We have intuitively known that what enters our ears greatly influences how we behave and what we purchase, but it has been a challenge to get a complete picture of its total impact. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, this is no longer the case.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, messaging that is absorbed subconsciously while listening non-consciously is capable of creating brand associations that last long after the advertising itself is forgotten. While this low attention processing might not be ideal for communicating a complex message, it is effective in reinforcing and strengthening existing brand associations while having a powerful influence on brand perception and selection. Dr. Robert Heath has written extensively about the importance of the subconscious and non-conscious listening in brand selection and his most recent book, Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising, is largely devoted to this topic.

With as much as 98% of what enters our ears being absorbed non-consciously, it is understandable that our relationship with sound had become under-appreciated. As a result of enhanced neuroscience technology, we’re now learning that the conscious mind is just the tip of our mental iceberg with the subconscious mind representing the immense lower portion that is hidden from sight. This is an appropriate analogy, as “subconscious” by its very definition implies that it’s virtually impossible for us to access, express or even describe it.

Mindshare, the global media network, along with neuromarketing company Neurensics and a Dutch radio station, recently provided unique insights on how people absorb radio commercial messaging. In the unprecedented study, 25 subjects and 32 different radio commercials were tested using state-of-the-art fMRI technology. The participants were told that they were taking part in a study about language proficiency and were asked to perform several tasks.  One task was only slightly distracting while the other was more difficult, requiring more cognitive resources that relegated their radio listening to background status. Here are the findings:

  • The manner in which a radio commercial message enters the brain determines how the commercial is processed. While listening consciously, the listener is more likely to listen critically, contesting and even questioning the commercial’s claims. When listening non-consciously while the brain is distracted, messaging is more likely to “soak in” uncontested. This illustrates, for the first time, that even while listening in a distracted state, the commercial’s messaging does effectively register. The study went on to suggest that brand messaging is likely to be more effective when absorbed non-consciously due to the messaging not being ‘contested,” while call-to-action messaging will likely be more impactful when explicitly or consciously listening.


  • “Emotional” transfer does exist. The emotional pattern that a TV commercial elicits in the consumer’s brain is reactivated upon hearing only the audio of the TV commercial. This finding corroborates the findings of both of our Ear vs. Eye studies, which illustrated that once wear-in had been attained by a TV commercial, the audio of that commercial was able to generate similar physiological impact and brand identification metrics. This finding suggests that radio could be an effective addition to any branding campaign providing TV impact at Radio pricing. Both studies are available here.


  • Audio logos increase the overall impact of a radio commercial, as both attention and emotion are enhanced by them. The study also found commercials with an audio logo were more effective in activating brain areas that play a role in determining purchasing behavior. Interestingly, these results reflect the findings of our Sonic Brand study, which quantified the emotional and branding impact of few seconds of sound.


The recent Mindshare study is a solid first step in understanding the true impact of audio, and provides a new lens for how it might be utilized more effectively. The Mindshare results also suggests that what Erwin Ephron once wrote is accurate: “In addition to conscious awareness (listening), radio is the poster child for low involvement awareness (hearing). This combination gives Radio the most complete attentiveness package of any medium.”