The Television Bureau of Advertising described the late Cal Worthington as “probably the best-known car dealer pitchman in television history.” Worthington became famous in cities from Houston to Anchorage for his “Go See Cal” theme song and a series of commercials in which he wrestled a grizzly bear, hung upside down from an airplane and rode atop the back of a killer whale at Sea World. When he died last month at the age of 92, his obituary in the Los Angeles Times described him as one of the rare spokespeople who was able to rise to “cult celebrity status.”
The dealership marketing game has changed since Worthington opened his first store in the late 1940s, but dealers can take one aspect of his legacy to heart: To sell more than one million cars over the span of 65 years, you need a solid pitchman.
“Cal’s commercials are legendary and set the tone for an entire generation of ads,” says Bill Day, executive director for Frank N. Magid Associates Inc., a consumer research firm that measures the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. “While they were undeniably effective for him and his dealerships … consumers today have been trained by years of over-the-top, jingle-filled, hyperbolic ads to tune out the hype and look for the substance.”
Day’s core analysis boils down to two major considerations: Are people paying attention to the ad? Are they willing to change their behavior after seeing it?
“If you’re screaming into the camera: ‘We are the No. 1 car dealer, we make car buying easy!’ Well, that doesn’t feel easy. You’re just screaming your slogan at me,” Day adds, noting that a better approach would be to say something like: “We are the one place where we make buying your car easier. You deal with one person, no finance manager, no sales manager — just one person. We’ll give you our best price every time.”
“There are no unbelievable offers in this space,” Day says, recommending that dealers use their ads to address the skepticism most consumers have about dealerships. “Anything you do to alleviate that fear tends to have a positive influence.”
As for how to combine credibility with entertainment value, Day says there’s no right answer. “We’ve seen everything from low-cost, graphic-driven to celebrity-driven work,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of commonality there in how to execute them, but dealer commercials must base their foundation on being emotionally resonant, authentic and consumer-centric.”
Hiring well-known talent has proven to be a lucrative strategy for Robert Bassam, founder and owner of Easterns Automotive Group. The used-car dealer serves Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and his list of celebrity pitchmen includes comedians Gilbert Gottfried and John Witherspoon, professional basketball player Carmelo Anthony, rapper Fat Joe, and just about every quarterback to start for the Washington Redskins since 1988.
To commemorate his operation’s 25th anniversary, Bassam hired comedian Kevin Pollak and Alfred Morris, running back for the Washington Redskins, to star in two new commercials — both of which can be found on YouTube and on Easterns’ homepage. Scripted by Bassam, both commercials target today’s used-car shopper, but they do so from different angles.
Pollak’s commercial, titled, “Kevin Pollak is Talking to Himself,” opens with the actor standing solo while donning an Easterns shirt and ball cap. In his best Alan Arkin impression, he asks no one in particular, “Why buy new?” The scene flips to Pollak standing on the other side of the screen. In his best Christopher Walken impersonation, he responds: “If you buy one owner, you save up to 50 percent.” The actor then switches between voices as he delivers lines touting the more than 1,000 used cars in Easterns’ inventory, as well as the virtues of buying used.
Morris’ commercial plays more like an ode to the hard-working consumers in Bassam’s market. It mixes in photos of the running back in full gear with clips of him working out before the narrator offers this line: “Easterns sells cars to the hard-working men and women of D.C., Maryland and Virginia. There is no substitute for dedication.”
Bassam says his operation’s marketing budget allows him to pay up to six figures to book a big name. But in some cases, hiring the right pitchman can cost as a little as $5,000 and a handshake. “They all vary; we barter, we pay,” he says, adding that he sources his celebrity pitchmen through an agency. “Mostly, it’s a yearlong deal [typically six commercials], and it’ll vary if they get a car to keep or get money.
“Different campaigns also work with the local comedy clubs, so if there’s a name coming in town that’s on our wish list, we target them and go after them and make it easy for them to make the shoot,” he explains.
