Perspective: Dig That Sound

Everybody knows that a kick-ass audio system will blow your socks off. Anyone up for a little combustion too?

Headshot of Robert Klara

As visually arresting as magazine advertising can be, it has its limitations. One of them is that the printed page cannot convey senses like smell, taste and sound. And if you’re in the business of selling audio equipment, that last one is a problem. The best way out of it is to create a visual metaphor—something to evoke the power of hi-fi even as the page lays silent. As the ads on these pages show, sometimes that idea works, sometimes less so.

In 1979, Maxell hired agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves to create an ad that would show how its UR Type 1 audio cassette tape outlasted the competition and delivered superior sound quality, even after 500 plays. That’s when, without quite planning to, art director Lars Anderson made advertising history. Anderson dropped a cool-looking guy into a Le Corbusier chair and, with the help of fishing line, showed what looked like him being buffeted by the tempestuous, high-compression winds from a JBL speaker. As a metaphor, it was flawless.

“For years, advertisers have tried to take an abstract idea and articulate it visually, and 99 percent of the time they fail,” said Thomas Ordahl, senior director of strategy at marketing consultancy Landor Associates. “This time, they knocked it out of the park.” Part of the reason the ad worked so well, Ordahl added, was its timing. Advances in speaker technology along with the introduction of Sony’s Walkman in June 1979 were making music listening into a more personal experience. The “Blown-Away Guy” ad, as it became known, “evoked the emotional pleasure of listening to music alone,” said Ordahl. “It was all about the sound quality and the experience, and Maxell was going to blow you away.”

Blown-Away Guy would become a TV spot that ran for years. He also showed up on dorm-room posters. He was so iconic that Maxell brought him back in 2005. But Blown-Away Guy’s most enduring legacy might be how readily American culture embraced the notion he introduced: that an audio brand’s quality could be measured by its ability to kick your ass. Which brings us to the 2012 ad on the opposite page.

In a literal sense, the Sonos brand has little in common with Maxell. WiFi-enabled Sonos pulls songs from iTunes, streaming music services and desktop folders, then pumps them into a speaker via a Web-enabled “zone bridge” module. But for all the technical disparities, Sonos still has to sell itself the way Maxell did 33 years ago, by showing its superior sound quality. Believe it or not, that little convex speaker in the ad packs one tweeter, two mid-range drivers and a bass radiator that would whoop an old JBL cabinet any day. But conveying the power of that speaker with fire is, by Ordahl’s analysis, problematic. “I don’t really associate heat with sound,” he said, “and you don’t even get the idea that the fire is coming from the speaker. The ad baffled me.”

It’s a testament to the power of Maxell’s image that Blown-Away Guy, by contrast, baffles no one, not even those who are too young to remember cassette tapes.


@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.