Back in 1997, there was a study called Project Pygmalion that sought to identify which marketing approaches work best when trying to entice people to seek hearing help. Initiated by the Hearing Industries Association (HIA) in conjunction with Northwestern University and two marketing firms, the study monitored responses from more than 4,000 individuals with hearing impairment relative to three distinct marketing messages: 1) an educational approach; 2) an emotional approach; and 3) a “wedge of doubt” approach that suggested the deleterious effects of hearing loss on communication, relationships, job performance, etc. These marketing approaches were presented to subjects in 1 of 73 combinations of all types of media, ranging from print to TV.

The researchers noted that, historically, hearing instrument market penetration had remained at about 22% during most of the 80s and 90s, and the hearing aid unit volume growth that did occur was attributed to increases in binaural fittings and the aging population (not much different from today’s situation, although market penetration has crept up to about 25%). One of the primary conclusions from Project Pygmalion was that traditional marketing approaches did not motivate hearing-impaired people to seek professional help. In fact, all three marketing approaches, as well as the rather exhaustive combinations of media presentation, were deemed ineffective at changing the attitudes and behaviors of the subjects. Although the researchers acknowledged that these or other approaches, over longer periods of time, might be more successful, it was estimated that a $25 million increase in industry marketing expenditures (or about $34 million in today’s dollars) would yield only an additional 6% in hearing aid volume growth. In other words, a “Got Milk?” campaign tailored for the hearing industry using these messages was doomed to failure.

In many people’s view, what Project Pygmalion confirmed was that the primary influences on potential purchasers of hearing aids were the same as those stated by MarkeTrak research: recognition of one’s deteriorating hearing; urging from family members; and recommendations by family physicians, hearing/health care professionals, and importantly, other hearing instrument users. So, a large part of a hearing aid purchaser’s decision hinges on the impact of their hearing loss and an outside “weighty voice.” It also suggested that traditional advertising can sway the people who already consciously admit to having a hearing problem, as well as help “bring along” those who may unconsciously realize they need to consider hearing help, but it’s very difficult to convince someone through advertising that their hearing problem is a serious issue. They have to have a personal epiphany—some kind of trauma or a series of poignant, illustrative moments—to “own their hearing loss.”

In this month’s issue, Michael Harvey, PhD, addresses some of the “deep metaphors” that people can associate with hearing impairment—sometimes painful and terrifying emotions that they’ll do almost anything to hide from you, the dispensing professional. Many patients will get “White Coat Syndrome” and become tense and defensive when talking about their hearing loss; for some, their fears become a self-defeating behavioral loop that stops them from effectively using hearing aids. Interestingly, Harvey also cites a study by a husband-and- wife marketing team (Zaltman & Zaltman) who concluded that consumers feel their hearing aids convey “deficiency, weakness, breakage, and ugliness,” and ultimately these fears discourage “consumers from reentering the normal hearing world with hearing aids.”

At the recent Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA) meeting in Clearwater Beach, Fla, Oticon Marketing VP Gordon Wilson presented a seminar that dealt, in part, with the use of some of these deep metaphors in hearing care advertising. He said that, although hearing aids are designed to connect people with the others in the real world, the devices are still perceived by potential users to be surreal, uncomfortable, annoying, and embarrassing. Using images that convey release or renewal—as in coming out of a cave or a stork delivering new life—Wilson showed how these deep metaphors of overcoming hearing loss might be harnessed to motivate people to visit an office, and begin the journey from their world to the real “hearing world.” As Project Pygmalion showed, advertising messages alone won’t convince people they have a hearing problem; however, consistent and persuasive marketing messages can convey hope and use deep metaphors to show the path to healing. And, perhaps, to get people to seek help at an earlier age.

While we may be on the verge of developing more persuasive marketing messages, the “weighty voice”— the spouse, daughter, and experienced hearing aid user—is still of primary importance. To get more of them in our corner, we need to concentrate on satisfying more users with quality care and services—the theme of next month’s edition of HR.

Karl Strom