Clutter Makes Noise

In 1970, Canadian media philosopher Marshallshutterstock_13586188 McLuhan wrote of a “big flip taking place in our time.” He described humans caught in a rapid environmental changeover from “the eye to the ear,” suddenly confronted with the problems of living in an “acoustic world” – a world of simultaneous information.

In an acoustic world, our ears are as (or more) important than our eyes. So when we desire in advertising to “cut through the clutter,” what we truly desire is to make the correct sound. The “clutter,” in the end, turns out to be a form of “noise.”

To a sound artist, audio frequency (“hertz (Hz)”) measures the number of vibrations in a sound wave. The range of vibrations audible to average humans is 20Hz to 20000Hz. A sound’s pitch (e.g., a musical note) results from its frequency. Scientists have even determined, irrespective of background, context, or taste, humans all enjoy sounds in a range around 400Hz. Fwiw, the chanting of “Om” in Eastern religious meditation is at 432Hz, which is itself a multiple of the frequency of the Earth’s rotation. No wonder so many find peace in chanting.

But chanting “Om” in the middle of Grand Central Station will not always rise above rush-hour’s din. The acoustic world is made of chaos, not silence. People are exposed to approximately 5000 marketing messages a day now. That’s a serious amount of noise.

Media buyers are not paid to be media philosophers or sound artists, so “frequency,” in advertising, just refers to the number of times an ad gets in front of a consumer. Upstream in the creative process, however, it’s worth thinking of McLuhan’s acoustic world, because many times the number of airings of a message has no correlation to its impact.

Apple’s “1984” ad aired once on national broadcast television, and only 11 times total. It first aired in 10 local outlets, including Twin Falls, Idaho, where Chiat/Day ran the ad on December 31, 1983, at the last possible break before midnight on KMVT, to qualify for 1983 advertising awards. It’s second televised airing, and only national airing was on January 22, 1984, during a break in the third quarter of the telecast of Super Bowl XVIII by CBS.

The ad’s media frequency was essentially 1. That’s the sound of a media buyer taking a pretty big risk. The “1984” spot generated noise, however, at the best possible acoustic frequency. Decades later, we remember the ad, and it continues to define (for better and worse) Apple’s brand.

Broadcast television still had primacy in the early 1980s, though, and the intervening time since then has taken marketers through another major media “flip” into interactivity. You now talk to people as they talk to each other. That’s a new type of “clutter” that demands new skills for cutting through.

People today are more adept at juggling communication than at any other point in history. On the other hand, we may be at the worst moment in history for moments of reflection and silence – the very things necessary to judge the credibility of communication. How marketers contribute to media clutter has everything to with that.

So, what cuts through your clutter? What “advertising noise” do you find most pleasing? When your creative process cuts through the clutter, the end result is not just listenable, but actionable, too.