Robert F. Potter, Director, Institute for Communications Research, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

Robert-Potter-PicGoogle “Radio And Production” (in quotes) and you’ll get about 1000 hits. Deep in that collection you’ll find a page that details a serious research experiment using RAP Award winning promos over the course of several years to study the effect on the listener of the “complexity” of the promo. Are those zips and zaps and special effects just candy for “our” ears, or do they really do the job of getting the listener’s attention and assisting in driving home that message? That’s the kind of questions Robert F. Potter has fun answering as the Director of the Institute for Communication Research at Indiana University. Join us as we visit with Robert and take a look at the fascinating work he has been doing, taking a scientific look at the little things we do in our studios, most often intuitively, to make our spots and promos jump out of the radio.

JV: Tell us a little about your work there at Indiana University.
Robert: Well, most of my work tries to mesh what we know about how the brain works from a cognitive science perspective: how the brain processes audio, how we only have a limited amount of cognitive resources to process whatever we hear at one moment in time, and how that can apply to making radio messages — commercials, promos, that type of stuff — more effective. And that’s what I spend most of my time in the research lab doing, trying to figure out how to inform, how to teach producers how to make better messages.

JV: So you have a classroom full of producers, or students that want to be producers?
Robert: Well, actually, no. Most of my work with graduate students is with people who want to be researchers, so most of what I teach are tools to measure attention to messages, how much you’re liking a message; and things like that. A lot of my talk to producers is just trying to get the word out, like through RAP. I’ve talked to the NAB Las Vegas convention a couple of times about my work, and the NAB radio show, just trying to let them know what we know here at the university about how to make better audio messages. Most of my students are going to be professors one day, and I try and teach them how to reach out to the industry with what we know. I’m just trying to yell from whatever mountaintop I can to let the industry know how to make things more effective.

JV: What caught my eye while surfing the Internet one night was an experiment you did using samples of promos that were taken from past RAP cassettes and CDs to find out if more complex promos were more effective than non-complex promos. Tell us about this experiment and the outcome.
Robert: Well, complexity we defined, through work in my lab, by looking at things that we know capture listeners’ attention automatically. So, for example, if you’re walking down the street and you hear a car backfire, you automatically go, “What was that?” And you pay attention to it. And that’s due to something called the orienting response, which is something that the human brain is hardwired to have. We orient to things that change in our environment.

One of the first studies I did was looking at the things that change in the radio environment — things like when a voice changes from one announcer to another, or when a sound effect comes on, or when music comes on, or when the music changes from one song to another. We found out that those things actually do make people automatically pay attention to the message for a short amount of time – about six seconds, actually – after each of those things.

Knowing that, we then took a bunch of promos and said, well, which of these are structurally complex, have a lot of those things in them, and which ones are structurally simple? Doesn’t mean that they are not good scripts, that they’re not well voiced. It’s just that there aren’t a lot of changes in them to automatically capture attention.

So we came up with equal groups of each type of message and found that, actually – like we expected – the more complex ones did capture more attention and lead to better memory for the ads. We’ve gone on to show that people’s physiological arousal is affected as well. Basically, we measure how much their hands sweat while they listen to these things, and the more structural complexity that you have, the more aroused the listener gets. And we think that’s what leads to better memory later on.

And let me add this, a lot of industry professionals, when they read work that comes out of the universities, they’re, like, “Well, that’s fine. You’re doing that in kind of an ivory tower, but what does that have to do with the day-to-day real world?” And I’ll agree. In the first experiment, we sat people in a chair. We hooked them up with these physiological wires to measure their heart rate and stuff, and we said okay, here’s the first ad. We’d play it, and then they’d fill out some attitudes about that ad. Then we’d play the second ad. That’s a very artificial environment.

Then in the next experiment we did, we took the same ads and we put them in music. I used to be a Program Director, and so I kind of arranged a mini hot clock for about 45 minutes and put promos in between the music in the same way that you would hear on the air. Then we invited students into a living room. We basically said, you can do whatever you want in here. There are magazines, you can study, you can surf the web. The only thing you can’t do is you can’t put headphones on. Oh, and you can’t turn this radio off, either. So then we played a CD that had the music and the ads in them, and they had no idea that that’s what the experiment was about.

