A new study suggests that how much consumers pay for insurance premiums could potentially be influenced by their background noise.
A Quiet Disquiet: Anxiety and Risk Avoidance due to Nonconscious Auditory Priming by Lowe, Loveland and Krishna investigates the effects that background noise could have on participants when carrying out a variety of activities.
Published in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, in the study’s abstract, the researchers propose that “…one aspect of sound which may cue such associations is “pitch” – such that low pitch (versus moderate pitch) background sound nonconsciously primes a threat response resulting in heightened anxiety among consumers.”
In addition, the researchers suggested that the resultant “…emotional response manifests itself in the form of increased risk avoidance.”
Of particular interest to insurers was the study’s look at participant’s response to car insurance advertisements.
Those taking part were asked to listen to two separate 35-second ads for car insurance. In one, traffic noise was set at a lower level – after assessing it, participants indicated that they would be willing to pay $98.98 for insurance.
Yet when shown another car insurance ad where the traffic noise was at a moderate level, participants indicated a willingness to pay only $88.63.
A number of interesting questions are raised around this, given that the difference in sound levels was apparently imperceptible to the human ear. Similar sonic effects like this are commonly utilised in film soundtracks, most notably in the horror genre. However, it also raises questions about the possibility of sound being used in manipulative, “subliminal” advertising.
The idea of subliminal advertising was popularised in the 1950s by market researcher James Vicary, who falsely claimed to have boosted Coca-Cola and popcorn sales at a cinema by inserting frames encouraging their consumption into movies. Much of the subsequent research has revolved around the possibilities of visual imagery.
However, the researchers appear to have considered this possibility as well – and even suggested a means to counter it. Writing for SmartCompany, Bri Williams noted that “Across the studies in which the researchers pointed out the background noise and gave a benign reason for it (such as, “you might notice a hum because our speaker is broken”), any perceived, non-conscious threat was removed and the differences between low and moderate pitch levels were attenuated.”