Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question:
Inspired by Tasha’s response about Jhoon Rhee self-defense last week—what are your favorite local advertisements, the ones you and your friends/family remember for years after they aired? Billboards, radio jingles, 3 a.m. public-access ads, whatever. Mine are the commercials for Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro, who wanted to rip the hearts out of those who caused Rochester residents personal injury. Everyone I know from back home can automatically tell you his phone number, so they were effective mnemonic ads, if nothing else. —Dan Atkinson
During the long days at Houston’s Lollipop Daycare circa 1980, we watched a lot of TV. Nothing got us wee ones more excited than the cheeseball commercial for Thunderbolt auto. In the 30-second spot, a jaunty country tune plays as we see a hot-stuff cowgirl—straight out of Urban Cowboy, filmed in Houston and released around that time—experiencing trouble with her land yacht. A shyster car salesman tries to get her to pay an astounding $18,999 for a new car, but that’s when she heads to Thunderbolt for a rebuilt motor and transmission—with free towing! The ending is what made the commercial so great: As our blonde heroine drives off, waving her cowboy hat, the song goes, “We put the yeeeeeeeeeeeee-haw back in your motor and transmission!” All the kids at Lollipop Daycare would shout-sing it every time—I’m sure to the delight of the staff.
Later on, Thunderbolt even did a Spanish version:
If you are of a certain age and you grew up in the Phoenix area, the commercial that probably crept into your skull at a young age and refused to vacate wasn’t for a product or service. It was a public-service announcement intended to halt the spread of hepatitis, which, judging from the heavy rotation this thing got during The Wallace And Ladmo Show and other daytime TV programs, was absolutely epidemic in the 1970s Valley Of The Sun. It featured a group of rambunctious kids noisily belting out the commercial’s inescapable (and insanely catchy) theme song, which recommended the following means of protecting your liver:
Wash your hands after going to the bathroom
Wash your hands after changing baby, too
’Cause we don’t want to spread hepatitis
And we don’t want hepatitis to catch you.
It was all very practical, sound advice, and only a little tiny bit incredibly creepy. But the theme was so hooky that I’ve never met anyone my age from the area who doesn’t have it permanently ingrained in their brain boxes. A YouTube clip of the actual commercial has proved elusive, but here’s a random family singing the rare full-length version, with the famous chorus at the end.
If you only watch it once, it may not burrow irretrievably into your memory like it did mine. But try listening to it roughly 9,000 times while you’re trying to eat your Goober Grape, and you’ll understand why I’m sure that once I hit 90, I won’t remember my name or where I live, but I’ll still remember to wash my hands after changing baby, too.
Growing up in Metro Detroit meant my television-addled childhood self was inundated with excessively cheesy, insanely catchy car-dealership commercials, but none was cheesier or catchier than “Hey dog, come on dog.” Detroiters, feel free to sing along, I know you know it. Sadly, YouTube doesn’t have a clip of this gem, so I’ll have to paint a picture: Apparently made in the late ’70s, well before my birth, the commercial and its shitty animation of a cowboy and his dog served the Alan Ford dealership well into the ’90s, when I remember seeing it during my afternoon Saved By The Bell two-hour block on TBS. There wasn’t much to the commercial other than that squiggly cartoon, but the jingle is what sticks with me to this day: Sung in a hillbilly twang, “Hey dawg, come on dawg, wanna go to Tel-e-graph Road, right nooooowwww, get a good deal.” Okay, typing it out really doesn’t do it justice, but rest assured, it was earwormy enough to stick with me for years afterward. It also became a common way to address the Koski family dog, who seemed immune to the jingle’s charms, and remained completely uninterested in going to Telegraph Road to get a good deal.
A close runner-up: To this day, I cannot hear Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” (it happens more often than you’d think) without adding, “Boblo time is here!” thanks to the ubiquitous commercials for the now-closed Boblo Island Amusement Park, a Coney Island wannabe in the middle of the Detroit River, accessible only by ferry. Boblo Island is now being rebranded as a private “marina resort community” (which is just what the Detroit economy needs right now), and one can only hope “Boblo Time Is Here” will figure prominently into its advertising spiel.
There’s a car dealership in my area called Pugi of Chicagoland. I don’t remember anything about its radio commercials except the way Mr. Pugi decided to capitalize on his unusual name: by having it repeated, in a weird, quiet little voice, in random spots throughout the dealership’s otherwise straightforward ads. (You can hear it if you click on the bottom of the screen here.) This provided endless amusement to my father and me when I lived at home and we drove to work together. Even though we haven’t heard the commercials in years, we can still get a few yuks out of each other by leaning over and saying, apropos of nothing (and in the right voice), “Pugi.” The best part is that my husband, after moving to Chicago, also happened to hear the ad once or twice, so the enjoyment of saying “Pugi” is slowly being spread around. If you ever want to be in with my family, just walk up to any one of the three of us and say “Pugi.”
