Communication breakdown


First Posted: 1/27/2013

I took my brother Bill out for lunch a few weeks ago and as I paid the bill, right there next to the register at Agolino’s Restaurant were packets of Howard’s Scented Gum. I hadn’t seen it in years but I recognized the distinct purple packaging instantly. Some people call it Choward’s gum, because the logo is designed with a large C in front of the word Howard’s, but the C is for C. Howard’s, after Charles Howard, who started the company in the 1930s.

Howard’s is famous for its scented gum and violet mints. Both are not only colored violet but also taste like violet, if violet can be a flavor. The gum comes Chicklet-style in small candy-coated squares. I love it. But that’s not the reason I bought it that day.

I bought it because Howard was my dad’s first name.

Outside of Agolino’s I popped a piece into my mouth and handed the packet to Bill saying, Here, I bought these because Dad’s name is on it.

Yeah, he said taking the packet, these and Loudon’s cough drops.

What on earth are you talking about? I asked.

Loudon’s cough drops, he repeated. Dad’s name is written all over those too.

No, I said. Not written all over it, written right on it. Howard. See, the name Howard in on the package.

I guess it was one of those had to be there moments, but I’m laughing even now as I write it.

Thinking about it also got me to thinking about other such communication mishaps.

One was at the Dispatch some time ago when Richard B. Cosgrove, who passed away just about a year ago, was advertising manager. He returned to the office to a message that Peter Schuster called. The problem was Dick Cosgrove did not know any Peter Schusters and racked his brain all afternoon trying to figure who the guy was because he apparently knew Dick so well he didn’t bother to leave a phone number. The next morning, Dick had an ah ha moment, blurting out, Peter’s Shoe Store.

I was the one getting things bass-ackward, as they say, last year in an advertising class I teach at the college. I give students an assignment to re-position a product. That means to take a product everyone is familiar with and try to get the public to view it as something different. It’s not easy, I say, citing orange juice which had a campaign several years ago touting It’s not just for breakfast any more. Guess what? The public heartily disagreed. No one was about to order orange juice with pizza. It most certainly was just for breakfast and that was that.

It makes for an interesting assignment and I tell the students to have fun with it.

One young lady, who grew up in Russia but spoke only slightly accented English told me she was going to re-position Roman Numerals. Great idea, I said. I can see it now: Make the Super Bowl numbers you’re numbers.

Then I looked at her computer screen and saw a picture of Ramen Noodles. Oh, that’ll work too, I said.

Moments later she told me she decided to re-position chop sticks. Great idea, I said. There’s all kinds of things people can do with chop sticks other than just eat Chinese food.

Then I looked at her computer screen and saw a picture of Chapstick.

I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the class.

One of the best such communication breakdowns, though, might be this one involving the late John Mack McNulty, who was a high school classmate of mine and a very good friend.

Mack was coaching junior football and teaching the kids an offensive play. He told the one player that he needed to delay at the start of the play to fake out the defense. When the ball is snapped, Mack told him, don’t start running immediately. Say to yourself, ‘one thousand one, one thousand two,’ and then go.

But when Mack blew his whistle to start the play and the ball was snapped, the kid stayed down in his football stance and didn’t move at all. The other kids were running around and this little guy remained perfectly still.

Mack blew the whistle again signaling everyone to stop and walked over to the boy, who was still not moving. What are you doing? Mack said.

You told me to count to one thousand and two, the boy answered.

What are you up to now, Mack said, struggling to hold in his laughter.

Seventeen, the boy answered.

Clearly, communication is not as easy as it seems.

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