by Trent Rentsch
I’m told by my Bride-to-be that guys in general have a hard time communicating, but the gap between my Father and I has, at times, put the Grand Canyon to shame. Even now, as we easily fall into conversation when I visit, small talk is the big topic. “Could rain again tonight.” “Yep.” “Quite a downpour the other night.” “2 inches here, according to the new rain gauge.” “New gauge, huh? Like it?” “Well, it’s okay… better than the old one, easier to read.” “Bigger numbers?” “Yep.” Insert painfully long pause. “Probably want rain, so you can check it out.” “That’d be okay; we need it.” “Yeah… could rain again tonight…” You get the idea. If not for Mother Nature and the latest dirty jokes, meaningful conversation between us would be doomed to considerations of how big the kids are getting and/or his dog’s diabetes.
There is also radio. When I think about it, it was really my Father who gave me the bug, not because he was ever in the business, but because he’s always been a fan. The first memory I have as a child is standing up in my crib, looking over at the radio, which was blaring out some program in the twilight days of the Golden Age. Later, I remember my Dad in his workshop late in the evening, hammering and sawing underscored by CBS Mystery Theatre. I knew far more about Country music than my teen-age taste would’ve liked, thanks to my Father’s forced feedings of the local station, and their Merle/Buck/Tammy/Dolly/Hank Jr. format. I was the son of a radio son, child of a man who was born into an age when Theatre of the Mind really meant something. So now, because I’m in the business, and it’s an inborn love with Dad, radio has become the fifth of the topics we cover when we’re “communicating.” “Hey, have you heard that one commercial?” “Ahh, which one?” “You know, that guy in the boat?” “Maybe, what’s the product?” “Well… what was it now? Well, there’s this guy, and he’s in a boat, and then there’s this duck that flies by…” “Okay, I think I know which one you mean.” “Ha! Ha! Funny!” “Yeah, pretty funny.” “Did you do that one? Kinda sounded like you?” “The guy or the duck?” “Oh, the guy.” “Nope, I didn’t do that one.” “Oh.” Insert an even longer silence. “Hey, have you heard that other commercial...”
Maybe the dialogue in many commercials seems staged because it tries to be too interesting. Turn your ear to the average, day to day conversation. You’ll hardly ever hear someone describe food items as “delectable” or “succulent.” Even the most complete Auto fanatic won’t talk about their new vehicle in terms of its “outstanding handling in the most adverse driving conditions.” And I have yet to have a friend know the phone number of their eye doctor off the top of their head, much less be able to set it to a little melody.
“Real speak” is pretty darned boring. Sentences are often short, even a grunt can speak volumes. People repeat each other, and themselves, the same thought sometimes volleyed back and forth in different forms for some time before a new thought is served up. The vocabulary of everyday intercourse is very limited. Anything good becomes “Cool,” anything bad “Sucks.” It’s not that we aren’t intelligent people, capable of brilliant, verbose statements; they just aren’t necessary to get us through the day most of the time.
How did commercial speak get so exaggerated, so unreal? I suppose it all comes down to competition—marketing at its earliest form. George Og discovers fire, the aftermath of a lighting storm. True, he has to keep it fed to keep it going, but all in all, fire good, fire friend. In order to have his friends and neighbors buy into the concept (and perhaps put a few more Mammoth hind shanks into his winter storage cave), imagine that George starts demonstrating all the benefits of fire—cooking, heat, keeping oneself from becoming Sabertooth Vittles, and the catch phrase, “Fire good.” George does pretty well for himself, until Fred Ug discovers that two sticks rubbed together can produce fire nearly anywhere. His marketing plan includes portability, ease of storage, novelty of execution, and the catch phrase, “Fred’s Fire Better!” Now Fred is the hottest commodity of the Neanderthal Age, until Morty Oy shows up with his flint. Suddenly, what took hours takes seconds. No more endless rubbing, no more blisters, no more splinters! Oh, and the latest catch phrase, “Morty’s Fire from Flint, the Amazing Missing Link!”
It is important, of course, to point out the benefits of progress, and the spirit of competition will always create one-upsmanship. But doesn’t it make sense that literally centuries of “Good-Better-Outstanding” has created a society of jaded ears that don’t buy into it? How can we possibly get the attention of generations who have heard it all before, and before, and BEFORE?!
The answer is to strip it away, all the hype, all the bells and whistles, and get real. Knock down the circus tents and quit barking at people. Instead, sit with them in their kitchens or on their back porches and TALK to them. We are in the communications business, for heaven sakes!
It’s tougher than it sounds. Probably one of the biggest compliments that anyone ever gave me was when they told me that one of my commercials was “true to life.” It seemed that the invented situation in the commercial mirrored what had actually gone on in his home the first morning he heard the spot. It was a connection that impressed him enough to call and compliment me on how the dialogue was so real, so easy to relate to—funny, but real. I will never forget that phone call from my Dad, “Ha! Ha! YOU did that?” “Yep.” “Funny!”