Friday, February 21, 2014

Columbia's unforgettable brick mimes

     Watching that blockbuster LEGO movie reminded me of just how much silly fun you can have riffing on bricks.
     You thought bricks were just a bland facade of suburban affluence? Bricks never made you laugh? Then you must not have driven across South Carolina toward Myrtle Brick, back in the days when you might play a golf course designed by Jack Bricklaus, sing along with Brickney Spears, or go deep-sea fishing for Moby Brick.
     Those were the kind of visual puns portrayed by cartoon bricks we used to enjoy on one perpetually clever billboard along I-20 near Columbia. On the long drive from Greenville to Myrtle, it was a welcome sign of comic relief that could keep our family entertained for miles.
     Bricks can't talk, but they sure can mime. On that billboard in Columbia, a brickture could be worth a thousand words.
     Like this one from the 1980s:

     Once you take time to study the details, it's not hard to figure out that this is brick-dancing. But try to decode it with a quick glance at 70 mph.
     The billboard advertised the Richtex Brick factory near the Broad River Road exit. The signs were never sales pitches, and the Richtex logo was the only wording I ever saw. Yet that solitary billboard did its job so well that the Richtex brand remains engrained in my mind long after Brits bought the brickyard.
      That campaign must have been a marketing challenge. How do you advertise bricksa once-in-a-lifetime purchase that involves no customer loyalty, no price breaks, no free installation, no sentimental values, and no distinctive qualities? Has anybody ever built or bought a house based on the brand name of the brick?
     What's an ad agency to do?
     "Exit here for bricks"? I don't think so.  
     "Lifetime warranty"? That goes without saying. 
     When all else fails, drop back and pun.
     Hey, we're all groan-ups here.
     Stop, you're kiln me. 

     Here comes another one: 
     When I searched for these masterpieces on the Internet, I hit a brick wall. All Google could find were a few old chats and a 1987 newspaper clipping.* That's not surprising, since the brick ads date way back to the 20th century, long before Picasa and camera phones became so ubriquitous. 
     It's a rare treat when you get to discover something that Google didn't know and couldn't find—something a newspaperman could declare "Scoop!" The last time this happened, I was searching for Alfred Adams' long-lost biblical proof that Boone is the second Garden of Eden. That one I eventually found offline through the Boone Chamber of Commerce.
     This time, I found a clue on LinkedIn that led me to Cynthia Gilliam, the advertising artist with Columbia's Semaphore agency who developed the campaign for Richtex. She directed me to an old Facebook wall where a few of the billboard images survive. I am reposting these here with all due credit and gratitude.
     Gilliam obviously took delight in that campaign, and she shared how it "went viral" way before social media, sparking discussion on morning radio shows and hometown newspapers across South Carolina. I wonder if all that spontaneous buzz/free advertising might be one of the reasons why brick houses are so popular in the heart of Brixie. 
"Tunnelvision" on brick. Marion Street, Columbia

     Personally, I think the brick ads might be the best thing to come out of Columbia since my dear wife. In fact, bricks and billboards may represent the pinnacle of Columbia's creativity, considering Blue Sky's "Tunnelvision" mural, along with the recent tourism billboards with the self-depbrickating slogan, "Famously Hot, Surprisingly Cool."
     Mary and I were headline writers when we met, so you can understand why we still enjoy twisting phrases and playing with words. Our kids ought to be thankful we didn't name them Ben Joe and Amanda Lynn. They might cringe at our hee-haw humor, but they can't deny that they are ...

     I think this one is more idiom than pun. However, you get bonus points if you bricognized a bricket fence or brickberry cobbler. Shame on you if you guessed son of a brick.
     By the way, did you know that the holes in bricks are called frogs? (Google knew.) I think this goes back to the Bible. The endless demand for bricks was the last straw for the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, so to leverage their freedom, Moses called down a series of plagues, including a plague of frogs. And the Lord said to Pharaoh, "No more mason with My peeps." 
     And that, dear children, is where holy bricks come from. Behold!

     Speaking of peeps, puns sometimes hit you out of the blue. This one is from the Reagan era, when some of us were convinced the sky was falling:

     I assume that's Henny Penny with the pink purse, aka Mrs. Cocky Locky. (That reminds me of another Columbia icon, the Great Ball Coach, who once was a pun-ter as well as a quarterback and has now mastered the faked pun and the brick-handed compliment. Lots of orange-clad folks around Clemson and Knoxville have other sobriquets for him, some that rhyme with brick.)
     When budgets are tight, an agency may be able to squeeze multiple messages out of the same scene. These two holiday billboards feature the same silhouetted house, presumably made of brick, as well as the same moon, presumably made of bricotta cheese. I see five or six more briquettes, depending on whether those fluttering hallowingers are really brickbats. How about you? 

      Puns have an undeservedly bad reputation. Some snobs say they are the lowest form of humor. Yet Shakespeare and Jesus dabbled in puns, and Hitchcock called them the highest form of literature. 
     I will admit that too many puns may spoil the blog. And if you haven't had too many already, you soon will. Before you censor me, just remember: If puns are outlawed, only outlaws will have puns. 
     As far as I'm concerned, the only thing wrong with a pun is when the author writes, "No pun intended." If you didn't intend it, then backspace and change it. More often, "No pun intended" means exactly the oppositeI not only intended it, but I want to call it to your attention because you might be too brick-headed to get it on your own.
     No such intent here on my blog. 
     Nope, unintended.


*The Richtex billboards begin in 1979, according to a clipping of a 1987 AP story that Google found in the archives of the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News. (Gilliam's Semaphore Agency took the account in 1982, and all the examples I posted are from Semaphore.) The AP story included a wirephoto of Chip off the Old Brick, so we can confidently date that one to 1987. Other first-generation illustrations mentioned in that story were Brick Dancing, Bricken Little, Aerobricks, Brick of the Litter, and Brickfast of Champions.


  1. I loved working there, I was there from 1992-2004, it was a real family and sure enough , people would call us to ask what the signs meant, if they couldn't figure them out.
    Thanks for the memories.

  2. Always loved seeing these billboards as a child. Appreciate you bringing these out for us to enjoy.