I remember my father telling me, “Marty, no one gets a second chance at making a first impression.” I immediately deduced: “First impressions are important!”
Most of our work in design, advertising and promotion is dedicated to making a first—and then a lasting—mdash;impression. Call it branding or image, but making an impression is critical, and the first impression is even more important.
Often we focus more attention on how a spot or promo ends. It’s where the business is done and the brand is stamped. But what was the first image? What was the first sound or line of copy or song lyric?
Psychology 101 teaches us about the theory of primacy and recency: What you first observe or experience and what you last observe or experience will provide the longest-lasting impressions.
I think we have all focused enough attention on the end of the message long enough. Today we should start to think more about the first impression and its equal (if not greater) importance to our work. Repeat after me: “How does it open?”
One first impression, of sorts, has interested me for years—mdash;main titles. The TV main title has always made the first impression for television shows since the very beginning.
What is a main title and why do we need them? It’s the introduction, an opening move, the curtain going up, the audience warm-up, the marquee, an invitation to watch.
The main title has always done a fabulous job of building a relationship with the audience. Go ahead, start humming the theme song to “The Brady Bunch” or recall the eerie signature instrumental of “Six Feet Under.” Or follow Tony Soprano through the Lincoln Tunnel as he travels to his Jersey mobster mansion. These main titles have made an amazingly strong first impression on all of us over the years.
Before the producers of “American Idol” put Coke cups on the judges’ table, main titles were originally conceived and designed to do some “business.” They didn’t call it branded entertainment then, it was simply a way to include the sponsor in the show.
The “Texaco Star Theater” main title from the ’50s ultimately sold gasoline while the audience was introduced to that night’s guests. Early “Beverly Hillbillies” episodes plugged Winston cigarettes and “The Ed Sullivan Show” promoted Lincoln-Mercury automobiles.
Most titles also showcase talent as well as the show’s backstory. When “The Rifleman” (a late ’50s-early ’60s show) walks down that Western street, blasts seven shots out of his custom Winchester and twirls it, cocks it and reloads, we know two things: Don’t mess with the Rifleman, and it stars Chuck Connors. When the S.S. Minnow is headed out on its three-hour tour, we know its passengers and cast are headed to “Gilligan’s Island.”
TV main titles are part of our television history. The current trend toward “mini” main titles like “Ugly Betty,” “Heroes” and “Lost” scares me. Although time is money, devoting only three to six seconds toward the branding of your show, in the long run, isn’t saving anyone time or money.
The main title for “Frasier” started the resurgence of the short and simple title. Its simple animation of the Seattle skyline caused producers and networks to rethink the need for main titles and their overall value to the show’s ratings.
For those of us creating and producing main titles at that time, we like to think that “Frasier” almost killed main titles. But thanks to cable channels like HBO and Showtime and their series like “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter,” it seems the main title lives on.
Just think, when the “American Idol” title starts and the blue-tinted contestant walks to the stage framed by past winners looking down with confidence, we get a sense of how big this challenge is, how huge this show has become and how much pressure is on the participants. It’s exciting right from the very start. My first impression of that show—each week—is that I am going to experience something special and unique.
If I am in the kitchen, all I need to hear is the “Idol” theme song’s first note and I know it’s time to call to my wife, “Please TiVo that, would ya?”
You may not get a second chance to make a first impression, but at least now you can pause it.
Marty Wall is creative director of Universal City, Calif.-based Mdots Design. He hosted the Promax/BDA session “A Tribute to TV Main Titles” last month in New York.