‘Carl… what have you done?’

Switching to lighter subjects… (Actually, I had written most of it much earlier, and was nearly done with it over the weekend, but set it aside to work on the Afghanistan post. Since it was just sitting here, I’m posting it.)

In many ways, the TV commercial has had its day, and that day was a long time ago. Personally, I don’t even see as many of them as most people do. I generally don’t watch TV news, and since I’m seldom offered a baseball game on the few broadcast channels I get, I don’t see much sports. And beyond those two things, I can’t think of any reason anyone would watch live, commercial TV.

But I do watch Hulu sometimes, and since it’s not a premium account, I do see ads. And mostly, I’m unimpressed, if not put off entirely after seeing these things over and over (remind me never, ever to drink Grand Marnier, not that I think you’ll need to). I can tell the makers of these things are trying really, really hard — too hard, really. They try so hard to be creative, I often can’t tell you afterward what the product was they were trying to sell. Other times, I wish I couldn’t tell — such as the one with the young guy who sits there and earnestly explains that he started a company to help people with “erectile dysfunction” because of his own problems getting things up and going. Which. I. Did. Not. Need. To. Know. (By the way, I hope y’all appreciate my sacrifice here. I did a couple of searches to find a link to that ad, not knowing the guy’s name or the name of his company, so you know what the internet is going to be showing me from here on out, every time I look at a screen…)

But there are highlights. Geico can still, occasionally, make a good one. And sometimes they outdo themselves. The one they call “Lining the Field” is the best since the wonderful “Was Abe Lincoln Honest?” spot. And that’s saying a lot.

I don’t know who the genius was who decided they had to do an ad using the song “Build Me Up Buttercup,” but the Geico team took several stabs at it — and then, surprisingly, actually released several of them instead of just the best one. The others are… OK. (Here’s one. Here’s another. There are more.) But this one is brilliant. They just got so many things exactly right.

So many things that, when I first thought about writing about this a couple of months ago, I kept putting it off because there were so many things to mention, and, you know, it’s a pretty lightweight, silly topic. But pop culture interests me, and one of the things about it that interests me is the way I can hear a pop song my whole life, and then suddenly, I realize for the first time how awesome it is. And I wonder what causes that to happen. I’ve written about it before (in another lightweight post that took a LOT of time to write). Is it that my judgment has matured? Some new chemical in my brain? Or had I just not heard it in a sufficiently appealing context?

Anyway, this ad was kind of a multimedia earworm, and here are some of the reasons it grabbed me:

  • First, the song. Remember it? If you’re my age you certainly do, but I don’t recall ever taking the slightest notice of it before. I didn’t even know who wrote or performed it. When I first saw the ad and started thinking about it, I thought: East-coast beach music. It sounded like something out of the same moment and place as “Can’t Help Myself” — something that was on the radio constantly when I was at the Grand Strand in 1965. And now that I was listening to it for once, I realized it rivaled that Four Tops masterpiece in sheer pop awesomeness. But it wasn’t the Four Tops. It wasn’t even beach music, East Coast or West. “Build Me Up Buttercup” came out at the end of 1968! And it was by, of all things, a British band that hadn’t even existed in ’65 — The Foundations! This demonstrated the extraordinary degree to which I had ignored the song at the time. Since we moved every year or two when I was a kid, I can usually remember when a song was a hit by recalling where I heard it. But that didn’t work at all with this.
  • The Foundations — I knew nothing about them! So I started Googling, and right away found another great song I had ignored at the time: “Baby Now That I’ve Found You.” Yeah, it’s a lot like the other one — so much so that when both of them were stuck in my head (a double-earworm!) when I was at the beach in June, one would pop up and I’d have to softly sing a few lines to myself, walking along the shore, to remember which one it was. (Is this the one from the ad or the other one?) But I’m not complaining. None of their other songs reached out and grabbed me in the same way, but I’m happy just to have fully recalled and finally embraced these two.
  • Syncopation? I’ve learned quite a few things over the last 67 years or so. As have y’all. Or most of y’all, anyway. 🙂 But there are some things that, try as I might, I’ve just never gotten straight in my head. A lot of them have to do with music, and one of them is “syncopation.” But I keep trying to wrestle with it. For instance, listening over and over to “Build Me Up Buttercup,” I focused on the hesitation in the opening lines, the pause in lyrics after “build me up”– and again after “let me down” — and I thought, is that syncopation? But I don’t think so. I read the descriptions of the musical phenomenon the word describes, and I really don’t think so. I tried looking it up, again. I watched a video or two, and I thought this one was good. So that’s syncopation, huh? Yeah, it sort of fits the descriptions I’ve read. That’s not what’s going on in the song, I don’t think — is it? I looked at the sheet music, and didn’t see any indication something unusual was happening in the beat structure. (But can you see syncopation on sheet music? Maybe not.) What my brain perceives as hesitation (since I’m a word guy, who thinks in terms of complete sentences) is apparently just space for the background vocal. I think. But I could be wrong. Maybe it is syncopation that creates that hook that pulls you right into the song. But I can’t tell. My damaged brain isn’t up to the task. Of course, it wasn’t back before it was damaged, either. Whatever it is, I like it.
  • Casting. I have no idea who the actor who plays Carl is. (So far, Google hasn’t told me; I’ve tried.) But he’s amazing. I’m not saying he’s necessarily an amazing actor in general — he might not make an impression in a Shakespearean production. But he’s perfect for this. Or maybe it’s not him. Maybe it’s the direction, or the skillful editing. But the dialogue is perfect, and perfectly delivered: “Think anyone will notice?… Yeah. (hesitation). Yeah they will.” He’s not tearing himself apart with remorse or anything; he’s just acknowledging a point, with complete honesty. The comic timing is exactly right. Which could be all him, or could be the one out of 100 takes that the makers of the ad chose. But it’s great.
  • The helmet. Of course, “Carl” is hilarious way before that, before you even know what’s really going on. That unbelievably goofy smile as he, in his imagination, rides his bike down the curving road and really, really gets into singing the song. Not just the smile, but the way he bobs up and down over the handlebars and cocks his head to the side as he sings “and mess me around…” Just digging it. So, more good work by the actor. But you know what? I think the helmet adds a lot to it. It makes him look so different from the guy lining the field (even though his hair is kind of helmet-like) that it almost introduces an element of imperfection to the ad, since your brain has to adjust a bit to realize it’s still him. Especially since in his imagination, his smile is even goofier, has an entirely different quality, as he rides down the road. But helmets can do that. They often make people look wildly different, and hilarious in surprising ways. Just ask poor Michael Dukakis. Perhaps this is why all those goofballs protest against helmet laws. They’d rather have their brains splattered on the pavement than look like that.

