Sounds Good: How Units of Speech Command our Subconscious

I’m watching this lovely lecture by American Social Psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, about “The Three Terrible Ideas Weakening Gen Z and Damaging Universities and Democracies“.[1] At the 27:35 minute mark he discusses the idea of ‘Anti-Fragility’, suggested by essayist Nassim Taleb, which states that exposure to potentially harmful things can actually build resilience and strength for those exact things in the future. 

As an example, Haidt recounts a now somewhat known experiment held by international scientists that surveyed nut allergies worldwide. The study revealed how in Israel, because of early exposure to a highly popular local nut-based snack, peanut allergies are drastically lower in comparison to other countries in the world. Being an Israeli, and a person interested in words, I was waiting to see if a theory of mine would become evident in Haidt’s next choice of words. And sure enough, it was – as Haidt continued to dignify the snack by uttering its name, “Bamba”.

Now, nothing in the lecture itself or in Haidt’s premise necessitated saying the name of the snack. “Bamba” is not a name familiar to most people who listened to the lecture, and doubtful whether they would search for it in stores as the immunity builder of choice for their own children. Nevertheless, there it was; that name, “Bamba”, hanging in the air.

The reason why Haidt was suddenly compelled to say the product’s name, I would argue, is found is the power of certain phonetic sounds. These sounds cast such a spell over us that we subconsciously crave them, both hearing them and also uttering them ourselves. And in today’s market-like atmosphere, many of the beings filling up the public space – from the products we buy to the politicians that we elect – are there because we subconsciously prefer the way their name sounds to us. That is, we subconsciously feel that we either like or dislike certain things based solely on their names, which is predicated on the impacts that their sound imprint upon us.

The Power of Plosives

The Bilabial plosives, the consonants “p” “b” and “m”, are some of the earliest sounds that we make as babies. They are in our first mumbles and words, like “mamma”, “baba” etc. And indeed, the inspiration for the name “Bamba” was the combination of sounds that babies make when they first make sounds. Bilabial plosives are created by pressing both lips together and releasing air. I have found that people everywhere are drawn to utter “p”, “b” and “m” consonants and to repeat them as much as possible. Jonathan Haidt’s example is just one of many. Another prominent example is the recurring of the word “baby” in pop songs.

[source: fastcompany.com]

The word “baby” – itself loaded with bilabial plosives – is one of the most popular words in western culture, particularly in pop and rock songs. In this chart, recurring words were counted from “every song on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 list since 1960”. The word “baby” repeatedly comes up in many similar word-recurrence-in-songs-projects as suspiciously popular, usually coming right after the most fundamental building blocks of the vocabulary, such as “I”, “You”, “The” and the likes. So are we obsessed with our children and like to sing about them? Obviously not. “Baby” has become synonymous with “loved one” and a term of affection for its being a perfect bilabial-plosive word.

Saying “b” and “p” repeatedly makes us mimic a certain facial expression. It requires us to pucker up, much like kissing a loved one, or even sucking. And why not – we are mammals and one of the first expressions our mouths take part in is the sucking of milk for the sake of feeding. Could it be that bilabial plosives are reminding us of their preceding function, of nourishing and being close to warmth and affection?

This would explain the recurrence of “b” and “p” sounds in words and name assigned both to loved ones and to food. At the top of this list of “60 romantic names for your sweetheart” we can see such terms as “Pookie”, “Pumpkin”, “Lamb Chop”, “Muffin”, “Precious”,  “Baby Doll”, “Sweetie Pie”, “Smootchie”, etc. It’s noticeable how terms for food intertwine here with the loving tags of endearment. The choice to assign bilabial consonant to words that signify things we love is not accidental, but was ingrained in our minds by cultural repetition as well as by our linking them to pleasurable gestures of eating, drinking and kissing. So “baby”, much like “Bamba” got to be this popular not just on by virtue of its content, or its taste, but also because saying it feels good. We will see how advertisers have learned this trick quite early on, and from them it had spread to other aspects of the public sphere, dictating much of our attitudes toward people and not just products or pop songs.

Nothing wrong with Diphthong

Before venturing to see how the bilabial plosives – the “p”, “b” and “m” – rule our psyches, it would be beneficial to look at another more subtle set of sounds that sway our opinion. These are the diphthongs, or “double-sounds”. Whereas the bilabial plosives are consonants, Diphthongs are the appearance of two vowel sounds within the same syllable. The word “no” has us sounding both an “O” sound and a “u” sound consecutively. The words “make” has a diphthong of the sound “A” and “I” consecutively.  The reason that diphthongs are important, I would argue, is that they can create the impression of something exciting and even astonishing taking place. They are repeatedly used in advertising to create the sense of awe, making us unconsciously succumb to them as indeed carrying such meaning.

