When Silence Is Golden: Effects of Silence on Consumer Ad Response

Swee Hoon Ang, National University of Singapore
Siew Meng Leong, National University of Singapore
Wendy Yeo, National University of Singapore
ABSTRACT - This study investigates the effectiveness of silence as an executional cue in enhancing consumer ad response. The results showed that a silent segment in a television commercial increased attention and recall but did not enhance attribute evaluation and brand attitude. However, silence enhanced attention, recall, relevant-attributeevaluation, and brand attitude when it was relevant to the ad message. The results are explained from a resource matching perspective. Managerially, the findings imply that advertisers should selectively pause for a cause.
[ to cite ]:
Swee Hoon Ang, Siew Meng Leong, and Wendy Yeo (1999) ,"When Silence Is Golden: Effects of Silence on Consumer Ad Response", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 295-299.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 295-299


Swee Hoon Ang, National University of Singapore

Siew Meng Leong, National University of Singapore

Wendy Yeo, National University of Singapore

[The authors thank the National University of Singapore for providing funding for this research.]


This study investigates the effectiveness of silence as an executional cue in enhancing consumer ad response. The results showed that a silent segment in a television commercial increased attention and recall but did not enhance attribute evaluation and brand attitude. However, silence enhanced attention, recall, relevant-attributeevaluation, and brand attitude when it was relevant to the ad message. The results are explained from a resource matching perspective. Managerially, the findings imply that advertisers should selectively pause for a cause.

The media environment for advertising is becoming increasingly cluttered. The allocation of greater air time for advertising, the use of shorter commercials, and the increased presence of non-programming materials suggest that a given commercial message must compete with an increasing number of other stimuli for consumer attention (Brown and Rothschild 1993). To aggravate matters, consumers are engaging in ad-avoiding behaviors by raising perceptual screens in their media viewing (Bettman 1979), and by zipping and zapping commercials (Olney, Holbrook, and Batra 1991). Thus, marketers must constantly develop creative tactics by employing a variety of new techniques and executional cues to get their ads noticed and processed.

One executional cue that has received recent attention from academics and practitioners is silence (Olsen 1994). Silence in advertising may be conceived as the period of time in which no information is presented to the consumer. It may take various forms, including white space in print advertising, and the absence of audio communication in radio and television commercials. Olsen (1997) introduced a measure called interstimulus interval (ISI) which operationalized silence in advertising. For broadcast ads, ISI is the amount of time between two items of information, where an item may be one or more words used to describe a particular product feature. Silence thus represents the antithesis of such audio effects as music and narration which involve the active communication of commercial content to consumers.

The absence of sound in an ad may provide a sharp contrast between the ad or the program which preceded it. Creative directors believe that silence may be used effectively to generate attention to the ad in general as well as to specific items of ad information (Olsen 1994). Silence within an ad can also facilitate rehearsal thus increasing consumer ad recall (Olsen 1997). Consistent with resource matching (Anand and Sternthal 1989, 1990), when available cognitive resources are insufficient, information processing will be incomplete, thereby hindering retention. However, as cognitive resources increase to the point where those available match those required, information may be sufficiently processed, leading to a higher level of ad recall. A segment of silence within an ad can function to increase the availability of cognitive resources of consumers in ad processing, thereby enhancing their memory performance.

Given the promising evidence pertaining to the use of silence as an executional cue, it is instructive to further examine its role and impact in advertising. We do so in three directions. First, it may be beneficial to examine a broader range of consumer response variables. The effectiveness of silence in generating consumer attention and at invoking consumer emotions has been confined to the opinions of creative directors (Olsen 1994). While such individuals possess undoubted expertise, it may nonetheless be prudent to investigate the attentional and affective impact of silence from a consumer’s perspective. In particular, it will be especially pertinent to study how silence impacts attribute evaluations and brand attitudes, concerns that are central to marketers.

Second, empirical research on silence has focused on audio media (radio commercials). Clearly, it will be useful to expand the media environment under which silence is employed in advertising to other vehices. We thus examine the effectiveness of silence in television advertising. Such an analysis would be helpful as silence may have a substantially different effect on television than radio commercials. Specifically, with radio, sound is the only sense being used. Thus, silence implies an absence of any information. In contrast, visual images are still being processed in television advertising despite there being no audio communication. Thus, while radio commercials offer a cleaner test of the effectiveness of silence as an executional cue, the use of silence in television advertising provides an important extension, particularly in the context of resource matching. In particular, there may be more cognitive resources available for message elaboration for radio than television commercials given the lack of other information to process in such ads. The period of silence required to generate effects observed for radio ads may thus be longer for television commercials.

