When even the medium isnt the message

Yesterday, I was driving down the 427 when I noticed one of those ubiquitous white vans to my right. As I came closer, I saw a beautiful bed of wildflowers adorning the side of said van. Then, the company name: Yorkville Carpet Cleaners. Huh?

Up ahead, another van sporting pics of doors – garage doors, front doors, sliding doors. The company name? Knoll Doors. Oh, I get it!

Marshall McLuhan famously mused that the medium is the message. So true, but equally important is the message itself. Wildflowers don’t make me think of carpet cleaning. And you have about 7 seconds to get me to get it before I move on to something else. (Note: the irony is not lost on me – I remember the name of the carpet cleaning company, but only because I’m trying to make a point).

Asking readers to make a quantum leap isn’t the only egregious error we make when trying to convey important messages. Take my neighbour for instance. He’s opposed to the mega quarry proposed for parts of the Oak Ridges Moraine. For the record, so am I, but I’m not the one who slapped a “Stop the Mega Quarry” sign in the bed of rocks that cover his entire front lawn. The medium is indeed the mixed message, sir.

Or what about this awesome anti-marijuana public service announcement, circa 1967, featuring a very high Sonny Bono (check out the 31 minute mark – it’s priceless). I’m sure many a hippy stubbed out his spliff when he saw how ridiculous Sonny looked in a satin pant suit, slurring his words while pontificating over the dangers of the demon weed. (So maybe in this case, it actually worked!)

These may be extreme examples, but I encountered them, and many others I won’t bore you with, in the course of one day. We write and say stupid things, and then expect people to get it, even when attention spans are short and the gaps we’re asking them to bridge are monumental. Or we hope to hell they don’t notice the incongruent subtext we’ve mistakenly created in the process – like a stoned Sonny Bono – if we realize we’ve created it at all.

Got something important so say? Start with a clear objective and work your back. Turf anything that doesn’t align, feed or drive your message. And an extra special point about analogies: if you have to explain ’em before you draw ’em, don’t! Otherwise, you could end up as an example in the rant of some raging communicator. Even worse, your audience just won’t get it.