Afterwards, we asked them some questions: what promos did you remember? Tell us about your attitudes toward the promos you remember. And in a really natural environment we found the same thing. So the idea that, well, yeah, you found that, but it was in an experimental lab… well, we tried to replicate how the radio is really used, and we found the exact same thing.

JV: Well, you’re going to make a lot of producers very happy. It’s been said that a lot of the effects and zips and zaps we put into these promos and things is nothing more than self indulgence, boys playing with their toys. Seems you’ve proven otherwise, that these things do grab attention.
Robert: Well, they do. And there’s one caution I’ll give. The other thing we know about how the brain works is that when something happens – we call them production effects, I don’t know what a producer calls them – but a laser or an echo or something, or even a voice change from one to another — when that happens, and you orient to it, actually your brain is pretty much throwing attention toward the radio saying, “Boy, what was that? What was that change?” But what happens is, for about two to three seconds after them saying ‘what is that,’ there’s kind of a dead zone there while your brain is throwing resources toward that sound or effect, and memory actually isn’t very good during those few seconds. Your memory actually goes down immediately after those production features that your readers want to use. So what ends up being very important is that you coordinate the production features with the copy.

So often I hear somebody use a great production feature to capture attention, and then right after it they’ll put the client’s name. But what we know from the lab is that you should capture their attention, then give the brain a couple of seconds to say “Oh, well, all right. Now you’ve got me. Now what do you want to say?” And then write your copy so that, rather than saying “Potter’s Pizza is the greatest,” after the production effect, you say “the greatest pizza is at…” or “get the best pie at Potter’s Pizza” to get the client’s name farther away from that dead zone right after the production effect.

JV: You conducted another very interesting experiment, to determine which was better, one long stopset in a given time period or three shorter ones. Tell us about this one.
Robert: This was some research that actually the NAB helped sponsor. We took nine ads and eight current songs. We arranged these into two different CDs: One had three pods of three ads each. The other had a single pod with all nine ads. Two demographic groups participated: 18-24 year olds heard CHR, and 35-54 year olds heard contemporary country. After they listened to the radio station (which, by the way, included professionally produced sounders — “Back to Back Hits on Power 94”), the listeners were asked their perceptions of the stations and whether they thought the amount of ads on the station was excessive. Remember, the total number of ad minutes was identical.

Overall, it didn’t matter at all to the younger demos. Older demos however strongly felt that the single pod was more excessive. So that’s what these subjects said they felt about the different stopsets. But how did they react? Like in most of my studies, we measured physiological responses. In this case we measured the muscles above the left eyebrow — the “frown” muscles if you will. These were much more active during the long, single pod compared to the multiple shorter pods. Plus, their palms sweated much more during the long pods compared to the short ones. Frowning and high skin conductance indicate negative emotion — and its cause to the longer pod.

And interestingly, this happened for both young demos and older. In other words, maybe when it comes to younger demos they TELL us that it doesn’t matter, but their body may be telling an entirely different story and one which matches the older demos.

JV: Fascinating. Yet another experiment you did involved listening to RAP Award winners and comparing them to Radio Mercury award winners from the same years.
Robert: Yes. We have five-year data on that experiment. The most recent year was ’03, and then we went back five years. We’re still looking at the ten year data. This experiment used the winners from the RAP Awards to represent the emphasis on local radio production excellence, and the winners of the Radio Mercury awards represented national production excellence.

JV: What was the purpose of the experiment, and what did you find out?
Robert: First of all, since we know – in our lab – that these production effects are valuable to the client, and therefore to the station — that it helps people pay attention to the ads – we were interested in how often their structural complexity is actually found. We chose award-winning ads because we operated under the assumption that these are kind of what the industry holds up to itself and says, this is what we value. If you’re somebody in market size 250, and you want to move up in your career, subscribe to RAP, listen to the RAP Award winners, and make your stuff like that.

So we were looking at what the industry held up as good production. We looked at, does it use sound effects, does it use production effects, does it use jingles, does it use humor as a creative strategy, or sex appeal as a creative strategy?

