For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Sounds in Commercials and TV Shows
One of the most popular perennial topics on internet bird chats is how birds are used on TV and in movies. Birders are always horrified to hear a bird that would not really be singing in that place in that situation. Televised gold tournaments lately have been using a variety of recorded songs. To me, this does seem insidiously misleading, since it’s done so seamlessly that people may actually subconsciously think that golf courses support a lot more birds than they actually do. The golf course habitat is enticing to some species of birds, like robins, bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, and Canada Geese, that do best in open short-grass meadows with huge shade trees. The problem is that to maintain these short grass meadows, most golf courses are laced with herbicides and even insecticides. Most insecticides are at least somewhat toxic to birds, and many are extremely poisonous. If a natural bird does sing in the background, that is part of the real golf course ambience, but plugging in contrived songs leads too many people to believe that even the worst, most toxic golf courses sustain healthy bird populations.
Martha Stewart does a commercial for some gardening product–I haven’t even noticed yet what she’s selling because I’m so taken aback by the animated, Disneyesque birds and little mammals in the commercial. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that genuine natural creatures don’t fit in in Martha Stewart’s world, since to me there’s something both artificial and superficial in much of her work, but I find it troubling. People in America are too separated from the natural world as it is. I’ve never been particularly bothered by Disney birds as long as they stay in Disney cartoons, the impossibly pastel imagined worlds created by artists who also imagine brooms that sweep up houses by themselves and dogs who slurp up spaghetti until it draws them to a romantic kiss. If an owl can rotate its head many, many times more than the 270 degrees possible in reality, the exaggeration is at least artistic and funny. But the animals in the Martha Stewart commercial are there to imply that her products are more compatible with nature than they really are. And you’d think that someone with her aesthetic sensibilities would be able to see that real cardinals and bluebirds and chickadees are more beautiful than contrived ones?
Some bird sounds used in commercials are there simply to lend atmosphere, or a quiet, soothing touch that gives people a sense of the outdoors without distracting from the commercial’s message. Two of the most popular sounds are the Mourning Warbler and the Savannah Sparrow. I think that’s because commercials want their viewers to subconsciously associate the product with nature, without making the songs so beautiful or humorous that they distract the viewer from the basic information about the product. Mourning Warblers have a soft, pretty song I’ve always interpreted as “cheese cheese cheese, for me, for me,” and though I’ve yet to hear their song in a cheese commercial, I have heard it used to plug a variety of products and services, from insurance to Weyerhauser.
When I was taking my second ornithology class, I studied Savannah Sparrows and the variations in their sleepy snore of a song. It’s a quiet, lovely song, subtle enough to stay in the background while giving a natural aura to whatever product is being pushed.
It’s ironic to use birds to sell products that are bad for birds and their natural world, but as long as people use them in commercials, it’s clear that business recognizes the deep emotional and spiritual bonds between human beings and nature. And in the long run, that must be good.