Broadcast advertising has helped a good many business owners take on an air of celebrity and authority. Former Men’s Warehouse owner George Zimmer’s distinctive voice was the trademark of that company’s TV and radio commercials for nearly 30 years. Sy Sperling launched the Hair Club for Men with a commercial in which he famously told viewers he was not only the company’s president, he was also a client. Zimmer and Sperling leveraged the proper use of on-camera skills to help build their businesses, and they were preceded and followed by countless auto dealers. But the term “proper use” is key, because not every owner is willing or able to represent their own brand.

After a career in radio broadcasting that was followed by ad agency ownership, commercial production and marketing, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly among dealers who decided to go on the air. In my own market, there is one independent dealer who is clearly trying too hard. He is at least 50 years old, but he shoots commercials in which he talks like a rapper and dances around his lot like it’s the set of a music video. I doubt younger viewers are impressed. This dealer appears to be living out a showbiz fantasy at the risk of blowing media dollars — along with his bottom line.

To be sure, there are many owners and dealer principals I have worked with over the years who decided to take the leap and really nailed it. They understood that no one else was going to convey the passion they had for their business quite the same way they would. John L. Sullivan, owner of a Chevrolet store in the Sacramento, Calif., market comes to mind. He is the type of spokesman who can build trust in the first few seconds of a spot. Another is Bill Cole, who runs the Bill Cole Automalls in Kentucky and in West Virginia, where he also serves as a state senator. He is able to effectively communicate on-camera, and he makes it look easy.

As the face of his multistate dealer group and a West Virginia state senator, Bill Cole is comfortable in front of the cameras, and his affable personality comes through on TV.

As the face of his multistate dealer group and a West Virginia state senator, Bill Cole is comfortable in front of the cameras, and his affable personality comes through on TV. 

A Star Is Born
Is it time for you to step in front of the camera or behind the microphone? Can you be the face and voice of your dealership? The answer depends on an underlying question that many dealers, ad execs and commercial producers are afraid to ask: Are you really the right person for the job? Talk about the elephant in the room!

For a business owner, there’s a certain level of self-esteem that comes from being recognized as that famous man or woman on TV. And once that vestige of celebrity has been introduced, it can be difficult — if not impossible — to ask the genie to get back in the bottle if it’s not working out. Pity the soul charged with that task.

Before the commercial copy is written and the camera starts to roll, it’s best to take stock of your situation and reverse-engineer your marketing approach. Start by asking yourself and your team what the real goal is, and be specific. If you specialize in safe, secure family transportation, for example, the best spokesperson might be a young parent. Do you look and sound like the clients you wish to attract?

Corey Dissin is vice president and general manager of Propulsion Media Labs in Philadelphia. He connects advertisers with voiceover and on-camera talent and produces radio and TV spots for clients in the U.S. and Canada. “When we consult an ad agency that works with a dealer or directly with a dealer principal, we first want to know if that person is known in the community,” he says. “Are they already a local celebrity? We also want to know if that person’s name is on the signage. Is it John Doe Ford or City Ford? Finally, we want to know if that dealer is glib — are they affable or charismatic?”

Dissin recognizes that not every dealer principal will shine under the lights, despite the fact that they have already succeeded in one challenging field. “I bet if you polled 100 automobile dealer principles, you’d find a high percentage, if not all of them, are excellent salespeople. But that doesn’t always translate to being persuasive on video.”

Caveat Emptor
While the lure of becoming a local celebrity can be enticing, it all comes back to knowing where you want the marketing to take your business. If going on-camera seems like an approach you’d like to take, try shooting a low- or no-cost test video. If you need pointers or ideas, check out some of the countless examples on YouTube. Remember, you might not be perfect your first time out. Be patient. Once you get a take you like, show the video to your agency or someone you trust to give you an informed, honest critique.

“We never want to presume the dealer principal can act when we take on a project,” Dissin says. “We’re always careful to make sure the spot never becomes a farce. We want the client to look good and we want viewers to see the spot and think, ‘What a cool place to buy a car!’ not ‘Oh, God, what a cheesy commercial!’”

Bottom line: If you’re not persuasive on-camera, it’s a waste of your time and ad circulation, and that’s never good. If you must, hire on-camera talent who will deliver the goods — and a healthy ROI — for your dealership. Don Foss, founder of Credit Acceptance and one of the best-known dealers in Detroit, was played by the same actor for years. Foss is a successful businessman with plenty of personality, but he elected to leave the TV work to a professional.

If you have the chops, get started and track the leads coming in the door from your on-camera spots. If not, pick the right person for the job and get back to building your business.

Jim Raposa is president of Raposa Media and has expertise in copywriting and commercial production. [email protected]