We found that, actually, sound effects are used quite a lot. Almost two-thirds of the ads used sound effects, and there was no difference between the occurrences of sound effects in the local and the national ads. Production effects – the laser sounds and such, things that don’t imitate naturally occurring sounds — were used less often than we expected. Just about 10% of the ads used those, and they were used significantly more often in the RAP ads than in the national ads. Now, that could be because your readers are very wise and aware of my research, but probably not. I mean, it could be that those are things that at the national level, the producers value less than at the local level. I’m not really sure why that was the case, but I found it, and found it interesting that the RAP ads used production effects more often.

Humor was obviously a very common creative strategy, so more than 90% of the award-winning ads used humor. What was interesting to me was less than 20% of them used sex appeal. We define sex appeal very broadly, so if it mentions sex in any way it counted as an ad that utilized sex appeal. One ad that comes to mind is a national ad where a guy’s driving in his car and gets a cell phone call from his wife, and it’s obvious that he’s not paying attention to her because he’s driving his new Jetta. So she starts saying things like, “I’m lighting my hair on fire…” blah, blah, blah. And she says, “I had an affair with the plumber.” That was counted as sex appeal. And even with that broad definition, less than 20% of the ads had any sort of sexual content at all. Most of them relied on humor that wasn’t sexual.

We found the easiest way to capture automatic attention is with a voice change, with multiple voices. About 75% of the ads had multiple speakers. And local award winners – the RAP ads – were more likely to use multiple speakers as well, than the national ones. I’m trying to go back about 10, 15 years, when I was actually in the hallway of a station; it costs you nothing to poke your head out of the studio and ask the receptionist, “Can you come in here and voice this?” You’re not going to have to pay that person; where at the national level, you will probably have to.

JV: Do you think the effect of the voice change is simply the surprise to the brain that there’s a different sound, or is it perhaps human interest in other people’s dialogue, kind of a ‘let’s hear what these two are talking about’ response?
Robert: Yes, that’s a great question. I actually think it’s the former. You could have voice changes in a spot that isn’t written as a dialogue spot. If it’s just a straight script and you have one male voice the first three lines, and then you have a female voice the next three, that would still cause automatic attention at the point where the voice changes.

JV: And as your studies have suggested, if you did something like that — as the copywriter — when you change the voice, you should put some not so important information on the next 2 or 3 seconds of that next voice.
Robert: That’s right, things that wouldn’t make you shudder at the fact that the listener might not pick up on those. So the client’s name should not go immediately after the voice change.

JV: What other things about that experiment did you find interesting?
Robert: Well, I was pretty surprised to find that the presence of male voices is huge. There were only three spots out of upwards of 200 that had exclusively female voices in it. I’m aware of some research, like focus group research, where female audience members were noted as saying things like, “female voices kind of grate on me.” But the fact that it’s still a pretty male-dominated industry in terms of who we’re using to voice our spots came out pretty clearly.

JV: These are all award-winning commercials that we’re talking about. So when you talk about these different things that you found out about these commercials, we know we can use these things to perhaps make more award winning commercials, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to more effective commercials for the advertisers.
Robert: Yes, that’s a very good distinction. In fact, I mentioned that I’m teaching advertising this summer, and we try and remind the students that there are ads that are effective for the client, and there are ads that will win you a Mercury award. And they’re not always the same.

JV: Spots that generate revenue for the client but maybe don’t win an award, have you done any experiments with these kinds of ads? And I’m talking about the kind that make people go, “Oh, I can’t stand that ad!” The kind of ad that producers would never vote for in an awards competition, yet the client says keep running it because customers are knocking his doors down.
Robert: Some of the research that we’ve done has used the regular RAP CDs, not necessarily the award winners. But I still think that’s some of the better stuff – the stuff people send in that ends up on the CD. They’re not going to say, “Oh, here’s something I whipped up real quick on a Friday afternoon before I went home,” and then send it in.

In terms of stuff that the listener would say they find irritating and don’t ever want to hear again, I have not done any work about that.

