Sounds like Christmas: why advertisers are all ears this year

‘Real Love’, originally written by John Lennon, gets us hooked on Monty. John Lewis

There’s no holding back now: the gloves are well and truly off in the run up to Christmas as major advertisers continue their fight for a slice of your seasonal spend. Over the past few weeks, audiences have had more penguins, fairies and glitter than feels seasonally appropriate for a mild early winter.

But as well as serving up lavish visual feasts of celebrities, turkey dinners and a lot of fake snow, advertisers are paying increasingly careful attention to how they get in to your ears. A recent survey from Thinkbox has stressed the importance of audio in TV commercials as a key factor to re capturing viewers attention.

Television consumption has changed fundamentally in the past decade. Viewers can now zip through the ad breaks and multi-screening allows for social media commentary during transmission. Both bring new challenges for consumer engagement. More than ever, viewers are paying only fragmented attention to real-time output.

But research is showing that this does not necessarily inhibit ad recall. As a result of their Screen Life 2014 survey, using fixed cameras and eye-cam glasses to track eye movement and collect data, Thinkbox concluded that a key element in driving visual attention back to the TV screen, ahead of any other aspect of the creative execution, was audio.

Music or other sounds during ads were responsible for 44% of “attention uplifts” identified. Visual elements of advertising can snatch attention from the edge of your peripheral vision, but this happened less frequently (32% of attention uplifts).

Keeping one eye on the TV screen and the other eye on your Twitter feed really is the new engagement. And in this context, sound is more important than ever. So with this in mind, fast forward to Christmas 2014 and let’s look at how our the seasonal soundscape is driving our panicked festive shopping.

An average evening of TV viewing suggests that the hot ticket soundtrack this year is a solo vocal performance. The exact genre is negotiable, but it will have a simple, pared-down arrangement allowing the full texture of associated love and longing to shine through. Yes, Monty the penguin, I blame you.

In addition to the strains of John Lennon accompanying John Lewis’s penguin, Boots has dropped the hedonistic, anthemic Here Come The Girls in favour of Alexi Murdoch’s Song For You to bring home the poignant story of a family putting their festivities on hold while they wait for their mum to finish her shift as a night nurse.

The pressure of modern life is neatly encapsulated in the narrative, but it’s the evocative audio that creates an enhanced shared space from which the audience view the moment. In a society where we’re technologically more connected and yet emotionally more disconnected, the track is an invitation to have a pleasant sniffle while you also tweet about downloading the song from iTunes, using it for social currency by joining the brand conversation. And maybe deciding to take a trip to Boots, of course.

Then there’s also Marks & Spencer’s fairy ad, featuring a new version of Fly Me to the Moon. And Coca Cola uses Jimmy Durante’s Make Someone Happy.

But not all audio is music. Sainsbury’s recreation of the World War I trenches is brought to life with a stylised piece of film sound design, where the beating of a birds wings and the clatter of guns blend with the clash of two languages across the snowy waste of no man’s land.

And the power of this kind of sound is enormous. Spielberg used this dramatic technique to great effect in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, to the extent that D-Day veterans, invited to a preview and hearing the authentically reproduced sounds of the fighting, reported experiencing smells from the time as the sound revived memories of all their sensations surrounding the event.

Add a dulcet voice over this commercial mix and advertisers are dishing up a perfect cocktail of sensory overload to stimulate the auditory imagination.

But nothing stands still for long in adland, and before you know it the soundscape will have moved on with the season. January is traditionally the month of diets, quitting smoking and joining the gym, so you can expect to hear the backing track to your viewing shift uptempo very shortly as the advertising focus moves away from family and home and towards New Year resolutions. Monty the penguin takes up zumba with the Boots mum? Let’s see.