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You are what you hear
Daniel Mullensiefen, Scientist in Residence, DDB UK
Daniel Mullensiefen

I started with DDB as Scientist in Residence last September and ever since I've tried to sell myself as an 'all-purpose scientist', versed in psychology, computer science, and neuroscience to the DDB planners and account management department. I'm not sure how successful that was because my strong background in music research keeps coming out from under the rug! The DDBers keep coming back to me with projects and ideas - most of which have a music angle of some kind.

A couple of projects that I'm currently giving some advice on involve finding the right piece of music that would bring out the best features of brands in the fast moving consumer goods sector. The products themselves belong to categories I don't buy myself and of which I don't have much experience. But that might even be an advantage because the general factors that determine the perception and appreciation of music and its associative power shouldn't be different for people buying food or costumers of body care products than for anyone else, right? So, this is probably a good terrain for me to experiment with some objective and unbiased advertising science.

One of the psychological mechanisms by which music is assumed to be effective in connection with a brand or a product is priming. Priming is an astonishing memory effect that has been studied fairly extensively over the last three decades. A typical experiment goes like this: You see a word, say 'doctor', on a computer screen for about 50 milliseconds. This is too short to actually read and recognise the word consciously and if asked you would not be able to say what you have seen other than just a short flash on the screen. But if you were later presented with a list containing real words (such as 'purse' or 'nurse') or meaningless letter strings (such as 'surse' for example), I bet you would be much quicker to identify 'nurse' as a real word than 'purse'.

Now, why is that amazing and why do psychologists get excited about priming effects? Priming demonstrates that information that we are not consciously aware of and that we don't have access to, will nonetheless influence our behaviour, e.g. In recognising a semantically related word faster. Does that feel spooky or is it just the kind of thing that advertisers dream of?

Music might be one of the best vehicles for capitalising on priming effects in advertising. Our memory for tunes almost seems to be unlimited, both in terms of the number of tunes we can remember, as well as for how many years we can remember them. Music can very effectively trigger emotional reactions, it is universally understood and appreciated, and it gets very easily associated with specific people, places, or situations. Thus, if we want to capitalise on psychological priming effects in advertising then music might be a very good place to start.

Of course, other clever people have made that connection between music priming and advertising as well. In fact, I went to a book launch in Brighton yesterday where Harry Witchel, Discipline Leader in Physiology at Sussex Medical School, presented his latest book on the effects of music on the mind ('You Are What You Hear', Algora Publishing, 2010).

The book contains a chapter 'Can music surreptitiously influence what we decide to buy in shops?' where Witchel in his very witty style assembles evidence showing that music actually changes people's behaviour. He cites the famous supermarket study where French or German music on a wine aisle made people buy more French or German wine – the latter is an achievement in itself – even though most people weren't aware of the fact that there was any music by the time they had passed the checkout. And he cites evidence that people have always believed strongly in the power of music to change human behaviour, especially when it is most needed and everything else has failed, like the not very well-known 'S-project' story.

'S-project' was a plan hatched by the Roosevelt administration which involved sending records with Wagner's music and peace messages to Hitler and other Nazi-leaders in 1944. The pianist playing on the records was Ernst Hanfstaengl, one Hitler's confidants from his early days in Munich, who, on several occasions, was able to trigger very emotional reactions in Hitler with his piano playing. Maybe Wagner's music played by Hitler's favourite performer in combination with spoken peace messages could touch the dictator's feelings and change his behaviour?

It was not a controlled experiment and we don't know what the world would be like if those records would have actually been delivered to their addressees but – just how much should we trust in the powers of music?

Subjects: Advertising, Marketing, Consumers

01 February 2011 10:57

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