The art of noise: keep it down and tills will ring

As technology in outdoor advertising evolves, sound is increasingly prevalent. But media owners must remember not to disturb the peace, says Brian Smith

Responsible marketers and advertisers have long exploited the selling power of sound and/or music, but all need to be aware of sensitivity to commercial noise pollution.

Picture this: you’re in a popular bar or restaurant, enjoying a good night out. At the start of the evening, the place is reasonably quiet and you have the pleasure of being able to hear yourself think. But as the night progresses, with the booze flowing and the place now full to the brim, you find yourself having to bellow at full volume directly into the ear of the person sitting next to you. It is noise inflation at its worst and it casts a blight on the evening for anyone fresh out of their 20s.

A similar noise inflation is afflicting our high streets. A recent report by headache tablet brand Anadin has found background noise levels have risen by 300 per cent over the past 30 years. It also claims that the average city street is about 330 per cent noisier than a rural road.

Noise pollution is a problem that local and national governments are striving to control. Following a 25 per cent increase in complaints between 2001 and 2002 reported to the Environment Agency, a new “commercial” category of noise pollution is in existence. This has meant that noise pollution and anti-social behaviour involving noise, both domestic and commercial, is now a hot political issue.

The outdoor advertising profession is already aware that it must not let its members add to the general din. And fortunately, a new technological development in point-of-purchase promotion offers marketers a way forward that still utilises music or sound, but in a way that is sensitive to background levels. Importantly, it allows responsible retailers to use audio while being able to avoid creating noise pollution.

A new system called Whispering Windows, which uses a unique technology that turns shop windows into “loudspeakers”, has been developed. It plays at acceptable sound levels, as the Whispering Windows system monitors the level of noise on the street continually and modifies the output. This means that the sound is clearly audible to shoppers passing by store windows, but not at volumes that disturb passing motorists or householders in close proximity.

Not adding to noise pollution when using Whispering Windows system was something that John Lewis and Marks & Spencer, two retailers renowned for their corporate social responsibility, took very seriously. Without disturbing the peace, John Lewis reported a remarkable increase in sales of the goods displayed in the Whispering Window – up 40 per cent – when it tested the system in its Sloane Square department store in London last July.

Reducing commercial noise is firmly on the political agenda, clever technology can enable marketers to harness the power of audio, but without risking the reputation of responsible retailers in the process.

Brian Smith is managing director of Newlands Scientific

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