By Trent Rentsch
Ever since I was little, bells always smell like Christmas to me. It doesn’t matter if it’s the tolling of church bells, or the occasional tinkle of an old fashioned door bell, I instantly smell pine trees and fresh-baked gingerbread and the icy breath of a South Dakota December. If I close my eyes, I can also see row upon row of houses decked out in glittering lights, the gaudy trailer that Santa called home each year on Main Street in my home town, and the stacks of brightly wrapped mysteries under the tree. And if I listen to the bell very, very closely, I can feel the paper crinkling under my fingers as I tore it from my presents, and taste the cloyingly-sweet divinity candy my Great-Grandmother made each Christmas without fail. But all these memories always start with the smells, when I hear bells.
I mention this because, as I write, Spring is slowly giving way to Summer in North Carolina. It could not be more anti-Winter... the warming temps, the flowering everything, and, of course, the allergies from the flowering everything. But despite all of that, when I heard a bell ring today, it was Christmas in May, if only in my head. It was so strong, so profound, that I even played a CD of Christmas carols, buried under my car seat, during my lunch hour. Hey, it could’ve been worse. I found an elf hat under there too...
Being so wired into the world of audio, it’s easy to forget the power a sound has on all of our senses. Our brains are darned good at making associations, so whether we notice them or not, a sound gets “cataloged” with a smell, a vision, touch, a taste... or possibly a combination of them all. And while those associations come and go, the ones which are reinforced over and over become so strong, so potent, that they permanently become a memory trigger. Take that song you listened to over and over the Summer you were first “independent.” Odds are that every time you hear it you can still taste the cheap beer, smell the combination of cheap perfume/cologne, sweat and sex from your first lover, even feel the smooth, cool porcelain of the toilet as you cradled your head against it after one of those crazy drunken nights.
These associations are powerful stuff, and just like the collective memory we’ve discussed before, there are collective associations that all human beings share... associations that we can use to our advantage in our Creative.
Warning. Adding the power of audio associations to your Creative means that you are going to have to give your scripts/productions a good two or three more minutes of consideration. You are also going to have to spend another few minutes finding the correct sound effects to build the trigger. I realize that extra 5 or 6 minutes is a heady cut into your day, but if you’re willing to sacrifice for your art...
Let’s use a sporting goods store for an example. You COULD just expound about their “huge selection of camping gear,” with the first country music bed you find serving as an underscore... or you could begin with the sound of breeze through trees, birds chirping, the sound of a fishing reel and the “plunk” of a lure dropping into the water, the snap and crackle of a camp fire... on and on. Yes, you’re still providing the pitch for the client, but at the same time you’re also triggering all those happy, positive memories of camping trips past in the minds of the listener... making them receptive to possibly making new camping memories... and, oh, what’s that? Good Sports has a huge selection of camping gear... let’s go get stocked up...
I hear your eyes rolling. “Aww, you’re just talking about laying in some sound effects... big deal, who cares?” Yes, I am talking about sound effects, but I’m talking about using them in a Creatively strategic way, not just slapping the first motorcycle sfx you find under a script because the client “HAD” to have it. And guess what? Everyone cares... especially the client. Don’t believe it? Try putting a Honda 250 sfx under a Harley dealership ad. The Harley faithful will come for you... if the dealer doesn’t first.
Take a moment with the next production order that lands on your desk, and consider what sounds might trigger positive memories in the minds of your listeners for that client. It doesn’t even have to be a sound effect at all; it might be a certain style of music, a tone of voice, a turn of phrase. None of it has to be loud or blatant, simply a subtle touch that will put the listener in a positive place, receptive to the message. Especially in the current aural world full of loud and fast, you’ll find that the right triggers will grab a listener’s attention more than any hyper-compressed explosion.
I realize that to some, all of this sounds like pop psychology, and a ridiculous waste of your day. All I can tell you is that the memory triggers that sound can flip in our minds are a basic part of the human condition, and it seems silly not to take advantage of them. Open your mind to aural associations, but be prepared to be disappointed when you can’t find candy canes in May when you hear a bell.