Forget the Facts: What Yanny and Laurel Taught Me About Advertising

3 min read

Blue and black, or white and gold?

In early 2015, a debate—now so notorious that it’s now known simply as “the dress”—erupted over a photo circulated on social media. Despite the fact that everyone was looking at the exact same picture, people somehow couldn’t agree whether the dress was blue and black, or white and gold. How is that possible? How could everyone share the same experience but arrive at completely different conclusions about what that experience was?

A couple of nights ago, the internet was plagued with a new but similar problem—this time, debating not something seen but something heard. At first, it seems like this should be even less debatable, right? At least with a photo you have different screens, different lighting, and some colorblind people… mitigating factors that could explain away some of the disagreements. But everyone should at least be hearing the same sounds, right?

Crowded around the Well Done conference table Wednesday morning, I played the clip in question for seven colleagues, confident we’d all hear the same thing. Everyone was nodding and looking around the room while the audio looped, but I was the first to speak up:

“Laurel. Right?,” I said with confidence.

For a moment, they just stared. Then all seven fired back:

Are you serious?
You hear Laurel?!
No. That’s not possible!
It’s clearly Yanny.

An artist (I can’t remember who or where or when) once said, “Once I create a piece and put it out into the world, the work isn’t mine anymore. It’s the viewers’. I can’t decide how people see it or what it means to them.”

Advertising is the exact opposite of art. It is created with the specific intent of making people feel, think, or act a certain way. But do we, as advertisers, really think we can control people like that?

A simple, unstaged, unedited photo of a shoe probably isn’t going to convince anyone to buy that shoe.

But when we put it on LeBron James (or Michael Jordan; I’m not trying to get into any fights here) in a stylized photo with some inspirational words that make people feel like they could be just like LeBron if they buy that shoe, then they are more likely to buy.

In advertising “just the facts” are never enough. You also need to connect with the people emotionally, and influence them to think, act, or feel a certain way about your product.

Ultimately, persuasion requires both emotion and reason. No one is convinced when they’re simply told what to think, but if you solely present facts with no emotional backbone, people will work to create their own narrative—which, very likely, may not be the message you intend.

It is an advertiser’s job to present the facts in a way that compels the audience to follow a specific emotional path, to appeal to both the brain and the heart. While we can never be sure people will stay exactly on course and end up feeling exactly as we intended, through careful writing, design and a targeted campaign, we can guide them.

Turns out, the audio clip was indeed saying laurel. The discourse comes from frequencies in sound waves and how people perceive them. Would the context of knowing the clip came from a vocabulary site help listeners hear “laurel?” No, (despite the fact that “yanny” isn’t actually a word) but it does help those who hear “yanny” accept the truth. Turns out, nothing is ever really black and blue.