OK, I’ll stop now.

I’m (rather obviously) not writing this as some kind of expert on TV commercials. Because I’m not. Oh, I wrote a few forgettable spots for an ADCO client several years back. But I’m a writer and an editor, and that’s about it.

But I know what I like, and I often spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about why I like some scrap of ephemera that zips past me as I go through life. This one’s been loitering in my head most of the summer, and I thought I’d go ahead and try to evict it…

"... and mess me around..."

“… and mess me around…”


9 thoughts on “‘Carl… what have you done?’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Normally I ignore the comments I don’t bother to approve, such as this one from our old friend Claus (under one of his many other pseudonyms):

    Out of the blog for several weeks and this is the s__t you come up with?

    Of course, that’s slightly edited, but in any case, it made me smile. And I respond to it here because I think all of you should see the response, which is this:

    Get used to it. I find myself less and less interested in saying the same things on the same subjects for the thousandth time. And so the light, nonpolitical stuff is going to seem more prominent. Not because there’s more of it, but because there’s less of the other stuff.

    I may encourage others to write more on the “serious” stuff that I feel I’ve done to death, now that we have Bryan and Paul regularly posting, and I’m thinking about inviting some other guests. Y’all don’t need to see what I have to say about those things yet again…

  2. Phillip

    Re syncopation:

    First of all, don’t use printed sheet music for pop songs as a definitive guide to what’s really going on in the song—they’re usually “smoothed out” simplified versions, as really writing literally many of the syncopations that exist in pop music would be more intimidating to amateur players. (I’ve got a book from the 70s whose version of Superstition you wouldn’t believe, in terms of its desecration of the original.)

    And in the example of printed music you linked to, that’s exactly what happens. “Build me up” (the phrase) is shown as starting exactly on a downbeat (first, strong beat of a measure). But if you snap your fingers or tap your foot in the strict tempo of the song and sing it as you KNOW it goes, you’ll find yourself singing the word “build” just before the beat. (It’s on the third part of a triplet tied over the barline to the downbeat, rather than sing on the beat..that looks scarier in print so they often don’t reflect syncopation in such sheet music).

    And this kind of thing continues many times thereafter in the song and gives it a nice bouncy feel. As far as syncopation being a special feature of this song, well it ain’t Superstition, but sure, there is syncopation.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thank you, Phillip! If you hadn’t commented, I was going to write to you and ask you to weigh in.

      I can’t say yet that I truly understand what syncopation is (although “Superstition” is an example I can understand), I’m glad to know that’s what I was hearing.

      Now, whenever I hear someone praise “Build Me Up Buttercup,” I can say, with a superior, indulgent tone, “Well, it’s probably the syncopation to which you are responding…” 🙂

  3. Norm Ivey

    I saw the Foundations in a club that was tucked away in a corner of the shopping center on St. Andrews Road (near the interstate) in 1981. Seriously. The club was located just about where Bet-Mar Liquid Hobby Shop is now. I didn’t realize it was them until they did this track.

    I love this song. I picked it up on a scratchy 45 in a thrift store way, way back in the day, and now it’s always in rotation on at least one of my playlists. I sing the chorus out loud around the house, sometimes forgetting when I’m outside and the neighbors might hear me.

    The only commercials I see now are those that accompany shows on streaming services. Frankly, in most cases I would gladly pay for the shows just to avoid the commercials, but they don’t give me that option. I was watching the series The Day the Rock Star Died on AXS the other night. There was a commercial that had 2 guys golfing. It played during every commercial break, and during one break it played 8 times consecutively. I can’t recall what they were selling.

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