, and causing action, sound beats pictures hands down.

Where is the sound in advertising?

It’s in the words, which we understand by “hearing” them in our minds.

20,000 Leagues Into the Brain

The reason sound is far more effective than pictures in causing people to take action lies in the physiology of the brain. At the front of the brain, right behind your forehead, is the prefrontal cortex, which is the center for planning, emotion, and judgment. Its job is to give the signal to the motor association cortex, located adjacent to it, to coordinate behaviors then initiate voluntary movement (take action). Until your advertising has reached the prefrontal cortex, all you have done is take up space and make noise.

The shortcut into the human brain is the ear. The auditory cortex is right next door. Raw sound enters the auditory cortex, and spoken words, melodies, rhythm, laughter, and jingles are stored in the auditory association area. That’s why you can remember hundreds of songs you never intended to learn (“You deserve a break today…”).

According to cognitive neuroscience, our thoughts are composed of neither words nor pictures. Human thought is a speed-of-light progression of mental images, each one a complex composite of sound, shape, texture, color, smell, taste, and mood. Different words are attached to these mental images in an area of the brain called Wernicke’s area. This is the area responsible for naming, for associating nouns with objects. Once a word has been attached to each mental image, the whole verbal jigsaw puzzle moves to Broca’s area (remember him?), where the words are arranged into understandable sentences.

The problem for advertisers is that when the Wernicke area attaches the “usual” words and the Broca area arranges them in the “usual” order, the result can be painfully predictable and, therefore, eminently forgettable. Only when you break the pattern of predictability do you achieve impact and memorability.

The Magic of Words

Williams believes that the secret of persuasion lies in the skillful use of action words: “The magic of advertising is in the verbs… Describe what you want the listener to see, and she will see it. Cause her to imagine taking the action you’d like her to take, and you’ve brought her much closer to taking the action.” The success of his own ads, as well as those he has mentored, speaks for itself.

Sound is invasive, intrusive, and irresistible. Driving sound through Broca’s area allows us to cross the bridge to the dorsolateral prefrontal association area, otherwise known as the imagination.

So what does this mean for advertising? It means you will be most successful when you use words that allow your advertising to cross from the ear almost directly to the prefrontal cortex, the decision part of the brain. Verbs. Dynamic-action verbs. Bottom line: The killer app in advertising is not sight, it’s sound, whether heard directly (audio) or mentally (ad copy).

Are there exceptions? Of course. But don’t bet your budget or your business on them. And as for actual sound via the Web as opposed to sound created in the mind by great copy, some people seem to ignore the fact that 93 percent of the market does not have broadband, and that despite the hype, broadband penetration is already leveling off.

Dilbert or Merlin?

Williams once wrote that “most advertising is flaccid.” Think about the choice of words. How does he say ads are impotent? He creates a mental image that will stay with the reader. And it does.

As the subtitle to Williams’s best-selling and award-winning book “Wizard of Ads” says, it’s all about “turning words into magic.” Do you want to follow the same path as everyone else? Or could your ads, marketing materials, sales efforts, and Web sites use some magic?

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