Third, while silence has been found to render consumers greater opportunity to process ad information, it may also be employed to reinforce related product attributes or benefits featured in ads. Past research has explored the impact of relevant and irrelevant ad information on consumer response (e.g., Childers and Houston 1984). Because of its passivity, silence may be a relevant cue for such attributes as peace and quiet, while it may be less relevant in conveying others such as convenience and ease of use. It would thus be meaningful to examine the role of silence in enhancing consumer evaluation of product attributes being communicated in advertising for which it may be a more or less relevant cue.

Hence, the objective of this research is to investigate the impact of silence on a variety of consumer responses (attention, attribute evaluation, and brand attitude) in the context of television commercials. We next review the literature which motivates our hypotheses. Our research method is then furnished, followed by the presentation of our results. Finally, theoretical and managerial implications are provided along with directions for future research.


The impact of silence on information recall has been established in the literature. Consistent with resource matching, Olsen (1997) found a positive linear main effect for interstimulus interval (ISI) on information recalled in a radio commercial. In general, the greater the amount of cognitive resources available to consumers, the higher their recall of ad information.

Silence may be used to generate attention as it contrasts with its surroundings (the program or ad which preceded it). The ad itself may furnish the needed context, provided that its ISI is of sufficient duration for consumers to notice. Some support for the beneficial effect of silence on consumer attention is provided by Gorn et al. (1991). These researchers reported that the absence of music results in increased memory for verbal information in a TV commercial. They also found that the condition with music resulted in a significantly higher recall of visual information. Olsen (1994, p. 90) argues that silence in the ad increased the atention to, and consequently involvement with, the ad. In turn, greater focus may be given to the content of the ad and less to the peripheral cues in the visual component. Alternatively, silence could have produced increased attention to the auditory component only and that this increased attention distracted viewers from the visual information.

Would there be a main effect of silence on consumers’ affective responses to an ad? On the one hand, research on self-generated attitude change (Tesser 1978), mere exposure (Harrison 1977), and cognitive response (Petty, Ostrom, and Brock 1981) suggests that silence can produce enhanced attribute evaluations and brand attitudes. On the other hand, silence could also permit counterarguing to occur (Cacioppo and Petty 1979). This is especially since consumers are generally skeptical of ad messages. Hence, we do not expect differences in attribute evaluations and brand attitudes to arise between ads with and without a silent segment.

Rather, it is predicted that the impact of silence on consumer affect would be influenced by the type of message that preceded it in the ad. Specifically, silence may be employed as a brand-relevant executional cue when embedded in a message communicating such attributes as quietness (MacInnis, Moorman, and Jaworski 1991). Silence may thus be used to reinforce the product attribute being communicated and encourage consumers to process the ad in a message-consistent manner. In so doing, it should induce more favorable elaboration of the ad message. In contrast, conveying an unrelated message benefit such as ease of use may render silence irrelevant to the ad theme. In the latter, the silent segment serves as a distractor. To the extent that such distraction reduces proargumentation (Edell and Staelin 1983; Nelson, Duncan, and Frontczack 1985; Nelson, Duncan, and Kiecker 1993), attribute evaluation and brand attitudes are likely to be less favorable for ads in which silence is irrelevant to the ad theme.

Clearly, such distraction may also hinder attention to and recall of ad information relative to when silence is employed to communicate relevant product attributes. From a resource matching perspective, it may be argued that the surplus of cognitive resources available in the silence condition may be better utilized to process brand information when silence is employed to communicate a relevant product attribute. However, when an irrelevant product attribute is involved, these surplus resources may result in extracommunication unrelated to brand information thus reducing consumer attention and recall.

Based on the preceding discussion, we advance two hypotheses for this study:

H1:  Relative to an ad without a silent segment, one with a silent segment will produce greater attention and recall but no differences in attribute evaluation and brand attitude.

H2:  Silence will produce greater attention and recall as well as more favorable attribute evaluation and brand attitude when used to communicate relevant but not irrelevant attributes.


Design and Subjects

Subjects were 76 undergraduates, randomly assigned to a 2x2 between-subjects design with cell sizes ranging from 17 to 20. Subjects were aged between 19 to 24 years old, and 36% were male. The independent variables were silence (present vs absent) and product attribute (quietness vs ease of use of an air-conditioner). Relevance to the ad theme was captured in the silence-quietness condition, while irrelevance to the ad theme was represented by the silence-ease of use condition. Air-conditioner was chosen because pretest results showed that subjects had usage experience with this category, although none had bought the product before. Therefore, subjects were somewhat involved with this product category.

Stimulus Materials

TV commercials were developed for each condition. The 30-second commercials were about a fictitious brand of air-conditioner called Performa. The ad theme focused on either the quietness of the air-conditioner or its ease of use (see Appendix). These attributes were pretested (n=15) and found to be equally important when buying air conditioners (x=6.33 vs 6.27 on a seven-point scale, t=.43, p>.10).

