What People Hear Vs. What Is Actually Said In Commercials – AKA “The Phantom Message”

We’ve all heard commercials where the offer you perceive is not actually the message trying to be communicated.


It all stems from my first rule of advertising: Every good commercial or advertisement is rooted in psychology.

Consumers lead hectic lives. They’re bombarded with thousands of advertisements every day. (Side note-I never understood why the mass media insists on imparting this information when advertisements are what pays their salary….)

The “Phantom Message” occurs when the audience thinks they hear something that really isn’t in the commercial.

When a commercial’s first line (critical) actually gets them to pay attention, they may be listening or watching for something that may not be there.

Subconsciously,  a few words or phrases trigger a psychological reaction in their brain that leads them to believe you’re actually touching on something they’re actively seeking.

How many times have you questioned yourself after hearing a commercial with comments such as:

  • “Did they say you can get 3 free months of the sports package if we sign up now for cable?”
  • “Did they say they’re open 24 hours?”
  • Did she say their spa treatment is only $9?”

Businesses often make the fatal mistake of not providing a clear, concise, core message.

I  recently heard an advertising agency representative talking to a business owner about the products they should feature in their commercial. After listing six or seven different items, the representative said “You have a good product mix in there”.

Actually, what you have is a good way to confuse everybody.

The “Shotgun approach” (trying to see what will stick in the mind of the audience) is a sure-fire way to guarantee failure.

Remember my golden formula: it must get the audience to React, Then Act.

You greatly increase your odds when you focus on one thing.


Identify the one thing you want the audience to recall later.

  • The amazingly-low price point during your big sale
  • The new product that will dramatically improve their lives
  • How safe your automobiles are (see Volvo)

Tim Burt



About timburtmedia

30,000+ ads globally. Commercial Advertising Marketing - world-wide audio producer, voice-over talent, copywriter.
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