The authors—specialists in digital media and American independent cinema—used historical data from Unruly Group, a global programmatic online video-ad distributor to test ads run with and without sound. They also interviewed advertising professionals experienced with soundless video to build a novel understanding of the phenomenon of soundless advertising.
Video ads created for a sound-on environment, their research found, typically do not perform well when viewed without sound. In addition to obscuring any spoken information, removing the sound can make an ad seem slower and less exciting. Although subtitles are common, they typically are not an effective solution. Subtitles not only require more efforts for viewers to process, but they also force visual attention away from the visual elements of an ad.
So, what can advertisers do to create more effective soundless ads? The authors’ four strategies are based on an analysis of better performing soundless ads, as well as interviews with advertising professionals:
- Use of visual rather than verbal storytelling. Better performing soundless video ads make sense to viewers from their visuals alone. Plots generally are simpler as a result, and tools such as gestures, facial expressions, and physical objects are often employed to “show” rather than “tell.”
- Reference to shared understandings. Even in the absence of sound, more complex ideas can be communicated by triggering information the audience already knows. A pumpkin and a glass slipper, for instance, can quickly cue the entire story of Cinderella in viewers’ minds. Any information—such as books, cultural events, brand history, and even stereotypes—can be leveraged by advertisers to get across ideas that would otherwise be too difficult to get across without sound.
- Increased visual intensity and energy. Removing sound generally makes ads less exciting and interesting. To offset this, better performing soundless ads compensate through faster cuts and zooms; shorter, more varied shots; and increased motion.
- Tactical use of subtitles. More successful soundless ads tended to not use traditionally styled subtitles, instead relying on more visual means of conveying meaning. If subtitles were used, however, they were integrated more thoughtfully into the ad. Subtitles were styled to look visually appealing or express emotion, and they often were placed in ways that consciously directed viewers’ gaze. They also were kept as brief as possible to minimize demands on viewers.
As mobile video consumption continues to grow, more and more video ads likely will be viewed without sound. Since many television ads also are run online, advertisers are encouraged to incorporate these strategies across all ads they create. Ad testing also should be conducted with both sound on and off. The authors are open to further quantitative or experimental research on soundless ads and encourage interested parties to contact them.
This paper was named the Douglas C. West Advertising Creative Article 2019, a yearly contribution that salutes Dr. West’s quest for greater empirical evidence of how the process of creating advertising works. Dr. West, a professor of marketing at King’s College London Business School and visiting professor at University of Oxford, was JAR executive editor 2008-2014.