Hearing and Listening — A Distinct Radio Advantage


(By Bob McCurdy) Hearing develops in a fetus at just 12 weeks’ gestation. And long before our ears fully develop, we’re able hear our mother’s heartbeat. It’s the first sense we develop, and it is the last sense to fade at the end. While we need to be actually “looking” to “see,” we can “hear” when we’re not “listening,” consciously or non-consciously processing all that enters our ears from the time we’re born. We even hear when we sleep.

Our sense of hearing is one our most powerful senses, yet it is probably the least appreciated and understood of all senses, for a couple of reasons. First, much of what we hear is processed non-consciously, which by definition makes it difficult to “access,” comprehend, and appreciate. If we can’t “access” it, we can’t comprehend it, and if we can’t comprehend it, it’s difficult to appreciate. Second, we don’t spend enough time talking about the ways in which we process what enters our ears with clients and agencies. We should spend more as it’s the foundation upon which radio advertising’s impact is built.

We process sound/audio in two modes, high involvement and low involvement.

We’re in a high-involvement mode when we’re attentive and focused, as you are while reading this. As you continue reading, you could either be accepting of what I’ve written or, if not, “contesting” or “counter-arguing my thoughts. Same is true with advertising claims when processed in this attentive fashion. In this high-involvement mode, we process what we’re exposed to “explicitly.” Typically, print and the Internet are explicitly processed, although radio and television advertising is also absorbed in this fashion.

When we’re in the low-involvement mode, we process audio stimuli “passively” and “implicitly,” allowing information to simply “soak” in. While passive processing is a low attention process that requires only partial attention, it has been shown to effectively register and link brand names and other elements in a commercial.

Implicit processing is a completely non-conscious process that doesn’t require any attention. When messaging is processed implicitly, we absorb the information as presented without interpretation. Implicit processing and its non-conscious nature is exactly why it’s so difficult to comprehend, articulate, and appreciate radio’s total impact. Some advertisers attempting to “brand” actually prefer their messaging to register in this fashion as it precludes any “contesting” of a commercial’s claims.

What follows is an example of passive and implicit processing.

Implicit: While waiting for a flight several weeks back I found myself “humming” the Febreze jingle. Curious as to why, I checked with Media Monitors and discovered that a Febreze commercial did air on the station I was listening to while driving earlier that morning with the audio barely audible. I didn’t remember hearing it but some of its messaging obviously still registered.

Passive: During the recent NCAA tourney my wife, clearly not a hoops fan, was talking to me during the final few seconds of the semi-final UVA game but I was focused on the TV. Frustrated, she said, “You are not listening to me.” I said I was, and after mentally backtracking, was able to play back enough of what she had just said to have her believe she had my full attention.

How is it possible to be paying zero attention to what’s being broadcast and yet hum a jingle or replay much of what was said when not listening? Easy, the brain processes every sound that enters our ears — explicitly, passively, or implicitly. Seeing is voluntary and hearing is not and we hear even when we are not listening. So unlike other media which require total attentiveness, radio commercials can also be absorbed passively and implicitly — a distinct radio advantage.

Passive and implicit processing also tend to appeal to the more enduring and influential emotional processing of commercial messages. This is another benefit for radio, as in the fast pace of everyday life, “considered” or rational decisions tend to be subservient to “intuitive” or emotional decisions as consumers simply don’t have time to think through the pros and cons of every purchase and instead rely on their gut, which is emotion-based. It’s because of radio’s ability to effectively communicate messaging in both the high-involvement and low-involvement mode that the late ad guru Erwin Ephron wrote, “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.”

This is a topic worth discussing with clients. If interested in learning more, Dr. Robert Heath has done a lot of research on this subject. His book Seducing the Subconscious is a good place to start.

Not being able to recall hearing a commercial doesn’t mean it was without impact.

Bob McCurdy is Vice President of Sales for the Beasley Media Group and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Keerect, Will.
    I just Googled up “Brightest guys in radio”.
    And, wouldn’t you know it?
    There was Bob – on the first page.

  2. Good thoughts, Bob

    Think how young children are when they learn to talk (from hearing others) as compared to when they learn to read (by interpreting visual grammar break-downs). Hearing a message resonates much more easily than reading one. Print is really just an abstraction of sound


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