Experimental Procedure

Subjects were told that they would be watching an ad after which they would be asked for their opinion about the ad. Subjects were then shown the TV commercial. To ensure that measures of attention and learning did not simply reflect information in short-term working memory, a three-minute distractor task comprising two puzzles was introduced prior to administering the unaided recall measure of ad content. Next, data on subjects’ perceived attention, attribute evaluation, and brand attitude were collected. Each session lasted about 20 minutes.

Independent Variables

Presence vs Absence of Silence. A 10-second segment of silence was inserted in the silence condition. This was presented immediately after the selling proposition. In the no-silence condition, the 10 seconds were filled with the same music that accompanied the entire commercial. Pretests were conducted to ascertain the appropriate length of the silent segment. Research with radio commercials indicated that a two-second segment was ideal (Olsen 1994). However, a pretest indicaed that this was not noticeable by subjects (n=10). Other ISIs of less than 10 seconds were also not noticed by pretest subjects. Thus, 10 seconds was chosen as the length of the silence segment. As alluded to earlier, the context of a TV commercial may necessitate the use of a longer ISI than radio ads given that visual information may be conveyed during the period of audio silence.

Product Attribute. In the quietness condition, the selling proposition was that the Performa air-conditioner was "so silent" that the buyer "would enjoy a standard of whisper-quiet performance day and night like no other air-con." In the "ease-of-use" condition, the proposition was that the Performa air-conditioner was "so easy to use" that "everyone in the family will know how to use it in no time."

Relevance of Silence. The silence segment was relevant to the commercial when the advertised message was about quietness. It was irrelevant when the advertised message was about ease of use.

Dependent Variables

Attention. A perceived measure of attention was employed. Subjects estimated how much attention they had given to the ad. Two seven-point scales were used measuring whether parts of the ad attracted subject’s attention and whether the ad caught their interest (cf. MacKenzie 1986; Nelson, Duncan, and Kiecker 1993). As alpha was adequate at .82, an average of the scores was used in the analyses.

Recall. This required subjects to list all they could remember about (1) what the ad said, (2) what the scenes shown in the ad were, and (3) what the brand name was. Message retention was measured as the total of the correctly recalled items across these categories. Such a measure of free recall accuracy may also serve as an objective indicant of attention.

Attribute Evaluation. Subjects evaluated the extent to which the brand Performa was perceived to perform on the two attributes of interest in this study. Seven-point rating scales were used anchored at "not at all quiet/very quiet" and "not at all easy to use/easy to use." Higher scores implied more favorable attribute evaluations.

Brand Attitude. Three seven-point Likert-type items were employed to measure brand attitude (Nelson, Duncan, and Frontczack 1985). Subjects rated the extent to which Performa, if they owned one, would perform satisfactorily, would be a wise purchase, and would be liked by them. With an adequate alpha of .80, the scores were averaged for analyses with higher scores implying more favorable brand attitude.


Manipulation Checks

Presence or Absence of Silence. A seven-point scale was used requiring subjects to indicate how noticeable the silence segment in the ad was. Subjects in the silence condition rated the silence segment as more noticeable than those in the no-silence condition (x=6.00 vs 2.91; t=7.41, p<.001). Thus, the manipulation of silence seemed successful.

Relevance of Silence. It was expected that when the product attribute in the ad theme was related to silence, the presence of a silence segment in the ad would be more relevant than when it was not related. Five items measured on seven-point strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7) scales included "I did not understand why there was a silent part in the ad" (reverse scored) and "The silent part of the ad was relevant to the ad message." With a high alpha of .93, an average score of the items was employed where higher scores imply greater relevance. Subjects in the silence-quietness condition found silence to be more relevant than those in the silence-ease of use condition (x=5.09 vs 3.26; t=3.91, p<.01). Thus, the manipulation for relevance seemed successful.

Hypotheses Testing

The descriptive statistics are provided in the Table. All four cells were used to evaluate H1, while H2 was assessed with subjects in the relevant silence-quietness and irrelevant silence-ease of use conditions.

H1 predicted that an ad with silence would attract more attention and generate higher ad recall than one without silence, but that there would be no differences in attribute evaluation and brand attitude between the two conditions. Perceived attention was found to be marginally greater in the silence than no-silence condition (x=3.03 vs 2.57; F=2.87, p<.10). The more objective measure of attention, free recall accuracy, yielded stronger findings. Specifically, the number of items correctly recalled was found to be significantly higher among subjects in the silence than no-silence condition (x=4.00 vs 2.92; F=7.21, p<.01). As expected, there were no statistically significant differences (F’s<.17, p’s>.10) in evaluations of both attributes by subjects in the silence and no-silence conditions (quietness: x=4.82 vs 4.68; ease of use: x=4.47 vs 4.53). As predicted, no significant brand attitude differences were also observed between the silence and no-silence conditions (x=3.41 vs 3.32; F=.59, p>.10). Overall, H1 appeared to be supported.