Taking On Tiki
In September 2010, Dean Crutchfield, then chief engagement officer for Method, a brand experience agency, penned an article for Ad Age. He estimated global spending on corporate sponsorships and endorsements at $50 billion. He also quoted a stat from global research firm Millward Brown, which says that celebrities appear in more than 15 percent of U.S. advertisements.
The question Crutchfield attempted to answer was this: Is the celebrity endorsement still worth it? He offers several reasons why the star-power strategy may not be the best option, including overexposure and any controversies the celebrity might provoke. But in the end, he concludes: “Ultimately, celebrity endorsement is always worth investing in if you have the right person.”
Former NFL star Tiki Barber wanted to help connect brands with the right celebrity when he co-founded Thuzio, a talent booking website, in 2012. Users in seven major cities can visit the site, select and reserve one of the firm’s more than 1,000 athletes, chefs, Broadway stars and other public figures, including Barber himself. The former New York Giants running back is available for a $99 personalized video message, a $500 lunch in New York, a $2,000 game of flag football and up to $4,000 to appear at a car dealership for a promotional event. Barber tells Auto Dealer Monthly that the most popular request he receives is for a game of flag football.
“That’s for two reasons,” Barber says. “One, we pushed them to charities, which are great, differentiated experiences that don’t look like a regular auction item. … Also, high network individuals love the opportunity to have their kids or a group of kids come and play in a flag football game with a former professional athlete.”
Jarrod Jordan, Barber’s colleague at Thuzio, adds that the end game should be to elicit a reaction from customers who shared experiences with athletes like Barber. “Maybe that day they aren’t looking to buy a car or have some type of service done to their vehicle,” says the service’s vice president of business development. “In the future, when they look back and see a photo on their kid’s wall of Tiki Barber at a dealership with their son, they’re going to think, ‘I should go back to that dealership. That was great. They provided me with that unforgettable experience that my kid and I really enjoyed.’”
Jordan recognizes, however, that going for the big pros isn’t always the best choice. In fact, he was confronted by that fact when the company first started. As he recalls, he and his team were in Madison, Wis., to promote the new business, but no one was asking about Barber.
“Everybody was asking about Ron Dayne,” he says. “Dayne was a Heisman trophy running back that played at [the University of] Wisconsin. He never really went anywhere in the pros — he played for the Giants for a year — but in Madison, Wis., he was a hero.
“You can take dozens of hometown heroes for a fraction of the price — and actually contact more ears and eyes with a specific demographic that you’re looking for — than hiring one national hero,” he acknowledges.
Not every store is ready to go big. Sometimes a lesser-known actor can deliver a brand’s message. And sometimes, that actor is transformed into a local celebrity who becomes synonymous with the store’s brand. That’s what happened to Los Angeles-based actor Jack E. Curenton when he became the face of Ontario Auto Center in 2009. To residents living in and around Southern California’s Inland Empire, he is known as “Dr. IP Dollar,” the know-it-all mad scientist who promoted the dealership.
“People would recognize me, and say, ‘Oh, you’re that guy who does those commercials!” he says. And on more than one occasion, his commercial even aired as he was sitting in a waiting room or lobby. People around him, he recalls, would spin around and do a double take — proof that his campaign reached its intended target.
Curenton explains that the dealer’s 30-second promo spots always started with a joke and ended with the punch line, a tactic he says reeled viewers in and kept them watching to the very end, when a voiceover would reveal the dealer’s location.
“Customers were coming in [to the dealership] saying, ‘Wow. I really like that loudmouthed guy you’ve got in the commercials,’ or they’d come in and say, ‘Why do you have that loudmouthed guy doing your commercials?’” says Curenton, whose tenure as the face of Ontario Auto Center ended in 2012. “But in both cases, they remembered the loudmouthed guy, and they came in because of him — which is exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Dr. IP Dollar fans weren’t just in Southern California, either. The production company changed the taglines and blow-ins to repurpose several of the advertisements for dealerships in states like Arizona, Oregon and Washington. “Instead of them spending maybe $20,000 or $30,000 to do a commercial, they could get a whole year’s worth of commercials, probably six or seven commercials, for the same amount of money,” Curenton says.
