Sound-weaver tells media secrets
New York — `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.''
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.
Schwartz's theories on advertising illustrate the problem.
The most effective advertisements, he says, don't try to impart new information. Instead, they tap our chambers of memory and cause us to form pleasant associations between what we already feel and the product or candidate in question. They work by ``evoked'' recall, rather than by ``learned'' recall.
``It is really the voter who is packaged by the media, not the candidate,'' Schwartz wrote in ``The Responsive Chord.'' ``Indeed, the best political commercials are similar to Rorschach patterns. They do not tell the viewer anything.''
Schwartz's magic flute for evoking recall is sound.
Though he started as a graphic designer, he began recording folk music off the radio with a wire recorder as a hobby. That led to a project recording the street sounds of his neighborhood. He produced 15 records of children's games, taxi drivers, and the like. To this day, Schwartz records everything; he'll stop several times during an interview to put a thought to tape.
``The real question,'' he says, ``is how do you establish a one-to-one relationship with the person that's listening?'' Not for him the deep voice of authority of the old Anacin ads. Schwartz's ads cajole you, like a friend in your own living room.
``I can speak in a way that will say things to you that are attaching to your inner experience,'' he says. ``For instance, if I were to say, `Got a headache? Come to Bufferin''' (he speaks as though soothing your forehead with his voice), ``you hear, `You don't feel well? Come to Momma.'''
He gives another example: ``Dream Whip -- only 14 calories a tablespoon,'' spoken so as to make the slightest worry seem utterly ridiculous. ``That's the sound you're saying it with,'' he says.
Schwartz says the best way for children to begin to understand the subtle media language he helped create is the way they learn their spoken language - by using it. (See story, Page 33.)
Schwartz does not share the dark broodings of many regarding the television culture. ``The brain is working much harder on television than in any other medium,'' he says. Some may object that there is a difference between neurological activity on the one hand, and thought on the other. But Schwartz doesn't disparage reading. To the contrary, he worries that schools don't sell it well enough because they pretend that the attractions of television don't exist.
Once, reading was the passport to learning, he observes. But today, five-year-olds watch the same news shows their parents see. ``You don't have to be able to read to learn a lot,'' he says. ``Therefore, the role of reading in life has changed. But the role of teaching reading has not changed.''
Schwartz thinks reading might be taught almost as a ``foreign language,'' with reference to the first language - television - to which most children are exposed. ``Today, one of the best teaching guides could be TV Guide, where the teachers can assign certain programs to watch and watch them themselves and then discuss them in class. But the teachers don't watch the shows the kids watch. They have no contact with each other.''
He has no illusions that the print-structured people will yield without a fight. His wife's closest friend, who trains teachers at Brooklyn College, asked him recently if she could bring her students to his studio for a special class. ``I said `of course,''' he recalls. ``But then her supervisor said `no.' She wants an outline of what I'm going to teach.''