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Soundings: Martin Lindstrom discovers Pavlov

by Michael Spencer on Thursday 4th of February 2010

Martin Lindstrom Discovers Pavlov – SHOCK REVELATIONS!

Marketing guru Lindstrom recently revealed that he had discovered a hitherto neglected advertising medium, after a period of nine months studying the neurological and physiological reactions of people subjected to a range of common sounds including the Intel sonic logo, a baby giggling and the Hail to the Chief tune. Headline grabbing results from Time Magazine, for example, trumpeted: The World’s Most Addictive Sounds, though Lindstrom himself perhaps more modestly describes them as ‘The World’s Most Powerful Sounds’.

Readers of Soundings will already be familiar with much of the detail behind the spin. Setting aside the questionable use of the word ‘addictive’ to describe our inevitable exposure to certain everyday sounds, what Lindstrom’s research seems to be doing is nothing more than confirming simple Pavlovian responses: if a certain sound – a cash-point dispenser, say – is always associated with the pleasurable experience of receiving money from a slot in the wall, then inevitably, the sound itself will trigger the same pleasure responses in the brain. That does not make the sound ‘addictive’, but it does explain the way our neurological reflexes can be readily associated with certain innocuous sounds – sounds which would otherwise have little or no musical, aesthetic or information value.
Responses to some natural sounds, such as a lion roar or surf on a beach, seem to have been pre-wired into our subconscious since before birth – part of our fight/flight mechanism – while others are learned as a direct result of urban living. Not just advertising jingles, but traffic noises, telephones, coffee machines, doors opening. Lindstrom cleverly points to the Pavlovian associations between food and sound as being especially strong. The sound of a steak sizzling is number five on his top ten list of non-branded sounds. He rightly suggests that commercials which ignore the all-important sonic equivalent of the food close-up are missing a huge trick. One that Schweppes, for example, has exploited to the full in campaign after campaign.
Lindstrom points out that ‘signature’ sounds such as sonic logos can trigger both positive and negative reactions. He quotes the intrusiveness of the Nokia ringtone provoked by people using mobiles in inappropriate places; and also the (rather attractive) Microsoft Windows start-up sound which inevitably became associated with the frustration of frequent pc re-boots – a perfect example of Pavlovian response flipping.
Lindstrom’s underlying message of course is close to that of Sound Strategies: the sonic aspects of marketing and communication can be critically important to the bottom line. But the push-button, Pavlovian responses need to be carefully managed if they are not to rebound negatively. In fact, Lindstrom’s testing confirms that people respond more positively to a sound when it’s subtler – a fact virtually every musician in the world could confirm without the aid of neuroscience. As Jeffrey Kluger of Time/CNN says: ‘If nothing else, smart marketers should at least keep the volume low’.
Andrew Peggie

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