Monday, June 6, 2016

Is the “Can you hear me?” guy more famous than Spencer Tracy or Christopher Marlow?

By Marc Jampole

In what many are calling a brilliant marketing coup, Sprint is using the same actor who used to be in the Verizon “Can you hear me now?” commercials, sporting the same goofy black glasses, to talk about how great the Sprint network is for cellphones—excuse me, hand-held computers that also take photos and makes phone calls—excuse me again—portable devices.

In the original commercial, the short and compact imaginary Verizon employee, whose real name is Paul Marcarelli, goes from place to place asking, "Can you hear me now?” as a means of communicating that Verizon’s wireless network was the most extensive in the country.

Then a funny thing happened. The character transcended the commercial and became a punchline for political speeches, editorial cartoons and late-night humor. Just as it seems as if everyone in the early-1980s was saying “Where’s the beef?” and “I’ll be back” and everyone in 2003 was saying “Shake it like a Polaroid” and every other joke included the expression “twerk” two years ago, so did it seem for many moons as if every conversation included someone cleverly wise-cracking, ”Can you hear me now?” or any of a number of smarmy variations like “Can you see me now?,” “Can you feel me now?” and “Can you smell me now?”

It was some years ago that Verizon retired the “Can you hear me now guy?” and now Sprint is resurrecting him to make the point that nowadays—as opposed to 15 years ago when the “Can you hear me now?” guy was popping up in TV spots, on billboards, in magazines and on the Internet—every wireless company has a wonderful network. He claims that Sprint’s “reliability” is within one percent of Verizon’s, but costs a fraction of the price, and then defiantly asks, “Can you hear that?”

Brilliant to build on the Verizon brand identifier to demonstrate that Sprint is as good as Verizon in the key attribute by which Verizon has always sold its product. This aggressive attack on the Verizon brand is not, however, the first time a television commercial has depended on viewers knowing about another, years-old TV spot. A few years ago, a commercial for a laundry soap parodied the old Mean Joe Greene commercial in which the gruff, mean-looking football player sentimentally trades a jersey for a can of Coke.  Without knowing about a commercial that was 30 years old, you couldn’t understand why it was so funny when Amy Sedaris threw Greene’s stinking jersey back to him saying it needed to go into the wash.

In the case of “Can you hear me now?” the viewer only has to remember back about a decade. Someone insightful on the Sprint marketing team recognized that the “Can you hear me now?” guy was 1) still remembered; 2) still respected; and 3) still linked to the idea of a wireless network that works and is state-of-the-art.

In short, the nameless character that Paul Marcarelli played for years has entered the American cultural vocabulary.

Cultural vocabulary comprises the quotes and images of literature, the visual arts, entertainment, current events and other cultural phenomena that people need to know to understand the cultural references that abound in the mass media, the popular arts and general conversation. Our cultural vocabulary consists of many artifacts:
  • Real and fictional people, such as Adam & Eve, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Pascal and Don Quixote.
  • Events, e.g., Hannibal crossing the Alps, the Battle of Waterloo, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon.
  • Phrases, e.g., quotes from poems, books, movies and songs, anything from “No can do” and “Let’s get it on” to “To be or not to be,” from “Four score and seven years ago” to “I have a dream.”
  • Inanimate objects, e.g., the Bible, the Holy Grail or a Super Bowl ring.

From almost the beginning of human culture, artists in all genres and for all purposes have used pieces of cultural vocabulary in their works. But in all case, the artist shapes the cultural vocabulary to his or her own purposes. For example, Odysseus’ wiliness is heroic for Homer, treacherous for Virgil and bombastic and legalistic for Shakespeare; in James Joyce’s hands, the character of Odysseus is transformed into a self-abnegating Jew in turn-of-the-20th-century Dublin. Botticelli’s Venus is a Christian Neo-Platonist symbol of divine love, whereas Titian’s Venus revels in the sensuality of the real world and Paolo Veronese’s embodies the civilizing effects of love. Select virtually any cultural icon that has been around more than a few hundred years and you will be able to find different versions of it throughout literature, art, pop culture and even history. In a sense, the artist “cannibalizes” the cultural icon by spinning the shared understanding of the icon with his or her own meaning.