JV: When you’re listening to the radio, you must hear good and bad spots, and promos. What are some of the mistakes you hear producers making, at least there locally in your town?
Robert: Well, the good thing about being an academic is two, three, maybe four times a year, I get to go to conferences at different places, and I have a small cassette recorder that I bring with me. So I’m always taping stuff from different markets.

A lot of times I hear single voice spots that don’t need to be. I hear that I have a lot more work to do about getting the word out about where to place the client’s name after a sound effect, or production effect, or even a voice change, because I hear it in the dead area – the dead zone – a lot.

A colleague of mine who’s at University of Missouri and I have done a lot of work on imagery ads – ads that use sound effects, or in their copywriting really rely on the theater of the mind approach. You know, copy strategy that really generates images in the mind. And it’s a benefit. It’s a benefit in terms of attitudes toward the ad, toward the client, toward the station that airs the ad. You always see higher, more positive results from people who try and generate an image in their listener’s mind rather than just price point stuff. So that drives me crazy whenever I hear just a whole bunch of lists of stuff that are on sale, rather than trying to really use the strength of the medium to its fullest.

JV: A lot of what you’re doing sounds like you might be into some of the same areas that Roy Williams is into, like Broca’s area of the brain and such.
Robert: Right. There are a lot of similarities there, but we have our differences also. For example, I’m always looking for industry people to e-mail me and say, “You know, I’d really like to know this. Can you add this to your ever-growing list of experiments you want to run?” The one about really annoying commercials is a good one. I can actually take that into the lab, hook people up and find out the answer.

JV: You’re going to get flooded with e-mails!
Robert: I would love to be able to talk to people who are doing it. The reason I went into grad school and eventually into the research lab is that there were things that we always kind of intuitively thought would capture attention, and I’m just too curious of a guy to just say well, we think this works.

JV: With regards to the listener, it doesn’t matter really if it’s a commercial or a promo. They’re all commercials to the listener, aren’t they?
Robert: I don’t have data that suggests that, but I’ve always made that argument. There’s an academic measure that’s called attitude toward the ad, and it may actually be used by agencies now, too. But when I do work on promos, I always make the argument to my fellow academics that we can use these measures that have been created for ads with promos, because they’re basically ads for the station.

Now, the interesting thing is I think that stations more easily develop credibility with their P1s than most commercial brands, especially most local stations. I think local radio stations that are well programmed and doing promotions that bring them out in front of their audience kind of have an instant credibility, whereas maybe your local plumber that’s running an on-air spot has to build that credibility first. I think that listeners are more likely to say, oh, there’s a promo about the upcoming club night, and so I’m going to be willing to listen to this and buy into this a little bit quicker than I would somebody trying to tell me that I should come get my car lubed.

JV: Over the years, with all these experiments you’ve done involving radio, have you stumbled across a thing or two that really surprised you, something you didn’t expect to find?
Robert: Yes. And there’s a classic one that’s so classic that I’ll have difficulty coming up with others. When I first went into the lab, I said okay, what did I – as a producer – intuitively think captured automatic attention? And we just made a list. Okay, well, sound effects, obviously. When a phone rings, when a siren is there, whatever – that captures attention. And I used to have a Program Director who said you’ve got to have music changes in your spots. “If it’s a 60-second, I want the music to change three times. If it’s a 30-second, I want it to change twice.” That was just a rule. And so I said, okay, music changes goes on the list. And the other one, silence. We thought, in the middle of a spot, if someone just goes completely to dead air, people are going to pay attention. And the last one – the one that really surprised me – was the channel change sound effect. You know, the sound which is now as outdated as a record scratch. We don’t really have records any more, and no one changes the dial and has that dial tuning sound come out of their radio. But yet, they’re in spots a lot, right? I really thought that that would automatically capture attention, and it just doesn’t.

JV: Wow. That’s probably one of the most used sounds out there.
Robert: Yes. Yes.

JV: That’s funny. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t grab attention.
Robert: Well, yes. You know, my students have rarely done that. They’ve rarely changed a dial. They push a button. But they still associate that sound with the radio. Remember, the orienting response has been called the “what is it” response. It’s something new in the environment. And that’s not an unexpected or new thing, perhaps. That’s the closest I can come to explaining why that might be the case. But I know that, intuitively, we use it all the time.