If something is not looked at, then it cannot be seen. However, if something is not listened to, it will still be heard, writes Mark Barber, Radiocentre’s planning director.

Have you ever found yourself singing along to a pop song that you don’t really like?

It’s not an uncommon experience, especially if you’re a radio listener. I still know all of the words to the chorus of Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce, the novelty song that famously kept Ultravox’s Vienna off the top of the charts in 1981. I never set out to do this – in fact I despised the song at the time and did my best to avoid it – but because it received regular airplay and featured a simple but catchy refrain, it slowly established a lasting presence in my subconscious without any effort whatsoever on my part.

I mention this not only because it’s a good illustration of the way audio can work its way into your head when you’re not paying attention, but also because it challenges much of the narrative of WARC’s Guide to Planning for Attention and a number of associated articles penned by members of The Attention Council.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s understandable with the issues around viewability and ad fraud online that the focus of The Attention Council so far has been exclusively on sight – with the emphasis on measuring visual attention using eye-tracking to quantify media value by verified (human) views rather than just OTS (opportunities to see). But this approach completely overlooks the other vital lever that advertising uses to communicate with consumers – sound.

Part of the reason could be that the potential challenges to audio advertising effectiveness are perceived to be less significant, e.g. there are no ad blockers for audio currently. Perhaps there’s also an unspoken acknowledgement that audio advertising communicates very differently compared to visual advertising.

Why audio is different: Hearing vs. seeing

At a very simple level, if something is not looked at, then it cannot be seen. However, if something is not listened to, it will still be heard.

This is because hearing is not directional. Hearing is the “process, function, or power of perceiving sound; specifically: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli.” Taking this further, hearing is passive, involuntary, effortless. Yet it can still have powerful effects.

As part of the human early warning system, our ears are constantly open, monitoring ambient sounds to identify potential threats and feed these directly to the amygdala to trigger fight or flight response. In an increasingly visual-attention deficit world, the benefit to advertisers of our always-on audio radar is that simply being heard allows ads to work their way into our consciousness and trigger changes in behaviour.

We see this demonstrated in Thinkbox’s Screen Life: TV Advertising Everywhere study, which highlights how sound is the biggest factor in drawing people’s attention back to advertising on the TV screen when they are distracted or inattentive.

This ability of audio to communicate and stimulate a positive response even when people are concentrating on doing other things is demonstrated in Radiocentre’s Building Shelf Awareness research study. Having been passively exposed to radio ads when experiencing a car journey to the supermarket, respondents were 11% more likely to notice the advertised brands on-shelf and 30% more likely to buy them.

Audio attention: listening vs. hearing

We’ve established that hearing is an involuntary, passive, physical process. Listening, on the other hand, means “to pay attention to sound; to hear something with thoughtful attention; and to give consideration.”

The quest to understand how hearing converts into listening has spawned a new field of research called cognitive hearing science, which examines the way our minds process the auditory signals being sent to the brain. Simply put, top-down processes such as working memory interact with bottom-up stimulus from the ears to consciously analyse what is being heard. Depending on the listening task and the listening conditions, these bottom-up and top-down processes interact at different levels in the auditory system, and contextual cues and relevant memories are also accessed to play role in the cognitive processing of the stimulus we hear.

The impact of radio’s editorial context on audio advertising processing was explored in Radiocentre’s Emotional Multiplier study. This identified that radio’s mood-boosting editorial effect extends into the ad break, enhancing engagement with advertising by 30% compared to when heard preceded by silence.

Creative implications for advertisers

Because we hear everything to some degree, every audio advertising audience impression presents an opportunity to communicate something to the passive hearer. This is distinctly different to visual media where the act of looking, no matter how briefly, is required for further processing to take place. It is arguable therefore that attention to audio is less of a media challenge to be overcome and more of a creative opportunity to convert passive to active listening as widely as possible.

The broader factors involved in converting hearing to listening suggest two important creative implications for advertisers to assist this process and enhance effectiveness of their audio ads.

Firstly, the use of consistent audio brand assets (e.g. music, voice, ad construct) allow the hearer to access relevant memories associated with the brand to assist the listening process and enhance active engagement with the ad. This has been demonstrated in Radiocentre’s Turning Art into Science report, a meta-analysis of over 300 radio campaigns linking creative features to ad effectiveness, which shows the role of consistency in improving radio advertising outcomes.

Secondly, audio ads that reference the listener’s context or situation (e.g. what they are doing at the time) are much more likely to be actively processed. Radiocentre’s Hear and Now research study shows how advertising that directly relates to tasks or activities that listeners are participating in benefits from significantly higher levels of engagement and memory processing. Further analysis shows how these effects are so powerful that they can turn average ads into star performers.

With IPA Touchpoints showing that radio listeners are participating in other activities on nine out of 10 listening occasions, radio is able to provide advertisers with a multitude of opportunities to engage mass audiences using relevance targeting in this way.


While a shift towards attention-based metrics is understandable for visual media, it will not help advertisers get the most from audio-only media. As this article attempts to describe, audio attention is difficult to define precisely. It’s even more difficult to measure, especially using the technology currently being proposed for visual media. 

However, research highlights how audio can communicate very effectively and influence behaviour even when heard passively. Using consistent audio brand assets and messaging relating to the listener context are creative opportunities to significantly boost engagement with audio advertising.

There is a risk that in trying to fit a straitjacket designed for visual media onto audio, marketers will undervalue and inhibit its communication effectiveness.

So when it comes to valuing audio based on attention metrics, as Midge Ure sang (in the face of stiff competition) back in 1981, it means nothing to me.