Mass culture chews up images and concepts quickly—be it fictional characters like Robin Hood, Mr. Spock or Jason Bourne; historical figures such as Napoleon at Waterloo or Washington crossing the Delaware; sayings like “where’s the beef?” or “I’ll be back”; real incidents like the Spitzer prostitution scandal; fictional ones like movie plots; or new products, especially strange ones. Situation comedies, comedy sketches, TV commercials, spoof movies, newspaper headlines, news programs, comic strips, catalogue captions, advertising slogans, postmodern art and book titles are just some of the communication forms that routinely cannibalize cultural references. One week, we’ll see hundreds of references to twerking and a few weeks later, they’ll be gone, only to be replaced by hundreds of references to 1970s race car drivers, thanks to the movie “Rush.” Like twerking and “Rush,” most of this cultural phenomena is ephemeral—here today and gone tomorrow. But you can still provoke a heart swell with a reference to Moses and Lincoln, or a chuckle with an imitation of Richard Nixon.

Cannibalization of cultural iconography occurs primarily through direct reference or through imitation, parody and, travesty. James Joyce structures Ulysses after Homer’s epic and a secondary character in the “American Pie” movies calls himself the “Sherminator,” referring to another movie in another genre. Over time, we expropriate and distort the content of a cultural icon, sometimes to the point that we cannot recognize the original, as when Robin Hood becomes an anti-tax conservative in the Russell Crowe movie remake instead of someone who takes from the rich to give to the poor; or when Martin Luther King comes to represent general service to the community in place of seeing him as representing civil rights and civil disobedience. We morph cultural icons, as when the Terminator and Joe Isuzu transform into good guys. We take them out of context and thereby change their meaning, as Andy Warhol did with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

The surest sign that an event, person, character or saying has permanently entered the public collective consciousness is that it has undergone a large number of these cultural expropriations over a period of years. It’s one thing for Johnny Carson to joke about the Mean Joe Greene soft drink commercial in 1982. It’s quite another to recycle the concept as a homage-cum-parody 30 years later to sell suds to housewives.

The longer a cultural artifact remains part of the cultural vocabulary, the more it changes from its original form and meaning, until finally it can mean anything to anyone. In a sense, frequent morphing of a cultural artifact hollows it out so it becomes an empty vessel that can be filled with any idea. Take the United States constitution, not the document itself, but its cultural meaning as a holy icon that guides our society and sets our laws. In any given year, dozens of conservative, progressive and centrist writers invoke the constitution, each meaning something completely different. Years of reinterpretation and misinterpretation by the news media, politicians, writers, filmmakers, composers and public relations professionals have slowly hollowed out the concept of the constitution, so that it can come to represent anything—and everything.

It’s likely that the “Can you hear me now?” guy will eventually disappear, much as most cultural artifacts do. I doubt anyone would catch a reference to Spencer Tracy in “Captains Courageous” anymore, although Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca retains a grip on the public consciousness. In a similar way, a reference to Christopher Marlowe would go over most heads; even an allusion to “Dr. Faustus” would probably be mistaken as referring to Goethe’s version of the medieval myth of the man who seeks all knowledge. But again, a television commercial in which a troubled-looking young man looked at a skull and said, “To network or not to network” would resonate with most high school graduates.

We could glibly predict that the “Can you hear me now?” guy and the advertising caricature of Mean Joe Greene will likely disappear in time, as will Joe Isuzu, the “Where’s the beef?” lady, the cannibalistic Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head nibbling potato chips and the prematurely retired Dell Dude. But we can’t really be sure. The line between fiction and truth blurred decades before the partially mendacious “The Imitation Game,” “Selma” and “The King’s Speech.” The right-wing news media long ago blurred the distinction between truth and falsity.  Sponsored content on the Internet and on TV has now blurred the distinction between programming and commercials. The commercialization and commoditization of most entertainment, information gathering and communications makes it more possible than ever for television commercial slogans and characters to remain memes long enough to make the leap to lasting, even permanent cultural relevancy. Perhaps centuries from now, a future Mel Brooks will have a character walk around in Renaissance tights, sword in scabbard, staring into a skull and saying, “Alas, poor Yorick. Can you hear me now?”

If his life had taken a different turn, Muhammad Ali might have been a Hall of Fame right fielder…and alive

By Marc Jampole

The first time Muhammad Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title later unfairly stripped from him, it was a big media event in the days in which there were many more newspapers, but only three television networks. Mass culture tended to be more homogeneous than today: people heard the same music, watched the same shows, read the same papers. People talked about the first Clay-Liston fight for days before, yet all the talk was of the beating Liston was going to inflict on the loud-mouthed punk. Every male I knew—my classmates, friends, the adults who supervised us, my father, uncles and cousins—predicted that Liston was going to win.

Except me. I was for Clay.

It wasn’t that I thought he was a great fighter. I knew nothing about boxing except that Emile Griffith killed someone in the ring and my father thought Rocky Marciano was the greatest heavyweight fighter ever, but that the greatest boxer was Sugar Ray Robinson. No, I didn’t care much for watching fighting, or for engaging in fisticuffs myself, although I had recently, after weeks of provocation, punched out a bully in gym class, earning me the admonishment of the teacher to take off my glasses before my next fight.

