The Sizzle

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It’s really hard to get a sound trademarked. The first one in the U.S. was issued in 1978 to NBC for their chimes.

Katie Mingle:
MGM has one for their roaring lion, as does 20th Century Fox.

Roman Mars:
That’s 99 PI’s own, Katie Mingle, TM.

Katie Mingle:
Harley-Davidson famously tried to trademark the sound of their motorcycles, that potato-potato-potato sound.

Roman Mars:
After years of litigation, they finally withdrew their application. So, if a bunch of burly bikers can’t do it, it must be really hard.

Katie Mingle:
Right now, there are fewer than 200 active trademarks for sounds, even though sound can be super important to brand. Just ask these guys.

Joel Beckerman:
My name is Joel Beckerman.

Tyler Gray:
And I’m Tyler Gray.

Joel Beckerman:
Tyler and I wrote a book called “The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy.”

Roman Mars:
Here’s a sound that would be impossible to trademark, but Tyler and Joel say it was crucial to building up the brand it’s associated with.

Chili’s Ad:
Diner – “Whoa.”
Waitress – “All right, y’all got the steak and shrimp fajita? Very careful, really hot.”

Katie Mingle:
Oh man, I know that sound. I know it so well. When I was just a little kid on a cul-de-sac, they built a Chili’s in my town. This was before there were really chain restaurants where I lived, so Chili’s actually felt kind of novel and exotic. My family was pumped. And our favorite thing to order? The fajitas.

Tyler Gray:
They don’t really sell the steak; they sell the sizzle.

Roman Mars:
In their book, Joel and Tyler used Chili’s and their sizzling fajitas as an opening example to illustrate why companies should think more about sound.

Joel Beckerman:
You’re sitting in a Chili’s at the dinner hour at five o’clock. And let’s say, at first, nobody’s ordering the sizzling fajitas. But then, maybe about 20 minutes, 30 minutes into the dinner hour, and I’ve seen this, all of a sudden, one person orders sizzling fajitas-

Roman Mars:
As the server brings out the sizzling skillet of fajita meat and onions.

Joel Beckerman:
And you hear that sizzling sound, literally every eye, every single person in that restaurant, their head turns to the server walking past them. And they follow that server with their eyes. And then they smell the burnt onions.=.. And now, you’re hooked. And now, everyone orders the sizzling fajitas. And in the back, instead of making that one order, they make 15.

Tyler Gray:
Yeah, they call it the “fajita effect.”

Katie Mingle:
My family fell victim to the fajita effect too many times to remember. We may even have initiated the original fajita effect. Patient zero of the fajita effect.

Roman Mars:
Chili’s, by the way, did not invent the fajita. That distinction goes to a Texan by the name of Sonny Falcone. He was selling a subpar cut of meat called the “faja” and figured that if you cooked it out in the open with a lot of spice, people didn’t care about the quality of the meat.

Tyler Gray:
It got to Chili’s because of Larry Levine –

Roman Mars:
Larry Levine was the founder of Chili’s.

Tyler Gray:
– had seen restaurants around the Rio Grande Valley sort of do their version of it. He had the idea to make sound the star of the show. And so, when Chili’s opened up, they put that sound of sizzling fajitas in their first-ever commercial.

Katie Mingle:
Fajitas sold like crazy. In the wake of their massive success, Chili’s printed up t-shirts for staff that said: “I survived the summer of fajita madness.”

Tyler Gray:
Now, they serve enough fajita meat to fill two nuclear submarines a year.

Roman Mars:
I really hope someone filled two nuclear submarines with fajita meat to get that measurement.

Katie Mingle:
Tyler and Joel say it’s surprisingly difficult to get people, even really creative people, to think about sound, to value it in the same way they value the visual environment.

Roman Mars:
But sometimes there’s one person who gets it. At Apple Computers, one of those people was a guy by the name of Jim Reekes.

Jim Reekes:
Hi, my name is Jim Reekes. I am the only person you know whose name is a complete sentence.

Katie Mingle:
Jim worked at Apple for about 10 years, starting in the late ’80s.

Jim Reekes:
We didn’t really have titles. I don’t even think I had business cards.

Katie Mingle:
Well, whatever his title was, Jim was working on sound for the Macintosh computers.

Tyler Gray:
Which was a neglected step-child of all things Mac. No one really cared about the sound until the end, which is unfortunately typical.

Katie Mingle:
Except Jim. He’s a composer and a musician, and he understood the importance of sound more than most of his colleagues. And Jim had strong feelings about the start-up sound that was on the Mac at the time.

Jim Reekes:
I just hated it. I just could not stand it.

Roman Mars:
Here’s what it sounded like (Apple start-up sound plays). Here it is a couple more times because it goes by really fast (Apple start-up sound plays twice).

