By Joel Beckman with Tyler Gray
Sounds that don’t ring true, benefit you, or help you understand how to get what you need in a particular moment are what I call sonic trash. They’re not only random noise or wrong sounds. They can also be the right sounds telling the wrong stories at the wrong times. Some blare at precisely the wrong moments, like candy wrappers at an opera. More often, sound is used to fill gaps when what’s needed most is silence. The identifying characteristic of sonic trash is that it always amounts to a missed opportunity — to tell a story, provide meaning, or make someone feel something.
Here are nine examples where brands added trash to the sonic environment.
1. SunChips: Snap, Crackle, Flop
In January 2010, Frito-Lay debuted a 100 percent biodegradable bag for its SunChips brand. The bag was designed to cut down on landfill waste, but it completely polluted the sonic landscape of customers and anyone within earshot. A Facebook group called Sorry But I Can’t Hear You Over This SunChips Bag sprang up and gathered more than forty-four thousand fans. In a report about the bag, an enterprising television reporter for CBS found that, when shaken, the bag registered one hundred decibels, louder than a lawn mower (ninety decibels), a motorcycle (ninety-five decibels) or a subway (ninety-four decibels) — the reporter even shook the bag on a subway platform, and it cut through really loud sounds there. SunChips sales dropped every month, in year-on-year measurements, from the moment the bag debuted. Frito-Lay tried to add an adhesive to the material to cut down the sound. But ten months after announcing the bag, Frito-Lay said it was scrapping the crinkly nightmare. At least we know all of those bags broke down quickly in landfills.
2. GE’s Jingle Hell
GE’s $1,799 Monogram dishwasher comes with a “sonic palette.” It plays piano, strings, timpani, harp and other sounds that at least one reviewer has compared to Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s Perpetuum Mobile. “Adding a complementary sound element can enhance everyday interactions with your appliances,” Lou Lenzi, director of GE’s industrial design, told reviewer Keith Barry. “The fit, feel, finish—and now sound—of the dishwasher evoke the luxury of the Monogram brand.” But a bolted-on jingle is neither enough to make you thankful for having spent $1,700 nor does it actually solve any real problem—very few people have a hard time figuring out when the dishwasher is done. It doesn’t satisfy an emotional need. It’s likely invasive. And if anything, we need motivation to unload the damn thing so we can fill it again with the next round of dirty dishes piling up in the sink. A plucky tune coming from a tiny speaker isn’t helping there.
3. Gravity’s Heavy-handed Score
Yes, the music in the stunning 2013 movie Gravity won an Oscar for best original score. The problem is with how it was used. The movie is a groundbreaking visual adventure about a chaotic accident in space. The film is painstakingly accurate about the way things work in orbit, including the fact that you can’t hear explosions or metal shredding or glass shattering because it all happens in a vacuum. One of the effects of losing sound in a situation where people have come to expect it is that they look for visual answers to what’s happening (next time you’re at an ATM that doesn’t beep, notice how much you lean in and pay attention to the screen). Instead of letting that disconcerting silence drive really violent scenes in Gravity, the filmmakers stuff the vacuum with strings and music meant to convey the emotions of Sandra Bullock’s character. Scoring to her emotions might make sense in a regular film, but this is not a regular film. Just as you start to wrap your head around the physics of a pivotal scene, the score rudely insists you pay attention to how it all makes Sandra Bullock feel.
4. A Trio of Awful Soundtrack Choices
Hammer rapping “Addams Groove” over the 1991 remake of The Addams Family; P. Diddy rhyming over Jimmy Page’s “Kashmir” riff on “Come with Me” for 1998’s Godzilla remake; Limp Bizkit rap-rocking “Take a Look Around” for 2000’s Mission: Impossible II. These films shoehorn in pop icons with their own stories, which don’t align with the stories the filmmakers are trying to tell.
