Back in the virtually prehistoric days before there were personal computers — (actually, it was 1964) a Canadian professor named Marshall McLuhan published a book called Understanding Media. I didn’t even understand the book itself – though I tried – but one thing I got out of it was a new view of the concept of a medium, which, in terms of communication, simply refers to the means by which a message is delivered. The plural expression, “media” embraces the entire range of such channels, from a tree or a rock upon which some meaningful mark is made, through all the pathways of print, voice, and image, to the invisible electronic conduits of modern “online” connections.
I still did not understand his central idea, that “The Medium is the Message” — but there is a third member of this group, and that is the intended recipients, readers, viewers, or audience. They may comprise, at one extreme, the single addressee of a private letter, or, at the other, the entire universe through all future time. As to the latter, I am thinking of the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, still travelling somewhere out there, bearing an elaborate message in the form of a disk, intended to convey, to whatever intelligent beings may come across it, some idea, in sounds and images, of where it came from, and who sent it.
Between those two extremes, there are the media of our daily lives, whose content, for better or worse, consists largely of news, religion, entertainment, education, and political campaigning – with no fine lines between them. But overlapping and interwoven with them all is the weird and wonderful world of Advertising. That world has mostly to do with making money and advancing causes, which, in both cases, involves selling and persuading.
Remarkably, most advertising seems to be devoted to the least essential products. Where would the big bucks find a home if it were not for non-nutritional drinks and questionable computer services? The loss of cigarette advertising must have been a tremendous blow — but they have obviously recovered nicely.
In this whole sphere of endeavor, I personally have been a relative innocent. After being in business for more than 50 years, mainly in the realm of postcards, I have hardly ever bought any advertising, and never sold any. By extraordinary good fortune, the product I had chosen was a two-sided medium, and was capable of carrying creative words and graphics on one side, and its own sales message on the other. Moreover, as an item meant to be mailed, it provided its own world-wide distribution service.
But this non-involvement left me free to look at advertising objectively. As a child growing up in World War II, however, I was very susceptible to what grown-ups often dismissed as “propaganda.” So, there was never any question in my mind as to the rightness of our cause, the inevitability of our victory, and the permanence of a subsequent world of peace. As for the enemy, they were without doubt totally evil.
It was only later that I learned how fervently the enemy — particularly the Japanese — believed in their own cause, but that this could be manipulated by our side’s clever propaganda. For example, at one point it was found that the leaflets we had been dropping on their Pacific outposts containing official-looking “certificates” guaranteeing safety and good treatment, if the bearer surrendered, were failing to get the hoped-for results. Linguistic experts were consulted, who determined that the phrase “I SURRENDER,” with which these “passes” were headed, was too shameful to the Japanese mind. So, it was changed to words meaning “I CEASE RESISTANCE.” This modification, it was found, brought a much better response.
And choice of words can be just as important in any other kind of advertising, especially where translation is concerned. You may have heard of the supposed debacle concerning the Chevrolet Nova, whose name in Spanish can mean “Doesn’t Go.”
I myself committed an advertising blunder, when, at the age of 21, I decided to accept my own first and middle names, which I had always hated. Feeling very brave, I put up a notice at my college announcing that:
“The person hitherto known as John Brilliant wishes it to be known that his real name is Ashleigh Ellwood Brilliant, and in future, he wishes to be known as such.”
Imagine my chagrin when, the next time I looked at that notice, I found that some diabolical wit had put quotation marks around the word “such.”