"The most effective marketing story isn't the one you tell to someone in your audience," says marketing expert Seth Godin, "it's the one the person tells himself." Mr. Godin refers to this as theater of the mind.
Radio is the supreme theater of the mind. By combining music, sound effects, and human speech, Maine small business owners who advertise on Portland radio can compel listeners to stage 60-second dramas within the confines of their limbic systems. This is the part of the brain responsible for emotion. Who stars in these dramas? The business owners' products and services.
When a bond is forged between a product or service and a strong emotion, the result is ringing cash registers.
The power of radio's theater of the mind was never more evident than during a lunch I had several years ago with Tom Bodett. For 30 years, Mr. Bodett's voice has been leaving the light on for us in Motel 6 commercials, one of the most successful radio advertising campaigns of all time.
Nobody Sells Things Better To Us Than Us
During lunch, Mr. Bodett told me that people who are familiar with his commercial and then meet him for the first time often say, "You look different than I thought you would." So, Mr. Bodett began to ask these surprised people, "How did you imagine that I would look?" The pre-supposed descriptions these people offered, in fact, did not resemble Mr. Bodett. Instead, most people offered a vague description of themselves.
So, what was happening in the listeners' mind during a Motel 6 commercial was not someone trying to sell them something, but, remarkably, the listener was actually selling the product to themselves.
Who better to sell something to us than ourselves, right? Who hasn't sold themselves on having just one more piece of cake even though it is not the healthiest thing to do? Or to play hooky from work even though there was an important meeting that day? We are all suckers for our own sales pitches.
To create theater of the mind on Portland radio, anything is possible. Check out this video from the Radio Mercury Awards:
What is it about the nature of sound that makes radio advertising so powerful?
"You hear anywhere from 20 to 100 times faster than you see," neuroscientist Seth Horowitz explained in an interview on NPR. "Everything that you perceive with your ears," he continued, "is coloring every other perception you have, and every conscious thought you have. Sound gets in so fast that it modifies all the other input and sets the stage for it." No wonder advertising on Portland radio can be so effective for Maine small business owners.
When producing a radio commercial, it is important for business owners to understand which types of sound work the best in the theater of the mind. The best sounds are those that are surprising and violate our expectancy.
Horowitz went on to tell NPR that sound gets routed quickly to parts of the brain that deal with very basic functions that are not part of the wiring for conscious thinking. These are places where emotions are generated.
"We're emotional creatures," Horowitz says, "and emotions are evolutionary 'fast responses' — things you don't have to think about. You hear a loud sound...get ready to run from it." NPR reporter Christopher Joyce goes on to explain, "Emotions are rapid delivery systems in the brain, and sound drives emotions."
A Slap To The Ear
Some commercials on Portland radio don't do much to surprise us. So, these commercials must work very hard to wrestle our attention from the other 11,000,000 pieces of data we are exposed to every minute. Other commercials demand our attention from the very first sound like this one from Time-Warner Cable. Its opening sounds are a real slap to the ear.
Surprise occurs when our expectancy is violated. So, to be the most effective, the language and the sound or radio commercials needs to disrupt comfortable patterns.
One of my favorite examples is a commercial a few years ago for Day's Jewelers, a New England based retailer. The chain places its store near shopping malls but not in them. The tag line of the commercial, written by Roy Williams The Wizard of Ads, was "Day's Jewelers. inconveniently located at 415 Philbrook Avenue in South Portland, Maine. Day's a little hard to find, but definitely worth the trouble." [To see the whole script, click here].
In the Day's commercials, listeners expected to hear the cliché, "conveniently located" but instead, the phrase "inconveniently located" violates our expectancy. The result, the commercial commanded so much attention that, every time the commercial would play, we would get calls at the radio station saying there was a mistake in the Day's commercial. It was no mistake; it was a surprising use of language.
A violation of expectancy also occurs in a commercial from Australia for H&R Block created by Tim Chenery & David Roberts for Us Sydney. In a typical tax preparation commercial we would probably expect to hear phrases like "our trained professionals," "fast return", or "fast and friendly service." But instead, the listener's expectation is violated with phrases such as "the cornucopia of lamb shanks can be splattered into a warm bath of mustached rigor mortis" and "check the instrumental mother's sprinkled seven times under a carrot handshake." This riot of nonsensical language is enough to breach our brain's filters and get noticed. Hear the commercial below.
It is not easy to do the unexpected. As humans, we tend to do what is safe. As marketers, however, imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but it will not compel and engage consumers. Caroline Kennedy once said, "I think my mother... made it clear that you have to live life by your own terms and you have to not worry about what other people think and you have to have the courage to ."
To hear the entire NPR interview with Seth Horowitz click here.
Here is some other great advice for Maine small business owners: