Carrot Top, the most grating spokesman on TV.

Advertising deconstructed.
May 5 2003 10:54 AM

Better Dead Than Red

Those awful AT&T ads starring Carrot Top.

Top: the lowliest pitchman
Top: the lowliest pitchman

Something like a year ago, maybe longer than that, readers started e-mailing me demanding to know why AT&T's collect-call business had chosen Carrot Top as a spokesman. Their distaste for the zany prop comic was palpable, and I shared it. But oh, I thought, what the readers don't know is that by the time I write the thing, AT&T will have wised up and sent Top packing. I was wrong. Just the other night I saw what must be the 20th AT&T Carrot Top ad. In a move of questionable value to the commercial-watching public, AT&T has actually collected a bunch of these spots online.

The one I saw the other night is called "Race Top," and it's as good an example as any. The setup is a scene like the famous drag race in Rebel Without a Cause, but one of the drivers is Carrot Top. When the other car peels out, he just sits there and says to the girl who started the race: "Hey. C'mere. Need to make a collect call?" Then he gives the spiel that's in every one of these ads: "Just dial down the center! C-A-L-L-A-T-T ! It's free for you, and cheap for them!" Then he suggests that since the other driver is gone, she ought to jump into his car. This is the basic formula: a very, very slight joke squeezed in before and after the sales pitch. In another ad, Top is on a date at a fancy restaurant—and he suggests that the lady make a collect call. After the pitch, Top says he forgot his wallet, so his date will have to pay. Usually he's hitting on someone—female police officers, tourists, skater-girl types, etc. Often he is "comically" rebuffed.

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The ads are never actually funny. Nor is Carrot Top, so far as I know. I've spent some time combing the Web looking for evidence of the Carrot Top fan base. Interviews suggest that he is popular on college campuses. He also works in Vegas. Although there's no prop humor in the AT&T spots, much of what he does is prop-based. One example that comes up a lot is a plate for bulimics, which is attached to a miniature toilet. Another is a purse for prostitutes, which has a built in credit-card machine.

Is this really what the college students of America find funny? That group is supposedly a key market for collect calls; AT&T says its primary target is the 18- to 24-year-old age group, with 12- to 17-year-olds as the secondary target. (Another group that makes a lot of collect calls is prisoners, but that's another story.) But I am too optimistic to believe that tomorrow's leaders find authentic humor in Carrot Top's act, so I can only conclude that something more subtle is going on. Spokespeople for collect-call services tend to be either babes (Jamie Pressly, Alyssa Milano) or absurd (Mr. T). Babes make sense (for about half the audience, anyway) for obvious reasons. The absurd choices—and this would include Carrot Top—must appeal to the budding ironist. So perhaps Carrot Top is presiding over some sort of massive meta-ironist performance piece.

After all, his whole persona seems to be bound up in the notion that he is someone you would cross a busy street to avoid. When David Letterman came back from a few weeks of sick leave recently, he showed a brief highlight reel of guest hosts who filled in for him. The last was Carrot Top, who was shown sitting at Dave's desk and then being hustled away by stage hands, as a screen caption explained "Carrot Top not invited to guest host," or words to that effect. This in turn recalled an episode of The Larry Sanders Show in which Carrot Top was the "unwanted guest." The funniest thing about Carrot Top has always been that no one thinks he's funny. He does not dispense punch lines; he is a punch line.

Perhaps the real message of his work, then, is a critique that makes a mockery not just of the entertainment industry, but of the very notion of meritocracy in America—his success being the most damning evidence to date that the marketplace of talent is a sham. If so, the AT&T ads are the most irrefutable brief yet in this project to illuminate the maddening power of raw chance in the modern game of getting ahead because their star is not just singularly unfunny, but authentically grating. You want to take a stick to Carrot, but, truly, you cannot beat him.

And from AT&T's point of view, grating seems to work. I can't imagine needing to make a collect call, but even if these ads stop tomorrow, I will probably remember C-A-L-L-A-T-T for at least 15 years. So it hardly matters how stony-faced I remained when I see the umpteenth Top ad because it turns out the joke is actually on me.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.