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Re-evaluating the Role of Radio in the Media Mix

By Thom Noble

What are the relative intrinsic, contextual strengths of different advertising media? Traditional research hasn’t fully answered this question, but the application of newer neuro-techniques is now starting to uncover important clues.

There is a growing recognition of the importance of context in influencing messaging in advertising and marketing communication. Additionally, the increasing knowledge being accumulated from mind-sciences is changing the way we think about creating and developing our advertising and marketing content. With that comes a growing skill amongst neuro-literate marketers on how to more effectively induce attention, drive emotion, and trigger memory activation in ad response.

However, traditional research has struggled to find an objective and meaningful way to measure the relative strengths and weaknesses of different media channels in terms of the contextual impact a specific channel format induces on the ad response itself. Equally, there is an increasing demand to measure the impact of ad response with tools that are more sensitive and better suited to evaluating at the non-conscious level, both the contextual influence of the media channel and the content itself.

As a specific media channel, radio has, over generations, become embedded in the mind of the client and the media planner as an effective medium for simple, rational ”reminder” and ”call-to-action “advertising. As such, it is typically cast as a valuable tactical support format but very rarely one considered conducive to strategic brand-building or image shifting campaigns in its own right.

Through new thinking in Behavioral Economics and Neuropsychology and the greater understanding of how, more specifically, audio is processed in the brain, there is a ”challenge hypothesis“ that radio ought to be equally effective as a more strategic, brand-building medium. In short, does it possess the inherent ability to evoke intense emotional responses, elaborate deep memory associations and trigger experiential and multi-sensory cues in ways similar to other ”classic” brand-building medium such as TV? And if so, how does it diff er in its ability to do so?


Global, a media and entertainment group and the UK’s largest commercial radio company, commissioned NeuroStrata to conduct a three-step program to explore and evaluate this challenge hypothesis. 

Step one began with an academic and science exploration; a thorough review of 500+ academic science papers from around the world on how audio ”works” in the mind. As well as the academic literature trawl, it involved interviews and discussions with sound and music specialists in academia e.g. cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral psychologists as well as practitioners in sound and music design. Further, it involved inputs from media experts with experience in previous neuroscience studies into media channel evaluation. This stage yielded a refined hypothesis to validate and explore.

Step two was a state of the art neuroscience study to evaluate the ”system one” consumer response patterns per se to advertising in press, radio, TV formats. A variety of different multi-media ad campaigns were tested across these different media formats and evaluated against an expansive array of multi-sensory, emotional, functional and call-to-action attributes. The method used was a bespoke, ”true“ Implicit Response Time test, conducted by a leading international agency Neurosense, and covered 1500+ respondents. A neuroscience method was chosen because whilst people recognize the power of sound, they aren’t always able to articulate in an objective way how it makes them feel and think differently from more visual messages.

Step three saw the results analyzed, the insights drawn and conclusions agreed.


The findings from the full program provided fresh evidence to support the hypothesis as well as indications as to what specifically characterized radio advertising responses per se. Insights from the study indicated where the potential lay for maximizing both tactical and strategic value from radio, both creatively and in placement. The results helped highlight and explain how audio (spoken word and music) can be surprisingly and extraordinarily powerful and can communicate things differently from the same audio with visuals.

At an emotive level, radio can potentially trigger very strong and rich responses …notwithstanding the lack of visual imagery. Audio possesses special qualities in the way it works neuro-scientifically, tapping directly into the more emotive parts of the brain.

Neural processing, and non-conscious contextual biases unique to radio, help influence and shape audience response patterns differently from another medium. Because images are not supplied, in effect, you ”create your own “mind-pictures from your existing memory webs and schemas; there’s some evidence suggesting that the resulting communication can be interpreted as potentially more personally relevant.

More counter-intuitively, audio alone can do things that audio + visuals cannot.

Perhaps because of the absence of other sensory cues, radio has the potential to trigger more expansive associations and can evoke evocative multi-sensory triggers including taste, touch and smell. Further, because the context of radio is decoded as a more ”personal”, one-to-one medium, it engenders more trust in the mind of the consumer. Given the pre-existing academic literature and practical experience, this study now adds weight to the notion that the role of radio advertising should be fully re-appraised.

The study confirms its ability to deliver forceful tactical, call-to-action impact and casts light on the how and why.

Radio’s unique contextual strength in non-consciously evoking ”trust” and ”personal” connection, underscores its enhanced persuasive capabilities. Indeed, in the implicit study, it was rated top on Trust (twice the level of press) and on driving Intent. Yet it also clearly possesses a powerful and rich potential to emotionally build brands at a more strategic level by elaborating and reinforcing memory webs.

Because it works in the mind differently from TV, it triggers different yet overlapping patterns of emotions, values, and benefits. Used imaginatively, both in Creative and Placement terms it possesses an almost uncanny ability to evoke multi-sensory cues, from sound alone. Understanding how these evoked patterns of response differ (through latest neuroscience tools) provides invaluable insight into how to optimize media plans & boost ROI from complimentary use of radio within the TV and full media mix.

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook. Order your copy today