These spots were all produced in Handcrafted Media’s studio in Denver. The production and advertising agency’s price range maxes out at around $70,000 for an entire dealer group, which calls for a 50-man crew for a two-day shoot at a remote location. David Pippinger, owner of Handcrafted Media, says several of his clients pay $2,500 to record the owner speaking into the camera.
Go See Cal
In his 2010 Ad Age article, Crutchfield, who now operates his own advisory firm in New York, offers four inherent benefits of a celebrity endorsement: “It can be leveraged across multiple channel experiences, cuts through advertising clutter, creates a brand narrative and allows for channel-specific optimization.” And before there was the Internet, that’s exactly what Worthington achieved for more than 50 years.
The dealer pulled off incredible stunts — with lions, tigers, bears, gorillas and pigs — in nearly all of his commercials. And in true rodeo-auctioneer style, he pattered to the tune of a fast-paced, banjo-driven version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” — the words cleverly altered to fit Worthington’s call to action: “If you need a better car, go see Cal.”
For anyone who lived within 50 miles of a Worthington dealership — the legendary dealer claiming to have owned and operated 32 outlets over the span of his career — the catchy jingle never seems to fade.
Worthington, whose final commercial aired just seven days before he passed, reportedly spent up to $12 million to run TV commercials 50,000 times per year. In 2008, the white Stetson-wearing dealer told The New York Times: “Most dealers make about 1.6 percent [profit] on every car they sell. I make about 2.4 percent because I’ve learned to do it more efficiently. That may not sound like much until you multiply it by a million cars.”
Crutchfield’s article also offers what he believes is the next step for celebrity endorsement campaigns: the incorporation of social media. “And [chief marketing officers] need to incorporate these endorsement strategies, because social networks make up marketing’s most powerful media: recommendation,” he writes.
Dealers are keenly aware of that fact, concludes Borrell Associates’ 2013 Automotive Advertising Outlook. The report predicts that car dealers will invest more in digital marketing this year than ever before, with online media spending expected to account for nearly half of all dealers’ ad budgets in 2013 (48.4 percent). And much of that is being driven by a new mindset geared toward remarketing and online video, the Williamsburg, Va.-based ad research firm points out.
“Within five years, annual spending by dealers and manufacturers on digital video advertising will go from $2 billion to more than $9 billion — most certainly at the expense of local radio and TV,” the report reads.
Naturally, this shift to online video should further solidify YouTube’s standing as the No. 1 video-sharing site, attracting one billion unique user visits each month. And according to Google, the site’s owner, online video was already influencing car buying back in 2011, with 30 percent of car buyers that year prompted to start shopping after seeing an online video ad. The site’s research also found that 61 percent of auto purchasers visited a dealership after viewing an auto video.
But television advertising hasn’t completely deteriorated, according to a study released last year by Google and Nielsen. It suggests that YouTube and TV ads can coexist and even complement each other, with the study revealing that 25 percent of people who watch a brand’s ad on YouTube will not have seen it on TV.
Even Worthington caught on to this opportunity, with the dealer extending the reach of his commercials by uploading some of his most memorable ads — many dating back to at least 1981 — onto YouTube. Some of his videos have drawn the eyes of between 2,000 to 60,000 viewers. One clip in particular — which shows Worthington standing on his head until his ears turn red while a monkey roller skates down an aisle on his used-car lot — captured more than 315,000 views.
The likeability of an ad posted on YouTube extends beyond outright bragging rights; Magid’s data confirming that “the more people who like an ad, the more willing they are to change their behavior,” Day says.
As for what works and what doesn’t, Day offers dealers the following advice: “Remain focused on the things that matter to consumers. Dealers should stake out a position they can own in the marketplace. If that is exceptional customer service, then that’s what they should license. If consumers will believe it, they should own it. Dealers should be laser-focused on things they can deliver.”