Tyler Gray:
So, when Apple first started up, it was, um… The computer was far from perfect. It crashed a lot.

Roman Mars:
And every time you turned it back on, you heard that jolting sound (Apple start-up sound plays). So, Jim set out to make a better one.

Jim Reekes:
Your Mac just crashed, again. You’ve lost your work, again. You’re waiting for this thing to boot up, again. That’s the audience. Just a bunch of pissed off, frustrated people who are super annoyed, and you’re wasting their time.

Roman Mars:
That’s a hard audience to play to.

Jim Reekes:
I got to change everyone’s mood. So, I was thinking a Zen-like meditative sound, similar to a gong or a chanting ohm.

Katie Mingle:
Of course, we’re all familiar with the sound he came up with. (current Apple start-up sound plays)

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s nice.

Katie Mingle:
So much better, right? Only problem was Jim asked for permission to put this new sound into the prototype for the new Mac. And-

Jim Reekes:
I was told I couldn’t do it. “We already have a sound… You’re not allowed to change it…” It was just on and on and on.

Katie Mingle:
But Jim knew the people who were responsible for building the prototype.

Jim Reekes:
I played it for them. And then, they liked it. And so, when no one was around, we put it into the build.

Tyler Gray:
And the Quadra 700 shipped with the sound in it.

Katie Mingle:
That was back in 1991, when the Quadra 700 Mac cost $6,000. Jim says he never got any props for the sound, just grief. And yet, that sound, with a few minor tweaks, has been the Apple start-up sound ever since.

Roman Mars:
So, I think we can assume that Steve Jobs liked it.

Joel Beckerman:
It’s this big, giant, two-handed C chord, C major chord, that makes you kind of feel welcome to this very stable, very substantial world of Apple. It’s probably the single most connected sound with the Apple brand.

Jim Reekes:
And brand is just the experience, or a perception prior to the experience. So, everything that shapes the perception matters. Imagine a really beautiful car that just had this horrible engine always backfiring.

Katie Mingle:
Actually, there are people who make sure that beautiful cars sound beautiful, or at least that they sound right. One of them is Shawn Carney.

Shawn Carney:
Hi, my name’s Shawn Carney. I’m a Mustang powertrain sound quality engineer for Ford.

Katie Mingle:
Sean works on Mustangs, and there are all kinds of things he and his team can tweak to get the sound they’re looking for.

Shawn Carney:
There’s different tubes inside that the exhaust gases will flow through. And those tubes have different shapes, and different perforations, and I’m laying different hole patterns in them. It’s sort of like an instrument.

Katie Mingle:
Kind of like you can control the sound of a horn by placing your fingers over different holes, Shawn can control the sound of the Mustang. And it’s an easier job for the standard V8, but then sometimes they’ll put out a specialty Mustang.

Roman Mars:
In 2008, Mustang decided to put out a remake of a Mustang that appeared in the movie, ‘Bullitt’ in 1968. In the movie, there’s a pretty famous chase sequence, where Steve McQueen drives his Mustang all over the streets of San Francisco.

Katie Mingle:
Shawn and his team wanted to make the 2008 Bullitt sound similar to the 1968 Bullitt.

Shawn Carney:
So, when it comes to a car like a Bullitt, it’s about an old car from an old movie. So yeah, we’re trying to make that specific car speak to you in a way, it’s drawing you back into those old memories. It’s almost like that folklore of what that car might’ve been.

Katie Mingle:
They’re trying essentially to make a new car sound old, which is challenging because cars made in 1968 were built completely differently.

Shawn Carney:
That old engine had a carburetor. We use a fuel injection system. And all those things, just they completely change how the engine can sound.

Roman Mars:
Shawn was never going to be able to duplicate the sound of the Bullitt car from the movie exactly. For one, the Mustang in the movie was enhanced with sounds recorded from a race car. And apart from that, it’s actually illegal in most places to drive around in a car that loud.

Shawn Carney:
So, a big part of what we try to do is we try to identify: what are those key characteristics? what are the notes that are being played by that classic American V8 sound that’s in the movie?”

Katie Mingle:
When the reviews of the Bullitt Mustang came out, people talked about the sound. And most people thought Shawn and his team had gotten it right. Here’s the 2008 Bullitt Mustang in action. (audio of 2008 Bullitt Mustang)

Joel Beckerman:
Sound is actually, in terms of all of our senses, it’s the one we react to quickest. It’s even quicker than touch.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Joel Beckerman again.

Joel Beckerman:
Brands that are not paying attention to this – not paying attention to sound in association with experiences – they’re really going to get punished.

Katie Mingle:
Case in point, in 2010, Frito-Lay decided to come out with a new biodegradable SunChips bag.

