Listen.

That's an odd theme to use for an advertising message. It doesn't sell anything in particular except ears, which you don't have to buy anyway. And ears hardly have anything to do with the business of Sperry Corp., a diversified New York-based manufacturer of computers, farm equipment and electronic data processing equipment.

Sperry's advertising theme, "We understand how improtant it is to listen" is a far cry from the previous "Making machines do more so man does more."

"About three years ago, we were given an assignment by senior executive to try to attmept to find out what Sperry's image was in the computer industry," says Richard R. Mau, vice president for corporate and government relations.

Research indicated that Sperry's image among computer users was "fuzzy," although it is No.2 in the industry. Mau says "one thing that kept recurring among those interviewed was that we tended to be more responsive" than competitors. "One day in a conversion with a field manager, he said he felt that difference was that we listened. This struck a responsive cord with us."

Once the firm settled on the "listen" theme, it invested two years of research and preparation before launching the multimedia campaign created by Scali, McCabe and Sloves of New York last September. To date, it has spent between $8 million and $10 milion on newspaper, magazine and television advertising, using historical, family and every-day life vignettes to show where careless listening has caused problems. One television spot has a garment center executive looking aghaust at racks of merchandise and exclaiming, "Eighty thousand! I said 1,000."

How effective has the campaign been in enhancing Sperry's image? Mau concedes it is difficult to measure. But the company has received about 35,000 requests, some from Europe, for a booklet entitled, "How efficient a listener are you?" Sperry advertises the free offer in small print ads with lots of copy to read. "We don't make it easy to get to that bottom line," Manu says.

The theme of listening has been used in the past, according to Delmont J. Kennedy, director of corporate advertising at Sperry. Ford, E.F. Hutton and Northwest Life Insurance, for example, have been among firms using such a theme.

"We're unique in that our approach is not just advertising -- it's more a philosophy. We have elaborate listen-training prgrams for Sperry employees," according to Kennedy.