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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Music - It Never Stops



Two people are swirling whatever they’re drinking over ice in glasses.  One, Jonah, is shaking his head as he stares at his drink.  Karchy, is slouched back in a recliner, staring at the ceiling.  Karchy groans the dialog out.

  Jonah, I just don’t get it.  Every word in that spot
  is perfect.  The visuals are great, there’s a call
  to action, and the inherent drama of the product
  is, well, dammit, it’s smack in your face.  Why
  the hell would it test so poorly.
  (beat) …and bring the client’s wrath right down on
  the two of us?

Their eyes meet and what should have been a return to their original positions turns to a lock on one another.  They hold that pose for a number of seconds.  Then what one would imagine to be am upcoming admission of love for one another brings something else.

  It’s (beat) it’s…

Jonah’s realization comes with great force.

  It’s missing music!  That’s what’s wrong.  We need 

                            I thought…

  Think this.  Think MUSIC.  That’s what’ll SAVE (beat) 
  THIS (beat) SPOT.

OK.  The script you’ve just read is true.  Well, it might be true.  I mean, some of it’s true.  Maybe it didn’t go down exactly like that but if you’ve seen any commercials in the last few months, you know that something like this has taken place in every shop – big or small – representing major and minor (and augmented and diminished) clients across the country.  Everything has to have music under it.  Even the Pre-poo™ toilet spray has music underneath. Wait.  Is that music?

It really isn’t new.  In fact, here’s a story that I can attest to.

Toward the tail of last century.  Chicago.  A creative director in an agency is watching a commercial for a toaster pastry product.  The spot is about as flat as the product.  He looks at the writer, art director, and producer and says, “Get some music underneath it.”

They had me call a Chicago music creator.  Pretty well-known guy.  He comes over and we play the spot a number of times.  As he stands in front of the RP screen in a darkened room you can see the outline of him waving his arm up and down, snapping his fingers.  Then he starts to hum.  “I got it.  I got it.”

Meeting over.  He leaves and calls with a proposed session time.  The creative guys go to the studio and come back with a new track.  Voila.  Music.  Same words.  Much better.  

They play it for the client.  “Air it.”

So they put it on the air.  By the end of the month, two things had happened.  First, the outcall research showed it was still a bust.  But, second, the client got a letter (remember, this was in the snail mail days) asking if they were aware that the music used in the spot was actually a Baptist hymn and what did they think they were doing, subverting/perverting and otherwise verting a sacred song.

Well, there was no need to go to a musicologist.  It was the exact song.  Pull the spot, apologize to letter writer, hang heads.  

But the thing did air with music.  It’s just that the music did nothing.

Now, back to today.  I understand that, apparently, we’re all sad.  We’re depressed. Covid has a bunch of us not working, we’re worried about tomorrow and the day after and on and on.

But I am bothered by all the music in today’s media. I’ll start with commercials.  It seems that every creative director is like the one I mentioned above.  We need feel-good music to “set the mood” for our message.  It’s flat out everywhere.

And what’s the matter with that?  I suppose taken alone, away from anything on either side, the spots may work though I have more on that below.  Mashed together, though, different themes, different keys and rhythms 10, 15 or 30 seconds at a time gets pretty annoying.  It just promotes psychological tuneout.

Give yourself an idea of the problem.  Get a sheet of paper (a what?) and start tracking spots.  Just write the word break and after it put an M or an N for each spot.  M’s are for music, N’s for those with no music.  There’s gonna be a lot of M’s and very few N’s. Go break-by-break.  It isn’t tough.

Keep your ears open; you’ll hear a whole load of spots with music mixed under for no apparent reason.  In so many cases, it has no relationship to the visual or spoken message.  It’s just drivel.  I’m not talking about those that creatively make use of a song with parody lyrics that make sense.  What comes to mind is Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic.  They picked up the refrain from Magic by Pilot and it’s changed to Oh Oh Oh O-zempic.  And, son of a gun.  The song plays right into the minds of most prospects – adults, often older, with diabetes.  Does that not mesh with the 1974 date of the song.  And the subliminal link of “it’s magic” to “Ozempic” is terrific, at least for this old guy.  Same rhythm, same accents, no shoehorning or skipping of beats or pitches.