A disclaimer is needed here – I work in marketing, writing on weekdays for a local internet website where much of job involves copywriting for products. The work process allows me to test various phrases and word choices for their attractiveness and rates of motivating people to actual purchases (what is known as Click Through Rate – or CTR). After a year and a half of this I have come up with an idea of some words that appeal to people everlastingly. I am obviously not the first to notice this, as much of the advertising industry is aware of the power of phrases and words for increasing sales. David Ogilvy, who was known as the “father of advertising” has famously come up with a list of 20 most influential words that have the power to convert readers and listeners and get them on board buying a product. It was in my own copywriting and surveying some of the classic “great words” on such advertising lists, that I have noticed the recurrence of diphthongs. Here is Ogilvy’s list of words:

Ogilvy’s 20 most influential words. [source: slideshare.net]

Many of the words on this list contain diphthongs. Their effect, I believe, is causing us to open our mouths for longer periods of time in order to express the doubly voweled syllable. This creates an expression of amazement, which has us mimicking the sense that the words want to convey – like “wow”, “amazing” and “sensational”, which all have diphthongs.  Such words can be used, and at times are used, to manipulate and sway our opinions.  So while bilabial plosives are endearing and create intimacy, diphthongs are a source for astounding, creating the “wow” factor.

After first noticing this, I started discovering the recurrence of these chosen sounds more and more, and to discover their effects in my own copywriting efforts. I found that I have motivated people more than ever before to engage with the content I was creating, and indeed to buy more of my company’s products. It became apparent to me that the subliminal power of sounds is potent and real.

The Study and Manipulation of Sound

The linguistic approach that attempts to speculate and define the effects of different sounds is called “Sound Symbolism”.  Several researchers have given their insights as to how various utterances create certain feelings and thoughts. They often describe these feelings on spectrums, such as “bright to dark”, or “happy to sad”. The underlying idea in Sound Symbolism, that certain sounds carry meaning in and of themselves regardless of the context of the word, is problematic and refutable. Nevertheless, many scholars who promulgated it, such as Otto Jespersen, have made clear achievements in categorizing the way in which we habitually classify similar meanings for words by their similar sound.

In the advertising world, the rise of the Madison Avenue marketers and their research and focus groups led to some discoveries in regards to particular words and sounds that trigger particular responses from listeners. They managed to survey hundreds and thousands of people in order to learn which words were considered “fortunate” or “unfortunate” in terms of their connotations and sounds.[2] Motivated by money and by idea that everything can be monetized, the advertising world soon lent its many conclusions about preferable sounding words to the sphere of politics. The desire to control the public using the right words has turned on the power hungry to believing, and perhaps rightly so, that they could manufacture consent. This is what Vance Packard termed “The Engineered Yes”.

While it comes as no surprise that politicians try their best in utilizing clever slogans and phrases for their own benefits, the impact of sound symbolism on the fate of elections seems to be at play beyond the control of consultants and statesmen. It is still very much rampant, especially in the outcome of recent elections throughout parts of the world. I would argue that the repeated electing of my homeland Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, AKA “Bibi” for his 5th term is paved by the power of his plosive nickname. In Israel, speaking about a particular political party dropped to a minimum in recent years, with most conversations gravitating around this one name. While his political terms are characterized mostly by inaction, the name has been mentioned so much by itself to almost suggest that the person behind the name was in fact responsible for most things happening within the country.   

Around the world, other names can be presented as evidence. Giuseppe Piero Grillo, AKA “Beppe”, the Italian comedian turned politician is another candidate for plosive advancement. And in the US, one needs to look only a little far back to be reminded of another single word president that took the reins much due to his name and not his actions. This fact was spotted by the writers of the John Oliver show “Last Week Tonight”, who recognized the “magical word” that diverted people’s attention from the nature of the man carrying it.

Spot the diphthongs in this slogan. [source: freep.net]

The danger in using and overusing words is the habits which they create. We use language to communicate, and thus assume that is a tool for our expression. Yet more often than we care to think, the language we take part in is already chosen for us. The impact of specific sounds can get us to feel an inner connection. It is easy to shrug off the risks of advertising, since like language, it is also around all the time. Yet we now live in a time of unprecedented sensory stimulation – with information constantly chucked at us from every venue. This causes us to desensitize and to sift through the info at the greatest speeds. We create hasty judgments just to clear up the mental space to allow more information to reach us.

In such a world, where perhaps advertisements have already habituated western man, we often choose what sounds good to us. We see our political candidates as if they were products on a long supermarket shelf of ideas and preferences. We decide to buy into their promises based on a glimpse at their shiny package, their snippets of a few seconds broadcasted on the daily news – their jingle no doubt – and their brand name. If reality becomes commercialized and commodified, it is then a good idea to learn the various manipulations of the marketing world to see how we become duped. Sounds are a key player in habituating our ears to buy into dishonesties and to become consenting. Becoming aware of how susceptible we are to sounds is a good way to reclaim our individuality and realize what we truly believe and think, without the solicitations of sound.


[1] Those ideas are, to restate Haidt: 1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; 2. Always trust your feelings; 3. Life is a battle between evil people and good people.

[2]  See Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s