The Devil Is in the Details

As a lover of language, I am endlessly fascinated by words. For instance, I love the way some of them feel as they roll around inside my mouth (effluvium) and how they sound when finally uttered (chicanery). I relish words with multiple meanings, hermaphroditic words that are both noun and verb (foil) or noun and adjective (novel). The there are even words that are trinities unto themselves; take the word “fawn” for instance. It can refer to a baby deer (noun), a shade of yellowish-brown (adjective), or a way in which a person seeks attention by a servile demeanor (verb).

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Connotations and denotations are an even more attractive area of study for a lexicographical pilgrim. I’ve always believed that words are like a color wheel with hundreds of different shades of meaning. For instance, would you rather be described as “dogmatic” or “principled”? “Gallant” or “cocksure”? “Frugal” or “parsimonious”?

Do you see the slight differences between each set of words? In each pairing, one word has a positive connotation while the other is negative. However, when you look them up in the dictionary or thesaurus, they have nearly the same denotation (definition). That slight difference is why words matter; we must be careful which ones we choose, depending on our purpose for using them. They should never be apathetically tossed around like discarded coats. I’ve been down this rabbit hole before if you care to read about it.

There is even a difference between “hearing” and “listening,” which I discovered yesterday. At their cores, the two words are different because of their definitions. For instance, “hearing” is defined as “the faculty or sense by which sound is perceived” or “the act of perceiving sound.” “Listening,” on the other hand, means, “to give attention with the ear; attend closely for the purpose of hearing; give ear” or “to pay attention; heed; obey.”

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Now, as you once did on your kid’s menu at a restaurant, find the differences between these two seemingly similar, if not identical, things.

“Hearing” is the simple act of perceiving sounds. I can hear the television playing in another room without being distracted by it because I’m not “listening” to it intently. I might register that a movie I know is playing or if anything of great consequence is going in a baseball or football game. However, it is not my sole focus. Listening, however, implies that there is a purpose for my hearing. I am trying to discern something or benefit in some what from what I hear. You know there is a subtle difference—especially when you’re only hearing when you are expected to be listening. Anyone who has been called on in class while staring out the window at a slice of pristine blue sky knows the panic that can ensue because of this tiny difference. Most men can as well. 🙂 By the way, the same dichotomy is apparent between the concept of “looking and “seeing.”

My learning experience involving these two words is actually two-fold. At work yesterday, I was looking through the book of Proverbs and trying to break down the meaning of the eight one. My computer had gone to screensaver, and a sea of pastel waves swam across its surface. However, my Pandora account (set to Mellow Mix) was playing softly through the speakers to give some texture to the silence and help me concentrate. I was hearing that music rather than the absolute quiet that surrounds me. Listening? Eh, not so much.

If you use Pandora’s free service, you know that roughly every ten to twelve minutes you are subjected to a commercial. I’ve heard/watched ones for everything from cars to razors as well as travel sites like Expedia and even services like Groupon. By and large, these ads don’t bother me because I understand that forty free hours of music every month must come with a price. They have to make a profit to continue letting me enjoy their site. The only time I’ve ever gotten sick of it was when the same add for State Farm came on repeatedly over the course of one week. However, for the most part, the ads are innocuous and easily ignorable.

Imagine my surprise when this ad came on yesterday. Remember, I’m studying the Word of God in a hallway that was dark and otherwise silent. I heard the 911 call of this trailer and then a short description of the movie. Watch the whole clip if you’d like, but the first twenty seconds are enough for you to get the idea.

The film is called The Devil Inside and is supposedly a true story about a woman who killed three people trying to perform an exorcism on her. I do not watch any movies like this because, well, life is terrifying enough. I’m not sure why people pay $12 to have the poop scared out of them on purpose and call it “having a good time.” Needless to say, I stopped reading and clicked the keyboard to wake the computer up to make sure it, too, wasn’t possessed by some evil minion of darkness. I saw the image on the playlist, which was the movie poster below.

Yeah, this is exactly what I want to look at before 8:00 AM…

After my heart quit racing, I tried to get back to work, but something was gnawing at me. I am not a complainer by nature and will usually go out of my way to make a situation tolerable rather than asking someone else to acquiesce. For instance, for awhile, Pandora played a video advertisement for Friends With Benefits. Believe it or not, I find movies like this highly distasteful and offensive. I know it’s a love story of sorts, but I think it is crass to glorify having sex as a form of entertainment, as if it were something for sport, something without consequence. Intimacy like that is meant to be between a man and a woman who are in mutual partnership and who have committed their lives to one another. I’m not trying to preach (well, maybe I am a little), but we wonder why our society no longer values life and love the way we once did while going out to see movies that give us the very answer we seek. Every time that ad came on, I rolled my eyes, let it play, and went on with my day. I know that Pandora has to make its money, and the producers of that film were ready to supply it in order to get their product out there. Trying to stop it from playing would be like attempting to nail Jello to a wall—entertaining for awhile, but utterly pointless in the end.