At the same time, I could list 10 others right off the bat using 60s, 70s or any other pop song with zero tie-in to the product.  In fact, the music probably detracts from the product if the takeaway in the viewers’ minds is the song and not the product.  

And how many oldies get used to sell to teens?  Is it a smart thing?  If they don’t recognize the song, is that good or bad?  The lyrics are changed and if they fit, the listener will never know – but then what’s the value of paying a license fee for something that has no meaning.  On the other hand, I’ve been to a bunch of street fairs1 and I am amazed at the 21+ crowd singing along with oldies from a cover band.  

Of course, I suppose I could suggest that advertisers courting teens and young adults employ much more recent music but what?  Brian McNight? Three 6 Mafia?  Not a lot written in the last 10 years that’s upbeat, positive, and without some sort of objectionable lyric.

One other point.  Anyone remember this cardinal rule for mixing music:  Never mix a vocal under dialog.  Geez, Len, get your backside into the 21st century.  To which I reply, “Yeah?  Because it’s 2020 that makes it OK?”  That issue is not one of taste.  Nor is it one of creativity.  It has to do with lyrics getting in the way of the message.  

Though you might think that the minds of today can pluck out the message, why would you make them do that.  I did a blog on the wonders of human hearing but when you’re trying to convey information, why put interference in the path.

And a final note.  I’m begging you guys, stop doing board fades in the middle of a phrase.  If you have to do that, maybe time to rethink your talent. 
So the tracks keep comin’ whether their music relates to the product or not.  The tube is teeming with them…no doubt because someone said the spot needed music to sell the product.
Coming up next time (or maybe after that) music in programming.  That’s a fun one.

Dennis Haysbert
Dennis Haysbert (R)
Aside:  Hats off to Allstate Insurance – 30 full seconds with zero music, relying on the copy and the authoritative voice of Dennis Haysbert to communicate the message.

1 For those of you not familiar, a Street Fair is a historic gathering of people, usually with lots of food tents, beer stands, local merchants' tents, and a few pandering politicians.  At the ends of the closed-off street there are bands - yes, live bands, people dancing in the street with no masks and much closer than the six-foot minimum.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Don't Worry About the Chinese

OK.  Now what's he prattling on about.

First, please note, this is NOT a political commentary.  Maybe more of an open letter to explain that everyone has a stance on trading with the Chinese.  "There's a huge trade imbalance."  "They steal our intellectual property."  "They want to destroy us."  "They don't buy anything of value from us."  Hit a search engine and you'll find all sorts of reasons to trade and to not trade with China.

Currently, we're in a trade skirmish.  Call it a war if you wanna. It has to do with tariffs and our trying to get some reasonable balance of trade.  I'd go on but I've already buried the lede, as usual.

It's the bottom line.  We have nothing to worry about. 

h-Why?  h-Why, you say?  It's a simple answer:  The Chinese haven't a clue about real world economics or customer service.  My proof?

Jack Ma  (Courtesy, CNBC)
A couple of years back, I registered with Jack Ma's* Alibaba.  Never bought anything but looked at various pieces of electronic equipment and their manufacture in China.  I was always afraid of the "not quite" - like an EIA connection that's "not quite" 3 1/8" or a length of Cat5E line that was "not quite" wound properly.  Too many hassles.  I got some promos from them [him] but not much else.  However, I did do a followup registration with AliExpress, the so-called consumer-driven arm of Jack Ma's business.

Well, this past Tuesday, I realized that a particular item I was looking for was, in fact, manufactured in China.  I thought I'd give AliExpress a try.  Good to have some experience should a vendor or client talk about the service.

If you think Alicia Silverstone was clueless, go to AliExpress.  Sign in, if you want to.  Fill your cart with any number of items, many of which are really good buys since the US markup (not tariff, markup) is pretty high.

If you have my experience, you'll see that there's a clock telling you that the real sale will start in x days/hours.  Wait till then and you can save a great deal of money.  For me it was about $40 on $203 worth of purchases.  And given that those purchases would have totaled about $350 had I purchased from US middlepeople, it was a great deal.

