Are We Clear?

Ah, the heady days of the early ’90s. Maury Povich strode the globe like a conquering god-king, and all fell at his feet in awestruck worship. Cropped sweaters and high-waisted jeans were all the rage, and, sometimes, even women got in on the action. In pop, C+C Music Factory was up and running three shifts a day, their forges and foundries cranking out unit after unit of high-quality, low-cost dance hits for the grateful masses. (Yes, on occasion the factory line did shut down, as in the famous incident in which workers went on strike when it was discovered that there were some people defying the order that “Everybody dance now!” After some tense negotiations, the union agreed to compromise on its insistence that everybody dance now, allowing the sick and infirm to be given a waiver, provided they promised to dance at some time in the future. With passage of the bipartisan Dance Act, the workers returned and the factory line was soon up and humming again.)

It was an idyllic, neon-colored time, though not without its missteps. For some reason, marketers concluded that consumers were fed up with any kind of hue in their products. The result was wave after wave of clear versions of otherwise opaque items being foisted upon us all. Clear deodorants, clear toothpaste, clear colas, and, perhaps most tragically, clear beers. Yes, several large brewers were convinced that there existed consumers who enjoyed the taste of beer but were put off by its annoying golden tint. And so they tortured their brew, putting it into nuclear centrifuges, mixing it with benzene and petroleum distillates, and filtering it through polystyrene extruders until they removed the offending color. The result was odorless, flavorless, and utterly without character, fit only for already drunken sorority girls. In other words, success—it was pretty much the same as their normal fare! (If, while reading this, you are drinking and enjoying a Keystone Light low-sodium, carb-free lager and thoroughly enjoying it, I apologize. Beer snobbery is something of a curse.)

Mercifully, the home theater industry is not quite as susceptible to facile trends as others. Part of the reason may be that home theater is, by its very nature, somewhat utilitarian. And so, like any good tool, its appeal is limited to those who work most closely with it. You may, for all I know, own the world’s finest high-speed buffing wheel. (You don’t, do you? Please say you don’t.) However, this will not do you much good, should you find yourself being profiled in InStyle magazine. It’s doubtful, too, that candid telephoto shots of you working on your high-speed buffing wheel will show up on gossip sites and become a trending topic on Twitter. And so it is with home theater products.

Another barrier: It’s home theater—not something you can carry with you to your favorite tony coffeehouse (that I’m just going to go ahead and assume is called Uncommon Grounds or, perhaps, Espresso Yourself), pull out of your pocket, and show off by looking at it over the top of your chunky framed glasses while the girl with the blue hair and the animal hat pulls your ristretto. Nor can you drive up to The Bazaar on La Cienega in your speaker system with a supermodel in the passenger seat. (Note that while this is practically impossible, it is not, strictly speaking, theoretically impossible. Should you have any interest in solving the inherent problems and pulling it off, I’d be willing to donate seed money to the cause.)

All that said, there’s no reason that home theater marketers shouldn’t attempt to go mainstream trendy. To that great cause, I contribute the following ideas. Celebrity gift bags for awards shows have traditionally played it safe, offering cosmetics, chocolates, jewelry, perfumes, and the occasional teacup dog. However, there’s no rule that says you couldn’t drop, say, some HDMI cables and maybe a subwoofer into those things. A few snaps of Blake Lively on the red carpet in her little black dress, hefting a 90-pound sub (legs bent, back straight, of course), while admiring the fact that it has built-in digital room correction, would do wonders for the industry. And imagine if Jake Gyllenhaal were to show up at a press event and begin extolling the virtues of his low-mass, high-excursion, 15-inch, aluminum driver and its ability to hit 18 hertz with low distortion. Then, imagine if he were somehow able to explain why he keeps getting hired to act in motion pictures when he is in fact the dullest man you’ll ever meet outside of a furnace filter convention. Double win!

Obviously, in order to be truly trendy, you have to appeal to the youth crowd (and if you call it the youth crowd, that means you are, by definition, the least trendy person on Earth), and right now retro is in. While the definition of retro is hard to pin down, it essentially means riding single-speed bikes and growing a mustache you don’t really mean but you have a vague sense is mocking someone from a past you don’t really know about or understand. The home theater industry would be wise to court this crowd by, rather than giving its products names that reflect their features and usefulness, giving them those that hearken back to a distant age, e.g., Dr. Harmonius Q. Ear Tickler’s Entirely Proper Sound Propulsion System.

Finally, although there are 20 years between us and the clear trend, the bad taste still lingers (it’s that damnable beer!)—so why not go the other way? If I were a TV manufacturer, I’d push a line of flat screens with perfectly opaque screens. Sure, clear screens let you see the image, but a flat-black screen lets you imagine the even-more-perfect image hidden just under its surface.

And it makes a pretty good mirror in which to admire your ironic facial hair!

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