Take Note:  Your TV is Pretending to Message You

LBornkam HeadshotLeanna Bornkamp, Langone Contributing Author, Class of 2016

If, like me, you’re an iPhone user who has watched TV lately, you may have found yourself excitedly checking your phone for an incoming notification—only to realize your TV just duped you with a broadcast phantom ring (or “ping”). In recent months, advertisers have upped the inclusion of this all-too-familiar sound in national ads—and they’re getting our attention.

Interestingly, the “phantom ring” or “phantom vibration syndrome” (defined as: The audible or tactile sensing of an incoming call or message, when no call or message has actually occurred), has intrigued both phone users and researchers alike over the past several decades. And recent theories on the subject attribute its increased presence to everything from the sheer ubiquity of cell phones to users’ ever-increasing emotional attachment to receiving phone messages. Regardless of what causes the “phantom ring”, the phenomenon has not been lost on the advertising world.

In a 2006 New York Times interview for an article titled “I Hear Ringing and There’s No One There. I Wonder Why,” Peter Arnell, the chief creative officer of the Arnell Group in New York, claimed that advertisers’ use of sounds mimicking cellular device notifications is likely intentional. Ten years later, it seems advertisers are attempting the same psychological strategy. Rather than using standard ring tones, though, certain advertisers have homed in on a more specific sound: the iPhone Note. The specific ping has become part of the sound landscape everywhere iPhones are popular.

The sound used in Orbit ads from 2010 to 2015, for example, is the standard, stock-sound ping pitch (which falls at standard note E, around 2630 Herz). The iPhone Note, on the other hand, is around 3 whole steps lower in pitch (hovering near C, but not quite matching it, at approximately 2100 Herz). Both sounds draw the attention of the user in the first place—the human ear is known to pick up pitches between 1000 and 6000 Herz with increased sensitivity—but advertisers’ use of the dead-on iPhone pitch may indicate that they have avoided the standard ping pitch in favor of matching the iPhone Note. Television ad spots like Duluth Trading Company’s “Mixer” (fall 2015) and Straight Talk Wireless’ “Tax Refund” (spring 2016) both clearly incorporate a pitch at 2100 Herz. And if you need any more proof that these ads are targeting your love for receiving messages on your Apple device: the pitch they’re employing doesn’t actually exist on the scale in Western music—but it does match the iPhone Note.

Sensory Marketing Cartoon

“I think it is probably intentional, but I am not sure how sophisticated the ‘psychology’ (or simply put, the basic consumer insight) behind it really is,” said Andrea Bonezzi, Assistant Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern, of the use of Note-like pings in ads. “It does bring to mind basic conditioning principles, but really in this case a lot of the mental associations that are created via conditioning procedures do not apply. Thus the only behavioral consequence that can be induced by using this ‘Conditioned Stimulus’ is to get people to pay attention.”

For some advertisers, this may be the complete strategy. Ads like Duluth Trading Company’s “How to Un-Plumber a Butt” use comical cartoons and an attention-grabbing narrator to keep the viewer’s interest once they’ve been responded to the Note; “Tax Refund” uses bright colors and block type to keep viewers engaged in the remaining ad content. Despite their attempts, though, advertisers may not be converting eyes to purchases once they have consumers watching.

“Cute idea to get people to pay attention,” Bonezzi said, “but in my opinion if the moment and ad needs to rely on these little gimmicky psychological tricks to get you to pay attention to its message… well… it probably means the ad is not good, or even worse the product does not have a strong value proposition.”

This game, however clever, is risky beyond potential ineffectiveness. This tactic can create a sense of distrust in the consumer; a viewer may feel duped into looking at a TV ad by having their attention falsely lured to the screen, and come to resent the brand rather than act with a purchase.

“I think nobody will really benefit from this [strategy], to be honest,” Bonezzi noted. “The advertisers might get consumers to pay attention a couple of times, and that can be an advantage, but people are smart and learn quickly. So, repeat this trick 3-4 times and consumers will start figuring out that it is not their cell phone ringing and they will be annoyed by it.”

The use of sound in advertising is indisputably effective; the use of branded jingles and of music added to elicit emotional response from consumers are both proven successful strategies. However, this attempt to use the Note to draw a reflexive response from consumers may benefit from further research before the strategy is improved, or even used again—consumers may not take kindly to hearing their phone notification in the television screen for much longer.

“The basic principle of associating some unique sound to your brand (or at least to your ads) still holds, in that it can potentially produce positive effects in terms of attention, memory and positive associations,” Bonezzi said. “But I would leverage this principle with a unique sound or jingle, rather than “borrowing” a cell phone ring someone else has created.”

Beyond the sound component of advertising, brands must ensure that other aspects of their marketing strategy are solid. Using an iPhone message notification to get consumers’ attention must keep their attention with strong selling points and a concrete overall message once they look up at the television, if brands want viewers to become customers.

“I would focus on getting the basics right (i.e. have a strong value proposition and positioning, and clear target audience, an engaging message, a distinctive execution, and of course really efficient media spending, etc.) before I would even start to worry about all these little tricks,” Bonezzi said. “What moves sales in the market are things that are much different from these little psychological tricks.”


Leanna Bornkamp


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