So I clicked on all the coupons to redeem them.   They all said "added" except one which I finally figured out.  Then it sat for 3 days till Friday AM.  I logged back in.  Had to jump thru all of the hoops but it did pull up my list.  So far so good.

Left hand corner?  Clock said 00:00:00 to sale.  Even better.  Once again, I clicked the coupons.  Once again they were added.  Then clicked on "Buy".  Oops.  Can only buy one item.  Hmmmmmm.  Well, that's OK, maybe that's the right thing to do anyway.  See how this thing drives.

Picked one item that exceed its coupon minimum.  Bought it...almost.  In the checkout, it asked for the usual name, address, etc. but, in this case, as you would expect, "Country."

Click in the box.  No dropdown.  OK.  I can play this game.  Entered "US" and it went blank with a red "enter country" above it.  Next try?  "USA".  Nope.  Then, of course, "United States of America".  No sir-ee.

I know.  I'll try Edge instead of Firefox.  Same experience.

Went looking for online help.  If you scour the AliExpress site, you will eventually get to a chat.  (Holy cow.  I'm looking into the screen and I can see eyes rolling to the ceiling.)  I opened "Eva".  Eva was nice enough to tell me that she/he (I don't know what his/her pronouns are) was busy with someone else and would be along shortly.

Eventually she showed up. I explained everything and she asked if I could send a screen shot.  I did.  She recommended that I enter "other" in the country slot.  Didn't work.  Then she asked me to clear the browser cache and cookies.  I reminded her that that would cost me a lot of time down the road with certain accounts I have.  She didn't get that. 

Regardless, I went ahead.  Nothing.  I told her that neither Edge nor Firefox would show the dropdown.  Then the other 鞋子 dropped.  "Please download and install Incognito browser."

Whaaaaaat?  "Excuse me.  Are you telling me that Jack Ma has had a system designed that only works with Google and Incognito?"

"Please download Incognito."

"I cannot"

"Here is the link."

"No.  I cannot because I will not put a Google browser on any machine I have control over."

"You will need Incognito browser."

"I think I can let you go help someone else.  Please do us both a favor and send a copy of this email to Jack Ma."

So, we're safe.  If Jack Ma hasn’t figured it out, he soon will…he built it but we ain't comin'.
Now, granted, this is an inexact analysis.  But the principle is there.  Of course, if they do figure it out, then we throw the fickleness of American consumers at them.  That'll buy us another 50 years.

* I'm using what I believe to be his full name since I'm not sure if he's Westernized or if Ma is actually his pronome

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Why Are You Yelling At Me!

Maybe I’m the only person annoyed by announcers screaming at me.  I don’t think that’s the case but I don’t hear anyone complaining.  It makes me wonder if this is just an age thing.  I wouldn’t think so, I mean, among millennials, parents yelling could be considered child abuse so that demo must be attuned to yelling and its ill effects.

There was a time (What?  You want “once upon a time”? “It was a dark and stormy night?”) when announcers were trained to speak with their audience(s).  The thinking was that he/she was a guest in the home of the viewer and that he/she should be conversational – talking like a friend.

I can recall live commercials in all sorts of shows from Ed Sullivan to Milton Berle to Playhouse 90 and GE Theater.  In those commercials, the announcers actually did behave like friends.  You can go back and search for “cast commercials” to watch a few.

The best example I can find is an episode of GE Theater where Don Herbert, aka Mr. Wizard, is doing a sort of commercial demonstrating the development of General Electric jet engines.  Even through the noise, Herbert is conversational in nature, talking with the viewer instead of at us. You felt like he was a friend.

Fast forward to today and what the heck happened?  Was it Billy Mays?  Did his screaming/yelping so bake his infomercials into viewers’ minds that standing out by being annoying became a requirement for any commercial?

Was it that the commercial had to be louder than anything around it?  There’s a lot to that.  And, of course, that led to The CALM act – legislation against the laws of physics and psychoacoustics.

