Monday, April 1, 2024

Background Noise

The rule of thumb, or more accurately, the rule of paw in the dog-training business is that you don't train the dog so much as you, the humans nominally in charge of the dog, get trained.

Sparkle, our six-month-old golden retriever, is teething, as six-month-old golden retrievers do. And while you can give the pup things to chew, or try to distract, chew they must. Our veterinarian put it nicely. "She's tasting the world," he said, and I understand.

Everything from our floorboards to our spindly hydrangeas have been chawed on. Our coffee table, our over-priced Apple computer wires, the little silicon thingees that keep our dining room chairs from scraping the dining room floor.

So, the other day a man drove up to our little ramshacklized cottage in a 1981 Volkswagen Jetta Diesel with 429,000 miles on in and announced himself and his beard as "Jim, the dog-trainer." He went to work on us and nominally on Sparkle, though Jim made no bones about it, we were the ones who weren't good dogs.

The main thing Jim scratched at is the all-too-human tendency of becoming, quickly becoming, background noise. 

I never understood people who leave the TV on all day as they go about their affairs, or stores that have music playing all day, much of it as dissonant as a criminal selling bibles and running for president. 

But humans, when training dogs, and I suppose living with each other, and teenagers are all about background noise. When we take Sparkle to a beach near our Connecticut collection of floorboards and she runs off despite our repeated wailings of Sparkle Sparkle Sparkle, we turn into, according to Jim, background noise. Sparkle no longer hears our crow-like incessance of us yelling her name. We're sound and fury, idiots, signifying nothing.

I'm afraid in our Era of Inundation advertising--every aspect of it--from what appears in media, via word of mouth or even the functional and logistical aspects of our jobs has become nothing but background noise. In too many ways, we are more comfortable blending in than standing out.

Maybe the simplest way to think about background doesn't even involve noise. Think of all the brands that are "blue" for instance. 

Just look at the tiny icons on the bottom of your computer screen. Most are somewhere between sky blue and navy. Keynote. The App Store. Zoom. Kindle. Microsoft Office. Safari. Microsoft Mail. Microsoft Word. Finder. Quick Time Player. And so it goes. Nothing stands out. It's background blur.

Of course, blue is very comfortable for clients. Like adding an "a-thon" to a car manufacturer's name to announce a sale, or all the emails you got around Easter announcing "egg-citing" news.

When I worked in the traditional agency business I used to say to anyone who would listen (usually just me) that the worst reaction of all to the work we share is what I call polite applause or golf clapping. It's bland positivity based more on generosity than true admiration.

I see work on Agency Spy (that's about the only place I see 99-percent of the advertising I see) and it's usually awful. But it's there, getting PR, promoting people and agencies and people and agencies feel good about that. In real life it sucks. It's background noise. The culture everyone is becoming a part of? It's not distinguishing, differentiating, diverse, or even real. No wonder, in the words of David Ogilvy, the dead advertising icon misappropriated by an eponymous agency he founded that bears no resemblance to anything he had anything to do with, pass like ships in the night.

That's the business we're in. The always on, always blathering, always shouting, never reaching anyone business. So we send out more missing missives on anodyne anonymity and wonder why no one cares.

We, alone, are not to blame. Clients too want words they've seen before, smiles they approved before, and a color pallette as predictable as potholes on the Bruckner Expressway. Years ago, I had an ACD who mocked this by repeating, "Don't wait to be told, use Bodoni bold."

Our dog--the people we're trying to reach--has run down a long and empty beach--that's either real or metaphorical. We call their names into the ether and they keep running, heedless away. So we yell louder and more frequently. And they run further away.

Background noise.


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