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

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?”

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