Here’s the funny thing – it’s possible to yell softly.  I’m talking about the type of yelling where the talent speaks in an overly loud manner then his/her level is controlled so that it’s within FCC modulation limits If the level is controlled, how do we know that someone is yelling?1   Without going into great detail, the larynx develops different levels and ratios of fundamental and harmonic tones depending on the amount of air being pushed past.  It’s the same as overblowing a horn The harmonics can get heavy and rough so that yelling gives a far different takeaway to the viewer than normal conversation.

Bottom line, yelling often makes the listener think you are angry at him/her.  And that said, why would I want to make someone angry while I’m telling him/her something I want to be believed? 
I want to take this one step further.  I sense this type of delivery in other “to-camera” presentations, too.  Newscasters.  Standups.  Sportscasters.  Sportscasters.  And did I say sportscasters?

I have a theory about why.  At one time, television worked with some pretty wide lenses.  (I saw that eyebrow go up…but hang with me.)  We did it for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the dolly.  A move on a long lens often put shake in the image as the pedestal rolled across the floor.  That meant using wider lenses so the cameras could make hot dollies.

Enter the zoom lens.  Dolly is out, zoom is in.  Why should they dolly?2  Instead, the cameras are parked – sometimes even locked off – in positions that produce a pleasing perspective, reduce the chance of shooting off the set, keep the cameras at a distance that would allow equipment and cables to pass in front, lessen the visible motion of the presenter’s eyes when reading a prompter, and otherwise satisfy the set designer’s vision.

If you look at some of the productions, it’s obvious that the camera is back and zoomed in for the proper framing rather than set up close and zoomed back.3  It’s usually a pretty long distance.  So, what happens?  The presenter is imagining that he/she is talking to someone 15 or more feet away.  That presenter doesn’t think about that lapel/lav/boom mic that’s, at most, a couple of feet away, tucked nicely out of frame.

The psychological effect on the presenter is that he/she tries to do his/her best to communicate to that imaginary viewer behind the lens – a long distance away.  The voice becomes strident and loud and becomes unfriendly.  Friendly or not, it’s not the least bit inviting.

If you want to prove it to yourself, first look at dramatic dialog and commercial breaks with the CALM Act in place.  When two actors are a foot apart, talking to one another, the voice characteristics are such that the laws of congress get blown away by the laws of physics.  If, by chance, the segue to a commercial break is to a standup presenter,that presenter will sound louder, dialnorm, BS1770, be damned.

If you listen to that same commercial running in a newscast, the level is probably indistinguishable from the preceding presenter’s delivery.  Go figure, eh?

What to do about it?  Well we could do nothing.  I mean, who cares how people feel about a presenter or product on a subliminal level?  We could keep in mind camera distance and work with presenters – of which there are many more and most with little real education about audio – to get them to talk in a more conversational tone.  Talking more conversationally won’t lower the station’s modulation level; you’ll still be as loud as before but with a smile rather than a frown.  It might even move an additional 2012 Honda Civic off the lot or attract a couple more viewers to a newscast. 
Just sayin’.

2 If you don’t know the difference between a zoom and dolly, check this

3If you start with that “perspective distortion of wide lenses", we’re going to get into it.

Friday, July 27, 2018

A Tale of Two Idiots

By idiots, I’m talking about the web design and marketing folks for two online sellers of major appliances.

Washing machine went out in the “getaway” house – a place that isn’t visited frequently.   

A repairman (repairperson?) came, bowed his head and shook holy water on the old one and I wanted to get a replacement installed before leaving for a few weeks.

So I logged on.  Searched the majors looking for what I needed and found it.  A one-type-each white agitator driven top loading washing machine with 4 stars or better. $499 at one site.  It had a snipe that said “Today only, $479.”  That was better than the $519 on another site though both had free delivery. 

I took the $499.  Went through the process.  Stuck it into the cart and went through checkout.  At that point, it added $55 delivery.  I backed up, checked my work, and went at it again.  Same results.  Lo and behold the bottom of the page.  Phones manned (sorry, I just can’t say “personed”) till 2AM EDT.  I called. 

“I think I know,” the voice at the other end of the phone said, after I navigated the maze that they call a phone tree.


“The twenty dollars off put you below the four-ninety-nine minimum for free shipping.”

“So your discount is going to cost me thirty five dollars more than without the discount.”


