Sound-weaver tells media secrets
`EDUCATED people think they are immune to media,'' Tony Schwartz said recently. ``But I think they are really much more subject to it because they think that they are not. ``They are really so unaware of how it functions.''Skip to next paragraph
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If there is anyone who can remedy this deficiency, it's Tony Schwartz. He is the man the New York Times once called advertising's ``king of sound,'' maker of hundreds of advertisements for corporations and political candidates and an intellectual compadre of Marshall McLuhan. His two books - ``The Responsive Chord'' and ``Media: The Second God'' - rank with Mr. McLuhan's 1965 classic, ``Understanding Media,'' in their insight into how radio and television have changed our minds and lives.
Early on, Mr. Schwartz says, he learned there was a vast gulf - even in the advertising industry - between the way people think about the media and the way these actually work. Others thought radio and TV were just print by other means, while he saw them as entirely different.
``When I realized this,'' he says, ``it freed me completely from trying to fit into their world. I'd just have to explore my own world.''
Today, the center of Tony Schwartz's world is an old brownstone, once a Pentecostal church, near the piers on Manhattan's East Side. He spends his days -- he doesn't go out much -- in a deep, windowless lair, the bookshelves jammed floor to ceiling with tapes, giant television monitors perched on mobile platforms, and mikes, headsets, and cables everywhere. Schwartz's desk is a bank of tape decks, the organ in this cluttered high-tech chapel of images and sounds.
Schwartz has never been your standard adman. Quiet and reflective, he sells because he loves the media, rather than vice versa. Either by temperament or resolve, he moves at his own deliberate pace. And he chooses his clients as carefully as he does his words. ``I never did anything I wouldn't show to my wife and children,'' he says.
Nevertheless, until recent years, Schwartz has been a man of two seemingly opposite missions. As an artist and craftsman, he has tried to make advertisers understand the potential of the media as persuasive tools. At the same time, as a thinker and man of conscience, he has tried to alert people to the ways and means of media influence, while using media himself for socially constructive ends. In recent years, the vectors have been converging on the second course.
``I came to the conclusion,'' he says, ``that if we can use media, politics, to affect people's thinking and behavior ... why can't I use these techniques for social purposes?''
One of these social purposes is his one-man antismoking campaign, inspired by his best friend, who died recently with lung cancer. Schwartz says he is spending more than 40 hours a week producing and promoting the spots, which have aired on radio stations in New York, Boston, and at least eight other cities.
Altogether, he estimates that he produces a half-million dollars' worth of cause-related commercials a year, for free.
And quietly, he's trying to get the schools to wake up to the media world that today's children inhabit.
``Our whole educational system is set up in relation to hundreds of years of experience with perception,'' he says. ``Whereas, the media environment is ... the field of reception. And we are affected totally differently by receiving media than by perceiving media.'' In other words, print travels one cognitive route into the awareness; radio and TV, a totally different one. Therefore, we need different skills to understand how the media affect us. But the schools ignore this.