The Report

A roaring success: how acoustics make us spend more money on cars

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The new Ford Focus will have engine noise pumped in when the driver steps on the gas, a sound that Ford hopes will woo potential buyers.

As automotive engineering has improved, our rides have gotten quieter. Even non-hybrid cars cocoon their drivers in comfortable silence. But some companies are trying to give motorists a little more motor. The new Ford Focus will have engine noise pumped in when the driver steps on the gas. Other cars, like the BMW M5 and Volkswagen's GTI, have done similar things with mixed results. These engine sounds -- some real, some recorded -- are meant to put the roar back into driving, even when you might not be driving a muscle car. But do they really make a difference to drivers?

“Focus ST drivers want to hear the engine sing when they put their foot on the gas,” said Bjoern Boettcher, Ford of Europe’s vehicle sound quality expert, in the press release announcing the technology's application to that model. “Our cars are engineered to be quiet inside the cockpit, so we have to pull out a few tricks to give enthusiastic drivers the sound they crave -- and that’s where our Sound Symposer comes in.” The Sound Symposer will provide Focus drivers with a little bit of engine noise when they hit the gas.

Marketers call this kind of auditory salesmanship "sonic branding." It's at work when you hear jingles or classic voices -- think McDonald's "ba da ba ba ba," and Geico's trademark Gecko voice (which is really a Cockney accent coming from a lizard). But it's also at work when you hear a Harley Davidson drive by, or a bowl of Rice Krispies snap, crackle and pop. When it comes to cars, sound plays a huge part in the choices people make. The way a car door sounds when it closes, and the engine sounds when you're driving, can make or break a sale, according to sound marketing expert and president of Katz Marketing Solutions, Bob McCurdy. "A second or two of sound can communicate a grand message and can bring to the surface a tremendous amount of emotion," he says.

You might think that you're immune to such marketing tricks. "Don't kid yourself," McCurdy says. While you might not be aware of how sound influences you, everyone takes the sound of a car into account when they decide to buy. "You don't want it to sound like it's wimpy, you want it to sound like it has getup and go," he says, "so when I step on the gas I can get out of a dangerous situation or I can merge a little bit safer. Even if it's psychological, that's enough to make a difference."

Now, it's nearly impossible to quantify just how much this new feature will increase the value of the Ford Focus. The effect is likely to be indirect, says James Kellaris, a professor in the department of marketing at the University of Cincinnati. "Consumers may not rush out to buy specifically to acquire this feature," he says. "The sound feature, however, may increase liking, which precedes and determines purchasing."

While Ford is trying to make its Focus sound like it has a little more oomf, other car companies are tackling sound for a different reason. In hybrid cars, for example, buyers often don't know when the car is turned on or off. Frankie James, the Managing Director at the Advanced Technology Department of General Motors helped design the sounds for their hybrid cars, such as the Volt. They designed sound cues for when the car was on or off.

Integrating sound into vehicles is tricky business. Some companies have been blasted on the Internet for creating "fake sounding" engine roars. McCurdy doesn't think the authenticity of the sound really matters. "I don't think you or I are going to be an expert enough in engines that we'll be able to know the difference," he says. Neither does Kellaris. "People will not process the sound consciously, critically. It will just be there, telling them: all is well." But James says that sound can be tricky, and doing it badly is worse than not doing it at all. "It's always the case that  you don't notice when it's right and you do notice when it's wrong," she says.

And while the engine might sound mightier than it actually is, it's not about portraying what the car can actually do -- it's about playing to people's psychology. "Perception is reality in consumer marketing. People do not perceive the world as it is; rather, they perceive it how they perceive it," says Kellaris. If they perceive a powerful engine, they think they've got one, even if it's just a Sound Symposer playing them what they want to hear.

Image: Ford's 2013 Focus. (Ford)

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure