In 2006, the New York Times confirmed an annoying niggle that was driving me batty:  Songs were being created with cellular phone ringtones intermittently interwoven in the background of the music to encourage your ear to listen to the unfamiliar song with a dedicated, if cryptic, authenticity.

SIX minutes 39 seconds into the Richard Thompson song “Calvary Cross,” Mike Pelusi, a music reviewer in Philadelphia, will almost invariably check his cellphone. Minka Wiltz, an actress in Atlanta, has tried to answer her phone to the thrrrrup, thrrrrup, thrrrrup of a truck bouncing down a pothole-pocked street.

Others say they thought they heard phones ring while taking a shower, using a blow-dryer or watching commercials. What they are hearing is a barely discernable sound — perhaps chimes, a faint trill or an electronic bleat — that they mistake for the ringtone of their cellphone, which isn’t ringing. This audio illusion — called phantom phone rings or, more whimsically, ringxiety or fauxcellarm — has emerged recently as an Internet discussion topic and has become a new reason for people to either bemoan the techno-saturation of modern life or question their sanity.

Some sound experts believe that because cellphones have become a fifth limb for many, people now live in a constant state of phone vigilance, and hearing sounds that seem like a telephone’s ring can send an expectant brain into action.

Today the “ringing phone syndrome” continues — but not as much in popular music — the unanswered phone that rings now can be faintly heard in radio commercials and in television movie trailers.

Remember, the whole idea of these subconscious ringings is to make you wonder where the sound is coming from so you’ll listen harder. 

Many people cannot hear the phone ringing in the background of these commercials because they are subtly added to the background mix — and that’s intentional on the part of the advertiser — because if you were sure the ringing phone was added to the commercial for no reason other than to irritate your sensibilities, then you’d be rightfully outraged to ask, “Why are you making me crazy with that infernal ringing?!”

As well, the embedded ringing phones don’t ring on a regular timing — because they want you to listen for the expected recognizable pattern — and when that pattern is disturbed, or is missed, it makes you even more fearful and awestruck as you try to figure out what’s going on around you.

Advertisers want you to pay attention to what they’re selling on an involuntary, subconscious, level they can then exploit later.

The sound of the ringing phone is not always cellular.  The trend today seems to be the old fashioned phone — if you have an iPhone, listen to the “Old Phone” ringtone and you’ll have an example — in a push, I believe, to get people in their 40’s and 50’s to pay attention because that “old phone” sound is immediately recognizable to even an untrained, older, ear, and in these dire economic times, that age group has more money to spend.

The reason these ringing phones are so popular for the sprinkling in advertising is because people cannot pin down exactly where the sound is coming from:  Is that my phone?  Is that the TV?  Is the radio ringing?  Where did I put my phone? 

You stop for a moment or two to try to find the source of the sound, and — in that nanosecond of hesitation — the advertiser’s point has been made hard in your head as the last sound you remember in trying to locate the ring was a product placement.

In addition to the ringing phone, I have also noticed doorbells making a quiet, yet disturbing, debut in radio commercials.

Doorbells are not as successful — or as subtly sustainable — as a subconscious advertising trigger like a distant phone ringing, because people always know where to find the front door and they don’t have to figure out where the sound is coming in order to take action.

If we call out the major advertisers and ask them to stop ringing phones and playing ring-and-run in our heads, perhaps we can finally have some peace at home in the mind instead of having our membranes purposefully messed with for the profit of commerce.


  1. How insidious! I stick to ring tones that I recognize so I know when I hear a normal phone ringing sound that it isn’t my phone.

  2. When I watch Fox News I’ve noticed in the last month or so that there is at least one phone ringing in the background during every commercial break. I found this site looking for an explanation. Thanks for letting me know I’m not crazy. ;o)

  3. John!
    I love it that you were proactive and did a search on this “ringing phenomenon!” Thank you for finding us! I’m so glad you noticed the infernal ringing, too, because I think this is some sort of psychological torture that will turn us all mad.

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