“Can you fix that?”

He wasn’t even contrite.  “No.”

“Can you sell it at the regular price?”


“Well, can you do me one favor?”

“What’s that?”  Now he was bored. I could tell but I woke him up.

“When I hang up, would you send an email to your chief marketing officer, webmaster, and the crack MBA that’s overseeing your sales policies telling them that you lost a five hundred dollar sale and then explain what happened?”

There was a long pause then, amazingly, he asked, “So you don’t want the washer?”

“This call’s being recorded, right?”


“Then, no.  And further, this type of stupidity reflects on the entire company and makes me reconsider any future purchases from you.  Please tell ‘em that, too, would you?”  Maybe those weren’t the exact words.  I was a little harsher.

The call ended.  As I was talking, I was already on to the other tab.  “Five-nineteen it is,” I thought to myself.  “But look, free installation if I have them haul off the old washer.”  I was going to do that anyway so, good.

I went through the purchase.  During checkout, I saw the price change to $545 and change.  I looked around on the page.  Aha.  Here it is:  The free installation only applied if I bought their new stainless steel reinforced hoses at $29.99.  OK.  I get it.

Backtrack.  Tell them never mind on the installation.  I figured they still had to take out the old one to remove it.  Finally, I got through checkout – at least as far as the credit card.  There was no place for me to give separate delivery and billing addresses.

Well, look at that – a chat box popped up. 

“Enter your name,” it said.  So I did.

“Yes. Len.  Let me help you.”

I could put the whole transcript here but let me summarize.  He had a form pop up in the chat box that allowed me to pay.  Except.  Nope.  Didn’t like a different billing address.  For the heck of it, I tried entering the delivery address as the billing address.  That prompted a fraud alert text from my bank.

Tried a couple of other ideas and nothing worked but while chatter and chattee were at it, chattee was on the phone with his bank.  I explained what I was trying to do.  Well, the bank got it done.  It took about 15 additional minutes but it’s done.

So it’s in, did four fine loads of laundry in day one.  I’m happy except for the fact that it took me more time to buy online than had I gone the store.  Of course, had I experienced the silliness that they foisted upon me while in the retail establishment, I may have had additional charges from a bail bondsman. (Once again with the person/man thing.)

This just in:  I called a tree service a little after 5.  Got the answering service. 

“XXX tree service.”

“Is the service or their answering service?”

“Answering service.”

“Could you have them call me in the morning?”

“May I ask what this call is regarding?”

I wanted to say that my coconut palm won’t talk to me but I held back.

Monday, March 5, 2018

If Bricks and Mortar Acted This Way...

I walked into Macy's yesterday.  Zigzagging my way toward the casual shirts, a sales guy threw himself in front of me.  He held up the Sunday FSI with Macy's sales items.  He started his sell job on the first one.  I gave him a strange look and tried to walk past.

Instead of letting me continue toward the shirts, he flipped to another item.  Then another.  After turning down 4 or 5 items, he finally asked where I was heading.  I told him "shirts" and he proceeded to describe everything they had.  At least he was allowing me to make my way in that direction even though I had to put up with his dogged selling.

I got to the shirts and found out that they were strewn out on the floor.  You had to guess where your size might be - no categories like neck size or sleeve length.  Even colors were mixed.

After about 5 minutes, I gave up and left.  Down the street, I found the same shirt - and did so by walking in the front door and looking at the store map which clearly identified where products were located.  Up the escalator and to the right and there they were.

The Macys visit kinda tired me out so I wanted to grab a bite. 
Courtesy PhotoStock, Modified
As I tried to enter the restaurant, a nice but firm person at the door asked for my name, age, and zip code.  I asked her why she needed it.  She had no answer but wouldn't let me through the air lock without telling her.  I finally shouted through the Plexiglass, "If you need that, let me tell you that I'm just going to go across the street to Al's Grill.  I can walk in, sit down and eat.  She shrugged, turned, and walked away.

Al's was closed.  Tail between legs, I crossed the street and knocked on the door again.  After trading my name, age and zip (which, by the way, she could have gotten - along with lots more demo info - at the end of the meal from my credit card) she opened the second door and showed me to a seat. 