5. Nike’s Beatles Battle
In 1987, Nike and its ad firm Wieden + Kennedy featured the Beatles’ “Revolution” in a sneaker ad. There might have been a time when Nike was an upstart rebel company, but that time was long gone by 1987. They paid $500,000 to license the song, but hard-core Beatles fans and the band’s remaining members themselves were incensed. Through their record company, Apple, the surviving Beatles sued the shoemaker for $15 million. George Harrison said in a statement: “Every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise it’s going to be a free-for-all.” The band and the brand later settled out of court — the terms were sealed. And Nike eventually stopped running the ads.
6. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ Icky Iggy
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines sought to highlight the more adventurous side of its family-friendly fun cruises in 2010. So the company, along with its ad agency Arnold Worldwide, used “Lust for Life,” a song originally written by Iggy Pop with David Bowie. “We were using a portion of the song that musically and lyrically fit with what we were doing,” Arnold’s managing partners and group creative director Jay Williams told the New York Times. The goal was to attract more young people to the cruises. “The energy, enthusiasm and raw feel was right,” Williams said. But if you recognize the song (it’s Iggy’s biggest hit, and was actually first released in 1977), you might know it as the opener of Trainspotting, a film about heroin-addicted Scots. If you dig deeper, you’ll discover that the song’s lyrics reference William S. Burroughs’s gender-bending liquor-and-drugs-peddling stripper Johnny Yen. (His name’s in the cruise-ship ads.) But to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Johnny’s never been the featured entertainer on the lido deck. And it’s a safe bet Iggy Pop won’t be doing the cruise circuit anytime soon. Bottom line: The music didn’t match the story. And to suggest that a Royal Caribbean Cruise is like vacation heroin is, well, a lie. To be fair, Royal Caribbean’s profits did surpass all expectations in 2010, but it also had just invested in shiny new ships.
7. Wrangler’s Unfortunate Son
Wrangler used Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” in its campaign for jeans. The ad uses the first half of the opening verse, about folks being born to wave the flag. But gone is the second half: “And when the band plays ‘Hail to the Chief,’ / Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord.” So a song protesting sending the poor off to slaughter became a patriotic celebration of denim. Creedence singer John Fogerty doesn’t own the rights to his music and didn’t approve the ad. Explaining the intent of his lyrics in 2002, he told the New York Times, “I was protesting the fact that it seemed like the privileged children of the wealthy didn’t have to serve in the Army. I don’t get what the song has to do with pants.” Craig Errington, director for advertising and special events for Wrangler, told the Times the song was “written and produced more as an anti-privilege anthem, as an ode to the common man. We sell millions and millions of jeans to those kinds of people and always have.” So why lose the second part of the verse? (Slate readers also voted this one among the greatest misuses of music in ads.) The point is that the right song can help drive home a true story. But the wrong song can make it fall apart. You’ll tune out at best. At worst, you’ll get angry.
8. Dark Knight Rises The Bane of Filmgoers’ Existence
The voice of villain Bane in Christopher Nolan’s 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises became a problem when audiences watching early film footage couldn’t understand what the masked madman was saying. Instead of driving the experience, the sound demanded too much attention from viewers who just wanted to kick back and feel the story. Bane’s warble got in the way. (It should be noted that this is a rare misstep from Nolan, who has a keen understanding of how to use sound to tell stories.) The voice was cleaned up for the final film release, but not before parody videos depicting an inaudible Bane garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
9. The Wilhelm Scream
Sonic trash can remind you you’re watching something fake. In the 1953 cowboy movie The Charge at Feather River, Ralph Brooks, playing the character Private Wilhelm, gets struck with an arrow while riding on horseback. He lets out a scream you’ve surely heard, whether or not you’ve actually seen the film. The Wilhelm scream, as it’s become known, was dubbed in by sound artists in two more places in the same movie. And it’s subsequently appeared in 1954’s Them!, the original Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, plus Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman Returns, Reservoir Dogs, Aladdin, Toy Story, and many more. What surely began as a Foley artist’s joke has become sonic litter. Once you hear the Wilhelm scream, you won’t be able to ignore it in dozens of films you love.
Joel Beckerman is Founder and Lead Composer of Man Made Music. Talk to him on Twitter @joelbeckerman.