Joel Beckerman:
Only problem was they never considered what that packaging sounded like.

Katie Mingle:
Here’s a YouTube video someone made about the bag.

YouTuber:
“Delicious SunChips. Love all your products. Thing that I cannot get over is the noise that this bag makes. I don’t know what it’s made out of. If you ever wanted to get just one little chip out of that… I’m actually yelling, and you probably can’t hear me. You want to get one chip out of this bag, good luck.” (continuous sound of bag rustling in the background)

Roman Mars:
That guy on YouTube was not the only person to notice how noisy the bag was.

Joel Beckerman:
Someone created a Facebook page called “Sorry, I Can’t Hear You Over This SunChips Bag.” And it got 40,000 likes. And it became a national news story.

Roman Mars:
They had to pull the new bag and go back to the old bag. Good intentions; bad execution.

Katie Mingle:
Joel and Tyler refer to this kind of sound as “sonic trash.”

Joel Beckerman:
You’d never let somebody take a bunch of trash and throw it in your front lawn, but we allow cities, our neighbors, brands to really invade our sonic space.

Tyler Gray:
They dump garbage in your ear? Is that what you’re saying?

Joel Beckerman:
Essentially.

Roman Mars:
Joel and Tyler imagine a world where all the sounds we hear have more thought behind them, more intention.

Tyler Gray:
It would be very rare that you would actually hear the sound that something made. That thing would trigger a better sound.

Katie Mingle:
In Tyler’s world, they could make the SunChips bag sound like this when it’s opened (Apple start-up sound plays). Every time you get a chip you’re like, “La.”

Roman Mars:
Yeah, except that sound. It’s actually on that very short list of trademarked sounds. So, hands-off.

Katie Mingle:
Whatever.

  1. Daniel Barkalow

    I’m disappointed that you didn’t challenge Jim Reekes’s obviously wrong claim. He’s not even the first person to speak on this podcast whose name is a complete sentence.

    In fact, until Avery joined, I thought complete-sentence twitter handles were obligatory for 99pi staff.

    1. IgnatzMouse

      Yes, anyone who has studied cognitive psychology should know the name Lance Rips, a complete sentence that can be interpreted both as a noun phrase and a verb phrase (with a little work).

  2. Jeff Harrison

    As a native Houstonian I was completely dumbfounded by your segment on the origins of fajitas. Most Houstonians have visited the original “Mama” Ninfa’s restaurant on Navigation in 2nd Ward and seen the numerous framed newspaper clippings describing the restaurant as the original home of “the fajita.” They are still around in the same location and serving arguably the best fajitas in the world.

    This article tells the story pretty well:

    http://www.gazettetimes.com/news/local/history-of-fajitas-is-short-flavor-is-not/article_2bc50150-5d0a-11e1-b076-0019bb2963f4.html

  3. corky

    I think about sounds all the time, maybe in part because so many are annoying. Everything seems to beep and buzz at us unless we can put it on silent. When you mentioned the iconic Mac startup sound I had to think about it because although I have had a Mac for many years, the sound is turned off so I never hear it boot up! But I do have to comment on the sound the newer “jet engine” hand dyers make. We may save some trees, a renewable resource, but kill the hair cells in our ears, which are not renewable…

  4. Corky, I agree, many of those sounds are annoying. Specifically, sounds made by computers, phones, etc., when they react to some user action. I always turn all user interface sounds off because I can see the action on the screen, so why would I listen to the sound in parallel?

    On Mac, however, turning off the power-on sound is tricky. You need to mute the Mac in Mac OS each time before you power it off. Which can be a pain if you replaced Mac OS with Windows.

    So, no matter how great the sound is, silence can be a better option.

  5. Speaking of Apple: I have a lot of news apps on my iPad, and allowed them all to give me alerts. The sound of their alerts is the same sound as a text message from a friend, or a Pinterest pin, or any of a number of things. But the BBC has a one-second snippet of their music, a 120bpm driving world beat in D major, with every other beat emphasized by a countdown beep in A. The alert is two beeps, and the music between them. I STOP WHAT I’M DOING, EVERY TIME, and go to the app, whenever I hear it. I’d wonder why CNN wouldn’t do likewise, but what sound does CNN make?

  6. JAChism

    Want to have a little fun with your server at Chili’s? Ask for the fajitas WITHOUT the sizzle.

  7. Interesting thought. We will probably see more trademarks for sound with so much video sharing on Facebook and Instagram these days.

  8. The Apple sounder is okay I guess, but I would rather it NOT give a sound, exactly for the reasons given. I’m trying to be quiet in teh library, at home, etc, I don’t want or need a sounder telling me my computer is on. I can certainly see that it is on. #DisableStartUpSound

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