A very ornate menu was handed to me along with the request for a drink order.  When I asked for an unsweetened tea, the waiter asked if I might prefer a beer.  He said they had a great microbrewery in the back and I'd love it.  I turned it down.  He came with my tea and took my order, but not before recommending three other entrees which I also said no to. 

When the plate came, I noticed that under the porcelain was a logo for a car dealership with an actual ad printed there.  It kinda bothered me, shoveling mashed potatoes from around the driveshaft area of a new Lexus RV but I finished.  Got the check, gulped the last of the tea, and put my credit card in the little folder. 

The waiter grabbed it and immediately, his place in front of me was filled by a young man selling all sorts of odd items.  I had to say no to five or six of them before he got the hint and stepped aside, allowing the waiter to return for my signature.  I took the receipt and my card and vowed never to return.

Home!  Turned on the water to make coffee.  It was interesting - the water ran for about a minute then spurted a few times and quit.  I had to turn it off and turn it back on a couple of times to get it flowing again.  That happened for a few cycles and it also would stop then start again by itself.

I gave up. Turned the pot off and opened a bottle of water.  Finally.  Something simple...that worked.

Here's the deal:  None of the above happened.  Who would put up with it?  But we seem to tolerate all of that - and worse - in our daily Internet lives. 

Sites put up barriers of all sorts to their pages.  I call those designers the "Sales Prevention Department."  Many of them may have come out of the supermarket world, you know, "Put the stuff people really want waaaaay at the back.  Make them pass the cookies, desserts, ice cream, frozen pizza and anything else we can foist off on them before they can get to the milk."

A MAJOR streamer requires year of birth, zip, and gender in order to view/listen to a stream.  Really?  Maybe that's a fair trade?  What if they asked you every time rather than setting a cookie to tell them that they already have the information?  Yet it's happening all over. 

Then, instead of allowing you to go to the stream, there are prerolls, popovers (not the blueberry kind that I like, either), coverups, fly-bys and myriad other ads that get in the way.  And they could deliver those without interrupting your stream.

This just in:  a listserv I frequent had a posting of a URL with a "Hey, anyone tried these guys?" comment.  I went to the site (carefully), looked at it, looked at it, looked one more time.  "What do these guys do," I asked myself.  The site danced around what they offered, even told me that there was a $50/mo plan that might be a great starter.  But it did NOT say, "We provide THIS service to broadcasters."  There was a great slide show that occupied the top half of the frame.  Showed some folks with mics, others with computers.  All had smiles so I figure that whatever the product, they were happy with it.

I was curious so I opened a ticket saying that I'd like to know about their product since their home page and the main links didn't really address that.  I got the immediate automated "We'll be back to you shortly," response.  A couple of days later, I received a real email saying, "Hi, and thanks for getting in touch.  How can we help you today?  Best regards, (name).  That despite the fact that I had spelled out the issue, "What do you do?"  So I responded, explaining again.

Well, that one got an interesting response that started with (I'm not kidding, this is a quote) "I read your ticket. I'm not sure what more to say. If you seriously have no idea what we do, then it's likely the product isn't for you."

Well, grumpy old man that I am, I thanked him for the ES&D email (think about it) then told him I had done a quick SEO study and that the site A) relies for graphics to communicate and even then doesn't tell the story of what they do and B) doesn't state anything of what they do in HTML.  Then told him that in my check, his Google ranking was way down - well below the 10th page, you know, that depth that none of us goes to unless we reeeeeally want to find something.  The response was simple - they didn't need my business.

You may not realize it but your site may be telling prospects exactly the same thing without you even knowing.  So, if you're a CEO, go to your site.  I've said it before, even recommending that you take a bottle of your favorite liquor and a crying towel.  Look at it as if you're arriving for the first time.  What does it really tell you.  And if you're head of marketing for one of these companies and you're happy with your site, you may want to look for someone who knows a little more about web users.  (Hint:  they act the same with bricks and mortar stores, restaurants, and service centers).  It's your choice.  I know that I've settled on a competitor to the unidentifiable site above.  The unidentifiable site doesn't know that but apparently they don't need my business anyway.