H2 predicted that silence will produce greater attention and recall as wel as more favorable attribute evaluation and brand attitude when used to communicate relevant but not irrelevant attributes. While subjects in the relevant silence-quietness condition paid greater perceived attention to the ad than those in the irrelevant silence-ease of use condition, this difference was not significant (x=3.18 vs 2.88; t<1, p>.10). However, the objective indicant of attention once again produced stronger findings. In particular, subjects in the relevant silence-quietness condition recalled more items correctly than those in the irrelevant silence-ease of use condition (x=4.53 vs 3.47; t=1.69, p=.05). Subjects in the relevant silence-quietness condition also rated the brand more highly on quietness than ease of use (x=5.41 vs 4.59; paired t=2.75, p<.05), while those in the irrelevant silence-ease of use condition did not rate quietness and ease of use differently (x=4.24 vs 4.35; paired t=.49, p>.10). Moreover, evaluation of the brand’s performance on quietness was significantly higher when the silence segment was relevant than irrelevant (x=5.41 vs 4.24; t=2.77, p<.05), while no differences on its performance on ease of use was observed (x=4.59 vs 4.35; t=.50, p>.10). As predicted, subjects in the relevant silence-quietness condition had a marginally more favorable brand attitude than those in the irrelevant silence-ease of use condition (x=3.68 and 3.19; t=1.29, p<.10). Subjects in the ease of use ad in the silence condition, in contrast, did not report a significantly higher brand attitude than those in the no-silence condition (x=3.14 vs 3.43; t=-.71, p>.10). Thus, H2 was partially supported.


Several interesting insights on the impact of silence in television commercials were obtained. First, our study empirically verified the views of ad creatives (Olsen 1994) as it found that greater attention was paid to an ad with a silent segment than one without. We also found that silence enhanced the recall of television commercials. This extends the results of Olsen (1997) who documented the recall effects of silence in the context of radio ads. However, our findings were obtained with a longer ISI that was used to manipulate the silence condition. The added visual information in TV but not radio commercials during the silence period may contribute to the need for a longer ISI to observe the effects of silence.

More important, the effects of silence may be partially affected by the extent to which it is relevant in communicating the theme of an ad. Our results show that attention, recall, relevant-attribute evaluation, and brand attitudes were more favorably affected when silence was used for a relevant than irrelevant attribute. These findings provide added insights under which resource matching may operate. Specifically, when silence was irrelevant to the ad theme, subjects’ surplus cognitive resources may have been directed towards non-brand related information, leading to activation of idiosyncratic associations. This in turn may have inhibited ad attention and recall, and produced less favorable attribute evaluations and brand attitudes (Kisielius and Sternthal 1986). In contrast, those in the relevant silence-quietness condition employed their surplus cognitive resources available during the silent period toward brand-related processing of ad information. This leads to greater elaboration of brand information, which contributed to their greter attention and recall. To the extent that such elaboration appears to reinforce a prior message that was relevant to the silence, more favorable relevant-attribute evaluations and brand attitudes may have occurred.



Future research may explore the length of a silence segment for optimal processing of information from television commercials. It would also be instructive for future research to collect and analyze cognitive response data. Such an effort would also furnish more detailed insights into the processes by which resource matching accounts for the cognitive and affective responses consumers have toward silent ad segments. Future research may also use a larger and more representative sample to enhance ecological validity. Unlike the present study where subjects only viewed one commercial, future research may embed the stimulus ad with other ads in a TV program. This would minimize forced exposure and increase experimental realism. It would also furnish a sharper contrast between the silent ad and its surroundings.

Managerially, its impact on attention, recall, and affective response suggests that advertisers can effectively utilize silence as an effective executional cue in their creative arsenal. Its use in other marketing communications settings has been well established. Silence has often been suggested as an effective negotiation technique in personal selling (e.g., Graham and Herberger 1983). While it may be difficult for a television commercial to elicit the same degree of response as a hovering salesperson, our findings suggest that silence may be used in a similar manner. It provides consumers the opportunity to form their own conclusions about the ad message rather than to avoid dealing with the issue had the ad not contain a silent segment and carried on with other items of information (Olsen 1994). However, our findings further imply that advertisers should ensure that the silence cue is relevant to the ad message. The opportunity it affords would be better served if directed towards reinforcing a previously communicated message that was relevant to its nature. While this may seem to restrict the use of silence in advertising, our promising initial results give advertisers good reason to pause for a cause.




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