However, this time, I felt led to say something. It wasn’t that the ad offended me though I don’t like the subject matter. I just thought it odd that they would use such a terrifying advertisement without warning on a platform many people use at work. Imagine if this had gone over an intercom at an office or while someone was trying to sleep.

Well, suffice it to say I thought long and hard about how I wanted to approach this email, and I decided humor was the best route. Here’s what I wrote the advertising team at Pandora:

Hello Pandora Folks, I wanted to let you know that I enjoy your service very much and make good use of it. Normally, your ads don’t bother me, but the recent one for The Devil Inside  scared the living crap out of me and sent me scrabbling for holy water. It’s just creepy to have that come across the radio when you’re working. In fact, it was somewhat unnerving and ruined the Sting/Peter Gabriel/Annie Lennox buzz I had going on this morning. Please know I understand that you are in the business of making money and that the film company wants to advertise that movie. However, is there a way to play a commercial for it that doesn’t sound like Satan himself is in my Mac? Just wondering. Thanks!

Notice what I did. I praised their service and thanked them for it. I explained that I had a problem with it and for what reason. I didn’t vituperate them for promoting satanic movies or demand they take it down. I simply asked if they could tone that ad down in the future. Well, here is the reply I got. I know they can’t respond to each person’s email personally, but if you are going to use a form letter, could you at least try to see it from the other person’s point of view?

Hi Jamie, Thanks for writing and for the feedback. You are a valuable part of our listening audience, and we do respect your opinion.

We understand that certain material can be sensitive ground. In fact, a good majority of our campaigns elicit some level of protest from listeners. Everything from credit cards and alcohol to fast food and political candidates offend certain listeners’ sensibilities or beliefs. While we of course respect the perspective of each individual, we ask ourselves one central question when deciding whether to accept a campaign: Does this, or would this, advertisement appear on mainstream broadcast media (TV and/or radio)? If the answer is yes, we accept the ad.

We recognize that this standard evolves over time. But while there are occasional judgment calls still required, we feel strongly that we should not be in the business of censoring.

I have a couple suggestions that might be helpful for you. The first is to consider subscribing to Pandora One. This is our premium, advertising-free version. It’s only $36/year and has no advertising at all. It also streams at a higher quality and comes with a number of other benefits that you might find attractive.

You might also consider restricting Pandora from playing songs with explicit content. When you do that, you not only remove songs with explicit lyrical content, you will also remove some ads that happen to be targeted “away” from people who have demonstrated an aversion to explicit content, which will remove some of the ads that offend you. I hope this is helpful, and I hope you understand the approach we have taken.

Thanks so much for listening!

Kindest regards, Jeff

Jeff, I didn’t say the movie “offended by sensibilities or beliefs.” I said it “scared the living crap out of me.” I didn’t even ask them to fully censor it and take it down, just to create a version that wasn’t so unnerving for folks who aren’t expecting it. (Maybe that qualifies as censorship. I’ll let you make the call.) They do, however, have a way to censor it yourself, which is a nice option except that it is such a blanket protocol. If I blocked ads like this one, would it also keep me from hearing one about a new film version of The Crucible? That’s about witches and “satanic” elements as well, but I wouldn’t find it at all offensive. In fact, I would want to know about it because I admire Miller’s work and enjoy films based on literature.

The long and short of it is this. I took the time to make my request personal and non-abrasive. However, the reply I got back was pedantic, and I felt as if it was upbraiding me for stepping on the first amendment rights of both Pandora and the listening pleasure of others. I suppose if they field emails from people who find credit cards offensive (which is still a mystery to me), they have to put a certain distance between themselves and their customers. Still, to have one’s claim heard but not truly listened to, lumped in with the rest of the poorly worded and overly dogmatic complaints, despite the care and attention put into it, is a bit dispiriting. Oh well. As the sage Charlie Brown once said, “I’m not going to let this commercial dog ruin my Christmas.”

Your turn! I’m interested on your thoughts on this subject because I’m still making up my mind. Are there any advertisements you find offensive? Have you ever written to a company about them? What about your thoughts on communication and being truly listened to? Please share your ideas with me!