by GILBERT SELDES
A pioneer in television production, GILBERT SELDES knows the medium from the inside as well as from the viewpoint of the audience.
SUNDAY May 13, 1951, is an historic date. On that day, the New York Herald Tribune published a picture of Miss Barbara Bel Geddes. Miss Geddes was appearing in a play which has three principal characters; in the picture, Miss Geddes held her right hand up near her shoulder with three fingers showing.
What Miss Geddes — on all other counts an independent-minded person and a talented young woman — indicated was that the influence of the TV commercial had penetrated beyond the confines of the 16-inch screen and had entered our common life. For something like two years it had been a tradition of television that any number over one had to be visualized for the audience — in special cases, one also is visualized. (You raise the right hand, close down the thumb and three fingers, and the audience instantly knows that when you say “one” you mean “one.”)
It is not true that an actor reciting “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is compelled to raise one finger after another for the count of three; the visualization of numbers is restricted to the commercial, officially, and counting on the fingers is optional in Three Blind Mice, the Seven Ages of Man, and the Hundred Best — er — Books. Only a few months ago when an actress raised one finger of her right hand and all five of the left, as she announced that she was one of the Five Little Peppers, the director told her not to try to build up her part; but on a quiz show the contestant who spread the fingers of both hands when asked how many Commandments there are was considered to have answered properly.
The casual observer thinks that all this has come easily to television, and is not aware of the problems involved. Commercial announcers have their own techniques and their own professional pride; they are waiting for the day when General MacArthur (or — reader’s choice — Dean Acheson) has to refer to the 38th Parallel, because on that occasion the triumph of their technique will be demonstrated. Meanwhile they have special individual difficulties to face: —
The two-hand dilemma. For instance: “The bread that’s good for you eight ways.” Should the announcer raise four fingers of each hand or the entire hand on one side and three fingers of the other?
The fraction. Few commercials announce that their product is two and a half times as good as the nearest competitor but you have to be prepared for everything.
The comparative-divisible (for example, 7 out of 10 prefer something or other). Not yet accepted, but running high as a favorite, is the use of two announcers, one gay as grease paint, the other dour as dirt; one shows seven fingers, the other three. Uncertain, as of now, is whether to trust the audience to add up for the total.
Absolute zero. No one (except , perhaps, Victor Borge) knows how to handle this.
Parallel to the problem of numbers, commercial announcers are plagued by the indicative hold. Cigarettes, small packaged goods like cleansers, soaps, and hair fixes, have set the standard here. The announcer is stationed in front of an outsize reproduction of the package. At various times during the five-to-ten minute commercial, the announcer turns, faces the facsimile, kneels or bows (male or female), and assumes an expression of devotion and desire-the two things have to be exactly balanced and that is why good announcers get high salaries and get ulcers. At the last moment “ Get one (a package, a carton, a thousand, a million) today” — the announcer is obliged by the laws of his union to hold a package above the heart.
The psychological base is absolutely sound. After listening to the Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, Camel, Ajax, Ivory, Birdseye program for half an hour, and having seen the enlargement of the package, the TV spectator, merely hearing the name of the product and seeing the package life-size, cannot be expected to know what the announcer is talking about. The fundamental rule is that action is necessary: reaching out (into nowhere) and (what luck!) finding a sample of the product to clinch the sale.
The psychological problem of the indicative hold is, therefore, a purely professional one — it concerns only announcers. Already you can see those who sell motorcars, washing machines, friendly banks, looking about, at the decisive moment, for something to hold up over their hearts and finding nothing. They fold their arms, they clasp their hands, they find a convenient pocket — but the consciousness of not having a carton to show you makes them feel interior. And they cannot use miniatures.
The reason they cannot use miniatures is tmihodied in the major Principle of the Traveling Index. Although this is a highly visual device, it stems from radio, where it is known as the Slow Spell. “Send your letters to 264 Washington Street that s Washington — W-a-s-h-i-n-g-t-o-n Street“Get Ivory Snow — S-n-o-w.” The inventors of the Slow Spell committed themselves years ago to the proposition that they wouldn’t need it if they had a picture for the audience to remember; consequently, when the picture arrived, the Spell had to go. Research in depth proved that the vacuum caused by its absence had to be filled and the traveling Index was created. It consists of moving the index finger of the hand not holding the package under the letters, spelling out the name of the product in precisely the tempo of the Slow Spell, but announcers have not been required to mouth the individual letters soundlessly. You hear the full name of the product, you see the separate letters, and your attention is called to them one at a time, the direction of the Traveling Index making it clear to you in what order you are to put the letters together.
It is a hazardous business at best, Fluffs occur. An announcer was once caught with his carton upside down, and his uncertainty was not a pretty thing to see, because either he had to make an awkward gesture in reversing the package or he had to use the Traveling Index at the top of each letter, shutting it off from view at the crucial moment of maximum sales impact. Incipient schizophrenia set in.
As a model or miniature of a car, small enough to be held in the hand, would reduce the size of the name too much, substitutes for the ‘Traveling Index are being looked for. The only thing that stands in the way is the Law of the Total Object. At any time before the final word is spoken, you can show a trademark or insignia; at the end, you’ve got to show them exactly what you want them to buy. When they go into the store, they want to point at your product, not to ask for it.
There are several other General Laws governing television commercials, but those I have mentioned are the ones most likely to influence our behavior. You may think they are too rigid, but experience has proved the necessity of each one of them. That experience reaches back to the far-off radio days when Ivory Snow was offered without the Slow Spell. A woman in Portland, Maine, somehow got the idea that the correct spelling was S-n-e-a-u and, after a series of acute misunderstandings with her grocer, ended by buying a package of Lucks instead.