Nor did I like Clay all that much. His doggerel poetry was funny and clever, but it wasn’t the way I had been taught athletes were supposed to act. Clay taunted his early opponents. Mickie Mantle and Willie Mays rounded the bases head down and tight-lipped, not wanting to rile up the pitcher. Maybe all that proves is that you can inflict more pain and injury with a thrown baseball than a fist, but to me, quiet dignity during combat and in victory was part of the athletic code of ethics.

Nor was I playing the odds, figuring that no one would remember my prediction if Clay lost, and if Clay won, I would make sure they’d remember what a great fight picker I was.

No, I picked Clay for no other reason than to be different, to set myself apart from everyone else. I was thirteen and entering the stage when I felt myself a stranger, an “other,” and predicting Clay’s victory was another of many small acts of defiance. Like a freedom fighter in a ghetto uprising, even if I knew in my heart Clay would lose, I would still support him.

Little did I know at the time that Ali would come to symbolize all the “others,” not just in the United States but to all of humankind, the ultimate outsider in race, religion and political creed who fought peacefully with honor and dignity for a world in which all “others” can be embraced as part of the community of man. Like the mythic John Wayne in “The Quiet Man,” Ali was the man who earned a living with his fists who was a pacifist when it came to politics. Except unlike in the fictional John Ford movie, Ali never flinched, never faltered.

Ali preceded most Americans, including me, in his opposition to the Vietnam War. I had mixed feelings when he was stripped of his title for draft evasion, thinking that Ali had the right to his own views and that the boxing commissions were wrong to take away his crown, but wondering why he picked that unimportant distant war for his political martyrdom. Within months, my views on the Vietnam War changed, and soon after the rest of the nation’s did as well. The longer Ali was denied the right to fight, the more unfair his situation seemed to Americans, and to people around the world. It didn’t take long for the pariah became a hero. And he deserved to be. He deserves every honor he received in his lifetime and all the accolades he is gathering posthumously. That a man who emerged from the most brutal of sports should be a supreme representative of peace is one of the great ironies of the 20th century.

Because Ali was not just a great fighter, but also a great athlete, I can’t help but speculate how his life may have gone if he had gotten into another sport. He was unfortunately a little too short to play power forward, which would have been his natural basketball position. Although I suspect Ali would have been one of the greatest running backs or pulling guards of all time, I wouldn’t want Ali to exchange the dehumanizing brutality of boxing for the equally savage football. As a baseball player, however, Ali intrigues. With his tremendous strength and great hand-eye coordination, he would probably knock the lights, crap and stuffing out of the ball. I’m guessing that he would not be among the speediest of runners, but would likely have a good arm, and so would end up in right field. I imagine him hitting the ball with the authority of a Dick Allen or Manny Ramirez, two troubled and brooding outsiders who sometimes spouted off things better left unsaid. But Ali was a gregarious, social type with highly developed social skills, so it’s more likely he would have been like Reggie Jackson or Willie Stargell, natural leaders. If Ali were lucky enough to play for a good team, he would likely have dominated at least one World Series, if not several. Reggie Jackson put it best when he said that he didn’t get better in October, he merely got less tired than other players. Stamina is one of the central skills of any boxer, and Ali was one of the greatest of all time. With a team like the Yankees or the Orioles of the 1960’s, I’m thinking Ali would walk into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Speculation of this sort is always idle, but one thing I know for certain: If Mohammad Ali played baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, soccer, Lacrosse, archery or just about any other sport, he would still be alive. Boxing apologists claim that the brain damage Ali sustained only occurred in his last few fights, when he was clearly over the hill with a diminished capacity to protect himself, but needed a few more paydays. Even if we accept that self-serving nonsense, it underlines what a few fights can do to someone and thereby serves as perhaps an even greater argument in favor of outlawing the sport.

We honor Mohammad Ali and all he stood for whenever we engage in peaceful protest. We honor him when we confront the police and judicial system about racist practices.  We honor him when we open our doors to war refugees. We honor him when we walk for peace and against nuclear weapons. We honor him when we remove the barriers to same-sex marriage.  In short, whenever we stand up for the poor, minorities, immigrants, religious minorities—for the stranger and the other—we participate and honor Muhammad Ali’s memory.

I would like to honor him in another way: by outlawing the sport of boxing. Let the future Muhammad Alis find their glory in athletic endeavors for which the object is not to hurt the opponent.