Joel Beckerman is a master at sonic branding—the art of using not just music but all kinds of sounds to influence consumers. As the founder of Man Mad Music, he’s responsible for the company whose “sonic logos” include the four-tone signature that AT&T uses, the HBO original programming music, and the NBC Nightly News theme.
His new book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms The Way We Think, Feel, and Buy (co-written with Edelman editorial director Tyler Gray) is equal parts sociological study and business advice, using unique everyday examples– for instance, how the fate of the Chili’s fajita empire rested on the sound of the sizzling platter, and how Disneyland approaches soundscapes for a fully immersive experience– to explain how sound effects our mood and shopping habits.
Below are five of the most fascinating case studies from the book:
That Woman Who Heard Her Own Voice For The First Time Had A Whole New Set Of Problems
Beckerman and Gray open the book with the story of Sarah Churman, the Texas woman whose story went viral a few years back. Churman was born nearly deaf, and at 29 years old was recorded hearing her own voice for the first time after receiving an implant in her ear:
The clip now has over 22 million YouTube views, and it earned her a spot on Ellen, where the host paid for Churman to have a second implant put in her other ear. It was a heartwarming story, but as Beckerman points out in the book, the adjustment period for Churman was rough. Once she could hear, she essentially had to teach herself how to filter out sound. Because she was born deaf, she had no experience relegating certain sounds to the background, which intensified everything. “Public toilets are insanely loud and make my heart pound every time I flush one,” she says. “Loud restaurants or bars wear me out.” Eventually, she adjusted, but it took a while before she was able to master something most of us take for granted.
You’re Not Actually Winning At The Slot Machines, No Matter How The Jingling Sounds
Casinos run all sorts of psychological tricks to keep people spending money, including adopting confusing layouts and mood-altering color palettes. They use what Beckerman calls “soundscaping” too: According to a handful of studies on casino behavior, “the music and sounds of slot machines make people overestimate how much they’re actually winning by as much as 24 percent,” says Beckerman. That’s a huge gap between perception and reality, largely based simply on a series of money-friendly tones.
The Mister Softee Song Has Lyrics
The sound of the ice cream truck is one that can trigger feelings of deep nostalgia and, most importantly, lower your defenses in the pursuit of a sweet treat. In the New York City area, summertime means Mister Softee, the ubiquitous soft-serve ice cream trucks that dot every neighborhood, beach, and public park. The song the trucks play can be whistled by anybody who has spent time in the city, but it turns out that song actually has lyrics. They go like this:
Here comes Mister Softee
The soft ice cream man
The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream,
You get from Mister Softee.
For a refreshing delight supreme
Look for Mister Softee.
My milkshakes and my sundaes
And my cones are such a treat.
Listen for my store on wheels
Ding-a-ling down the street.
The creamiest dreamiest soft ice cream,
You get from Mister Softee
The Quest To Defeat Beats
Beats by Dre headphones have only been on the market since 2008 but quickly ascended to a dominant position thanks to a sharp look, cool marketing, and associations with everybody from their The Chronic-producing co-founder to LeBron James. The success of Beats has rankled just about everybody else in the high-end headphone market, especially the folks at Harman, makers of JBL products. It’s especially frustrating for them because, as many have stated, Beats tend to focus on low-end sounds with muddier middles, which rankles high-end audiophiles like Dr. Sean Olive, the director of acoustic research for Harman.
In order to prove his point, he set up a double-blind study that found a series of college students and Harman professionals listening to a number of cloned headphone sound types (including Beats) run through a generic pair of headphones. What did he find? Without the easily-identifiable logo, nearly everybody ranked the Beats sound last among the samples. Still, despite the fact that Olive was heartened by the idea that people still appreciated quality sound, Beats still controls 64 percent of the high-end headphone market. As he has often reminded us, you can’t forget about Dre.
Silence Is Maddening
Even in places that are considered “quiet,” there is still plenty of background noise and interference. People who seek out quiet probably wouldn’t do all that well with real silence, which can be deeply disorienting for the mind and body. The Guinness World Record holder for the quietest place on Earth is a room at the Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota, called an anechoic chamber.
Inside that space, which has foot-thick concrete walls, insulated steel, and fiberglass wedges, roughly 99.99 percent of all sound is absorbed. Without any outside stimuli, your brain begins to amplify interior sounds: your heartbeat, your bloodflow, your shifting organs, your breathing. When the lights go off, it’s even more disorienting—most people can’t remain standing. In fact, nobody has ever laster more than 45 minutes inside the room.