The Sounds of Success


baby.JPGSo, what’s the most enticing sound you can think of? Birds singing? The engine of a Ferrari 458 Italia? Rain spattering on your window?

How about … a buzzing cell phone?

According to neuromarketing research expert Martin Lindstrom, we love the soft hum of a silenced cell phone—or, at the very least, we can’t ignore it. And that means Madison Avenue won’t be ignoring it for long, either.

According to a story on, about 83% of all advertisements focus, primarily, on visuals to entice us to buy something or go somewhere. Oh, sure, we hear waves crash and seabirds call in certain beer commercials, or the sound of a sizzling steak for a restaurant chain or two. But really, when was the last time you heard sound used as a top-notch subliminal selling point for, say, window cleaner?

But the sounds we hear can be just as influential, if not more so, than the things we see. And there are certain sounds we’re programmed, one way or another, to respond to.

The sound of laughing babies blew the doors off every other auditory cue in Lindstrom’s arsenal: We listen to a baby laugh, and we can’t help but pay attention. And that makes sense on a whole host of levels

The buzzing cell phone, next on Lindstrom’s list, was far more intriguing. While I think we’re probably genetically programmed to pay attention to whatever sounds babies make (we, after all, have to take care of them, so it’d make just good biological sense that the sounds they make would trigger certain reactions in us), the cell phone couldn’t be a pre-programmed relic from earlier times. This is new neural wiring for us: The sound, to our modern ears, may signal connectivity and community. We hear the phone and we think, “Ah, someone wants to talk with me! And I might even want to talk with them, too!” Lindstrom’s theory is that our auditory programming is now so tuned in to the phone buzz that, should we hear it during a fast-food ad, we’ll be more likely to crave a double cheeseburger.

In fact, a double cheeseburger sounds good right about now. But I digress.

Lindstrom found the third most impossible-to-ignore sound was the fluttery shoosh of an ATM machine doling out cash—which perhaps says something about the premium we place on money. Fourth was the sound of a steak sizzling on a grill. No word as to whether vegans found the sizzle equally enticing.

With Madison Avenue always looking for new ways to sell us things we don’t really need, we can expect to hear lots more of these sounds in our future. Lindstrom, frankly, seems a bit surprised that advertisers have largely downplayed our eardrums thus far.

To that, I have two words of explanation for Mr. Lindstrom: mute button.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Anne:

For me, the only reason I would pay special, immediate attention to a cellphone, is to turn it off as quickly as possible. I cannot leave it to ring, it just drives me crazy