Talking Goats and the Persistence of Influence

From 2006 through 2008, I worked on close to a thousand local television commercials, hastily produced ads for lawyers, gift shops, restaurants, politicians, radio stations, nonprofits, and furniture stores. During that period, I edited probably two-thirds of the commercials broadcast in Savannah, Georgia.

The most infamous of these were for a Ford dealership. The frumpy owner would stand between two cars on his lot, accompanied by his young son, and explain, in monotone, the latest deal on a Mustang or F-150. Following a hurried “thank you very much,” his son chirped out a prepubescent “and may God bless America.” But that wasn’t the end. One final element remained, and it was this tag that made the commercials’ badness legendary. So legendary, in fact, that they were once voted as the best commercials in Savannah by the readers of the local alt weekly magazine. The commercials crossed the threshold where bad becomes, if not good, then at least memorable.

This car dealer insisted that at the end of every commercial we include a brief video clip of a goat over which was superimposed a comics-style speech bubble. He provided the monthly messages contained therein, ranging from the absurd to the unintelligible, produced, as best we could tell, by whim or by Ouija board. Just the mention of this dealer’s name provokes a headshake, part shameful pride, part straight shame, from anyone who was ever associated with producing his commercials.

Years later, that same video clip of a goat remains, stubbornly standard definition in an HD world. The son, though, disappeared from the public eye as soon as his voice turned, leaving to his father the iconic line: “and may God bless America.”

In newer editions, at the hands of other video producers, the commercials are filmed at the dealer’s desk, upon which sits miniature stuffed goat. Not a toy, but some sort of taxidermied pigmy animal. A cast-off from a carnival sideshow. Why, where even a son’s love for his father could not, did the goat endure? What is the source of this man’s hircine fascination? Wherefore, goat?

The rumor is—and this is the story I share whenever I’m asked, which happens in a city the size of Savannah more often than you might think—that it has something to do with the phrase “I got your goat,” a jibe directed at the owner of another Ford dealership, who claimed that the hero of our commercials would never succeed in an admittedly less prime location. Is this apocryphal? More than likely. But we’ll never know for sure. Unlike the goat, the dealer isn’t talking.

The goat interests me because of how it has taken position in Savannah’s cultural memory. Everyone knows the goat without knowing why the goat exists, and I doubt even that first poor sap—the original video editor who had to look the dealer in the eye and ask “You want what?”—knew the truth behind the baaaa. The cultural memory of this goat, then, has grown well beyond any meaning the goat might have had for the parties originally involved.

I’m not currently working on anything about the goat in particular, but I am working on two projects that have a lot to do with cultural memory. I’ve recently completed the final draft of a novel set in a highly fictionalized version of the Soviet space program, and I’ve started taking notes for another novel in which the bombed-out portion of Hiroshima appears in the middle of present-day Ohio.

In many ways, I’ve moved on from my days of editing goat videos, but in some ways I never will. It’s that phenomenon, the persistence of influence, that’s behind my two big writing projects at the moment. I wonder in what ways cultural memories linger long after the eyewitnesses of events have left us. What am I remembering on their behalf?

Thanks for your time, “and may God bless America.”