The Psychology of Radio Advertising


In the previous section, we explored the format and content nature of the radio advertisement; in this one, the effectiveness of radio and how it psychologically achieved its advertising goals will be examined. There is no doubt that radio advertisement was a colossal success: Cantril and Allport's 1935 The Psychology of Radio reported that the purchase of radio advertised goods was 35 percent higher in radio homes than non, that three quarters of listeners "sometimes buy" products because they hear them advertised on the air, and that one third go so far as to write down the name of the advertising company and their phone number/address after the completion of a show. With such excellent chances at improving sales, companies spent considerable amounts of money on creating ads, concentrating especially hard on their psychological quality. Understanding the psychology of audiences became an extremely important part of sponsoring programs.

Psychologists of the day emphasized that the spoken word was a far more persuasive means of argument than a printed one. Pointing out that "the mental picture which a listener gets from Ted Husing's description of a football game is certainly more vivid than an account of the same game in the papers on the following day" (8), Hettinger and Neff begin to lay the psychological groundwork of radio advertising. In 1928 Pillsbury and Meader, in The Psychology of Language, first established the more accessible nature of spoken words by pointing out that writing is merely a substitute for the human voice, and a generally poor one at that: their findings indicated that texts in general are so full of errors that human reading habits have evolved to the point that they fully ignore ten to fifty percent of the spelling errors they read. "The listener," Cantril and Allport report, "seems as a rule to be friendly, uncritical, and well disposed toward what he hears. The reader, on the other hand, tents to be more analytical and more critical, and in the long run probably more accurate in his knowledge and better informed" (180).


"The house has never been the same since we got Moscow on the wireless."
An exaggerated warning of radio's capacity to influence.
Radio, however, went beyond the benefits of the merely spoken word. Because of its broadcasted nature, the voice that an audience heard was disembodied, without a visible speaker, and was thus considered even more credible. "Psychological experiments," point out Hettinger and Neff, "have shown that when a man listens to an unseen speaker the situation is simpler, with fewer distractions, and the message is therefore more effective than if the speaker were seen. The speaker's words are less critically analyzed, the relationship is less personal, and the higher mental processes of the listener are slightly dulled" (9). The nature of radio, according to psychology of the day, was predisposed to influence its listeners more than any advertising medium yet created; the trick was to utilize this capacity to its fullest extent.

Creating the effect of an actual visitor in a listener's living room was of the utmost importance. Even relatively non-critical children were very discerning in their perceptions of personality: one young listener in an interview identified Captain and the Kids and Dick Tracy as make-believe, and Skippy and Little Orphan Annie as real because he could simply "hear the difference." A high premium was also placed on live broadcasts: transcribed programs were required to be announced as such before being aired because everything (in particular news programs) was assumed to be spoken at percisely the same moment as the listener heard it. Practical Radio Advertising advised against the pre-recorded broadcast: "You are aware, if you stop to think, that the artist is not in the studio singing for you, separated from you merely by the thin strands of wire and a mysterious thing called ether. Space has not been transcended. The artist has not been brought into your very living room...the mysterious, intangible thread of personal communication has been broken" (90). The feeling of personal, realistic contact between audience and radio personality was revolutionary following the age of print advertising, and was perhaps the primary consideration in radio commercials.


Responding to "the visitor."
The "power of suggestion" had always existed in advertisements, but radio took the concept to a new level, "placing public opinion and private taste at the mercy of entrepreneurs" (Cantril and Allport 19). Many saw the power radio exercised as dangerous, taking into account both its psychological power and its widespread audience: Walter Lippmann named radio as one of the many elements of national culture that had dangerous sway over American culture, and radio propaganda was much more effective than any other form. Many critics accused radio of presenting political issues in black and white, creating polarization of opinion where balanced debate was necessary. A widely-held fear was that each one-sided political announcement would create a following of fanatics.

The brand-new psychology of radio advertising, seen by some as a predatory beast with an enormous advantage over an unwitting public, wasn't pure hypnotism, however. Listeners were not turned into zombies, but were instead made more active participants in their entertainment: "The radio has completely freed the listener from the agelong conventions of the rostrum...the listener may respond in any way he pleases with no more constraint than that imposed upon him by the few people who may be listening with him...he is less directly under the sway of the crowd situation...he can sing, dance, curse, or otherwise express emotions relevant or irrelevant" (Cantril and Allport, 11). Without the constraints of decorum required at live performances or speeches, some listeners could interact with the visiting voices rather than be brought under the spell of the advertisers who had the upper psychological hand.

On the whole, however, radio advertisers were extraordinarily successful in their influence of the American public. The following study will explore broadcasting's contributions to creating a mass culture, unified by the products that the American people heard advertised over the airwaves.


Move on to "Creating Mass Culture"

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