A Key Radio USP


(By Bob McCurdy) This is a topic dear to my heart having written about it the past decade+, but the latest findings on this subject deserve additional amplification.

An article published recently in WARC, titled “How to Capitalize on Low Attention” focused on something that radio doesn’t get a lot of credit for — low-attention listening and its impact on sales. Marketers might spend their time seeking consumers’ undivided attention, but research again confirms the impact of low-attention commercial processing.

The most recent research by Professor Karen Nelson-Field highlights how a commercial message registers in low-attention environments. The study was conducted in association with Dentsu Aegis’ Network Global Attention Economy Initiative.


Field concluded that, “Low attention processing delivers more value than most people give it credit. We found the greatest uplift in sales impact occurs when a viewer moves from a pre-attentive state to low attention. High attention is not the only valuable commodity.” While Dentsu, in their white paper “The Attention Economy,” concluded from the data, “It is not only full gaze that has value: ads in peripheral vision also boost sales.” “Peripheral” was defined as “a person in the room but not looking directly at the TV set.” Dentsu continued, “In fact, ads that received full gaze only increased sales slightly more than ads viewed peripherally.

Based on the study’s definition of “peripheral,” one might conclude that the audio alone of a TV commercial had almost as much sales impact as both sight and sound. We discovered something similar in a study conducted in 2013 titled, “The Ear vs The Eye.” An article summarizing the study can be read here. Anyone who would like a condensed version of the study that contains audio and video, contact me.

Each attention level, no/low gaze, peripheral, full gaze (along with a control sample) was correlated with Short Time Advertising Strength (STAS) scores, a sales proxy that determines the proportion of viewers choosing the test brand from a virtual store after a short exposure to an ad, compared to those who had not been exposed (the baseline).

While this study focused on television, its conclusions are projectable to radio as a considerable amount of each medium’s usage occurs in a low-attention state.

We learn, listen and watch three ways:

– Explicitly: Which is a full-attention, lean-forward mode.

– Passively: Low-attention cognitive process that requires only partial attention.

Implicitly: An automatic, non-cognitive process that requires zero attention.

With much of what enters our ears being absorbed in a low-attention state, it is understandable that our relationship with sound/audio is under-appreciated. “Low attention” (passive) by its definition implies that it’s difficult for us to communicate what we’ve retained in this state not to mention how it impacts our purchases, but not being able to verbalize the messaging’s influence processed in this manner doesn’t mean it was without impact.

Field, as well as Dentsu’s conclusions, support previous research on this topic:

A Mindshare study suggested that brand messaging can actually be more effective when absorbed passively (low attention) due to the message not being “contested,” as often occurs in a high-attention state.

Psychologist Daniel Schacter confirmed that learning takes place even when we are paying no attention and psychologist Stewart Shapiro has shown that ads can influence product consideration when processing was entirely passive. Shapiro’s conclusion was that advertising has the potential to affect future buying decisions even when subjects do not process the ad attentively and do not recollect ever having seen or heard the ad.

Dr. Robert Heath’s Low Attention Processing Model described how advertising influences without high levels of attention and without being recalled.

The more attuned our clients are regarding the different ways we process audio advertising, the greater the appreciation they will have for the full impact of radio. You don’t need to be “listening” to “hear,” and contrary to popular belief, one need not be in a fully engaged mode for commercial messaging to influence purchases.

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




  1. Note to “sill crazy”:
    What you are doing is called “hypnosis”.
    Although seldom so, when applied, similar techniques work like a damn for radio advertisers with radio audiences.
    It’s almost seditious.:)

  2. Bob,

    You really need to give credit to the original article “The Eye vs. The Ear”, a milestone essay written by Al Ries back in the 80s. (Ries and Trout). Please link to it in a subsequent column. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for more specifics, Bob.
    The way I have been introducing the concept over the years has been: :Recall is not necessary to generate behavior.”
    As your personal experience may attest – this is a hard row to hoe and a harder phenomenon to be accepted by advertisers.


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