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Doc, I’m Hearing Voices…

face_night-shot-closeup-_2.jpgA while back I read about a number of interesting outdoor executions promoting the A&E original series Paranormal State…most notably a billboard where a face mechanically protrudes then fades away and a wallscape that incorporated sound that only passers-by could hear. In fact, this second execution won an OBIE this year for Special FX (the ghostly visage was a finalist in the same category). All really cool, creative ways to not just promote an upcoming show, but also captivate people in a pretty freakish way, totally in line with the brand offering.

whispering-wallscape.jpgBut other than the “very cool” factor, I really didn’t give either execution too much thought. Until, that is, I ran across this article that explains the technology behind the “ghostly voices” execution. Apparently the advertiser uses hypersonic sound technology to actually beam the message (or in this case, voices) right into your ear drum. According to the article,

The technology works by beaming waves of hypersonic sound at a pitch that is undetectable by the human ear. The waves continue until they smash into an object such as a person’s body. The waves then slow, mix and re-create the original audio broadcast. If the person steps out of the waves, they are no longer obstructed and are rendered inaudible.

For the A&E promotion, area New Yorkers “heard” voices whispering “Who’s there? What’s that? It’s not your imagination.” I can only imagine how anyone who had a few cocktails reacted… The campaign was an incredible success building buzz for the unreleased show and the shear novelty of the execution had people actively seeking it out so they could experience the “in your head” advertising themselves. According to A&E VP of Marketing, Lori Peterzell, “The technology really basically made it seem like the sounds were coming from inside your head…It was totally a freak-with-your-mind experience. It was a great way of building buzz about a show that didn’t exist yet.”

So, as I’m reading the article, I’m in awe of the technology and the incredibly brand-relevant application for a show about ghost hunters… Wait a minute! Did they just say advertisers can beam messages straight into your eardrum, so it seams like it’s all in your head? OK, that’s pretty freaky and a little scary. First we had billboards emitting odors, now we have marketers playing voices in our heads. While the hypersonic technology skirts any “sound pollution” ordinances, it feels a little invasive, even moving into that controversial “subliminal advertising” realm.

Right now, the novelty of the technology certainly lends a positive buzz appeal, but what happens as more marketers find a way to add hypersonic sound to their billboards, wallscapes, phone booths, subway installations, etc., etc., etc.? With no way to avoid hearing these messages, will we, as an industry, experience a backlash against this and other types of sensory assault in the name of brand promotion? As with any number of new technologies, the old rule holds true here: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

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