The Audio Cynic

Liminal Messages

I rarely notice ads, other than to be irritated by them. In my car, I listen to a local listener-supported station, largely to avoid ads (I mostly like the music—but I even listen to shows I don’t care for, rather than listen to John Elway plugging a mortgage company: his teeth scare me, even on the radio). —and before you ask, I like the serendipitous aspects of radio, and don’t like to play my own discs/files/stuff during my morning and evening commutes.

It’s tough to avoid ads while watching the World Series…especially with the sneaky 10-second spots that were run split-screen during pitching changes and other slow moments. My children would argue that baseball is nothing BUT slow moments—but that’s a story for another time.

During the 4th game of the Series I became aware of an ad which began while I was reading—again, trying to avoid ads. A familiar voice and familiar music slowly intruded upon my consciousness. We’re familiar with the term subliminal, meaning something which influences without being consciously perceived—but I did consciously perceive both voice and music, at the threshold of awareness. And “on the threshold” is one definition of the root word liminal, though we’re far more familiar with its modified form, subliminal, meaning below the threshold of awareness.

The voice I recognized as that of actor Bryan Cranston, and the rather audacious message from Ford was “The Future is Built”, trumpeting the company as a leader in producing things, not just ideas. The message was clearly a shot at Tesla, and the presentation was somewhat similar to the Ford truck ads that had featured Mike Rowe—only edgier, slightly pissed-off.

And the music? It took a second, but I recognized it as an instrumental arrangement of the Stones’ “Paint It Black”—which I bought as a 45, at age 10. I thought it an odd choice–until it occurred to me that it was a reference to Henry Ford’s credo for the Model T: “They can have any color they want, as long as it’s black.”

I don’t know what to think of messaging like that. I was aware of it, but just barely, and had to give it some thought before I realized the connection. Even then, really, I had to overthink it in order for the music to have any meaning other than just being a sonic backdrop.

So does that make it a liminal message, or a subliminal message? In either case, it’s unlikely that most folks seeing and hearing the ad would derive any meaning from the music, whatsoever. If that’s the case, is it a message at all?

It’s entirely likely that I’m obsessing over the point, and the exercise may in fact be pointless. But I grew up with a mother who wrote ad copy, and my adolescent heroes included David Ogilvy and George Lois. I was raised to appreciate clever, trenchant copy and images that conveyed more than words alone could. A good part of my career has been involved in writing ads or promotional material, and I think I’m a capable analyst of the work of others in the field.

I’ve got to think about this. And maybe that was the point.

A classic Esquire cover devised by George Lois and photographed by Carl Fischer.