Growing up in the Chicagoland area, viewing the fabled Eagle Man insurance commercial was like a rite of passage. Shot on what I’d imagine was whatever money the director had in his pocket that day, the spot aired only on late-night TV and randomly during syndicated episodes of The Simpsons, when Fox gave up some airtime for local businesses. It starts with two girls in a car, then a thud. “Uh oh, do you have insurance?” one wonders aloud, in a tone reserved for friends and family who appear in the commercials of entrepreneurs too cheap or poor to pay real actors. They get out, and there’s the Eagle Man atop their car. “I’ve got something for you!” he proclaims, his puppet mouth simply moving up and down, not even to the words. Then he (!) plops out an egg (?!?), which hatches a googly eyed Eagle Baby with a rate card in its mouth. “Wow, look at those low rates,” the girls “exclaim” coldly. My friends and I in school used to quote this spot verbatim, using our hands to imitate the terrible puppetry of the titular Eagle Man—a practice that continues to this day. Whenever I meet a fellow former suburbanite, it often comes up in conversation right away.
As a kid, I was fascinated—borderline obsessed—with commercials for a Chicagoland grocery store called Moo & Oink. The clip below should explain why. It’s a perfect storm of ’80s awesomeness: a cheesetastic R&B ditty coupled with public-access production values and the incongruous sight of dudes in chintzy pig and cow costumes brazenly celebrating the slaughter and consumption of their barnyard pals and family members. I’ve never been to Moo & Oink, but I treasure it all the same.
I grew up in a small town in Maine; we didn’t really get many local ads. But there was one that was sort of an institution:
Definitely not so much with the wacky, but just try and get that jingle out of your head. Whenever that ad started airing each year, it meant summer was right around the corner, which meant my birthday, and the family’s annual trip to the amusement park. And as I got older, it eventually meant “Time to go back to work”; I spent three summers as a cashier at Funtown-Splashtown, U.S.A., and it was the first real job I ever had. The hours were long, but I worked with good people, and I got to read a lot. These days, I mostly remember the better booths to work (ticket booths were sweet, because you were basically alone in an air-conditioned hut for the whole shift) and the worst (the log-flume photo booth meant spending hours deleting pictures of people flipping off the camera; there were rumors of girls pulling their shirts up, but that always happened on somebody else’s shift). I also remember the summer when the park owners decided to start charging people just to walk around inside, which was the worst customer-service experience I’ve ever had. There’s no fun quite like getting a 10-minute lecture from an outraged father who blames you for ruining his entire family’s vacation, while Junior’s sobbing and wiping snot all over your window and the daughter is rolling her eyes and the wife just keeps sighing and say, “Let it go, Harold,” and Harold’s face is so red you’re about sure he’ll start coughing up blood any second, and he keeps pounding the side of the building like he’s so full of righteous fury that he expects the thing’ll just shatter, that you’ll slit your wrists then and there and the whole park is going to fold up and die because it tried to cheat him out of $2.50, the last $2.50 he had in the world, the money that was supposed to see his kids through college. They’ve changed the ad since then, but that’s the one I always remember.
A local Arkansas law firm has one of the strangest ads I’ve ever seen, in which the firm’s two main partners—Mr. Bush and Mr. Rasmussen—stomp around a blank white space, silently manhandling legal terms that float in the air or wriggle along the ground. Every time the commercial comes on, my wife and I provide voices for the lawyers, grumbling, “Fuck you, tortfeasor!” and “Take that, voir dire!”
No YouTube for this one, but here’s a link to the ad agency’s web site, which features the clip:
My perception of the world of art was forever changed by a radio spot for a frame and poster gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a voiceover talked about the wonders of its wares, convenience of its hours, and low, low prices, a nasal, robotic voice intoned the names of artists in the background: “Edward… Hopper. Toulouse… Lautrec. Claude… Monet.” Naturally, I can’t remember the store name or any of the other information ostensibly imparted by the commercial, because my attention at the time was hijacked by the quarter-volume, quarter-speed roll call of famous painters. And now I can’t see Nighthawks without murmuring softly to myself: “Edward… Hopper.”
As a Maryland native, I have two favorite old commercials. One was for Johnson Lumber, a chain of lumberyards in Anne Arundel County. I imagine it must be hard to advertise for a lumber company, because your product isn’t much different from your competitors. So Johnson Lumber went the ’ol drill-their-name-into-your-head route, with a light jingle that only had one lyric: “Johnson Lumber is the place to go,” interspersed with happy whistling. However, yet another problem existed: What exactly does one need to show on television to entice people to come to a lumberyard? Presumably the only reason customers would show up would be because they needed wood. So that’s just what the commercial was: video shots slowly panning across piles of wood (with varying degrees of close-up) while some lady sang “Johnson Lumber is the place to go…” The ad could have been considerably cheaper if it was just 4 seconds with a voice saying, “Johnson Lumber sells wood.” However, from then on, whenever someone asked me, “Where should we go?” I never failed to reply, as matter-of-factly as I could: “Johnson Lumber is the place to go,” then start whistling.
One other favorite was for Maryland shoe-store chain Shoe City. Shoe City has an advertising gimmick that must be doing wonders, considering how little they’ve changed it through the years: hire a local rapper desperate enough to self-promote through a Shoe City “music video.” Originally, Shoe City kept it modest, setting the video (at least in part) inside of a shoe store and occasionally showing pictures of shoes:
However, then they got ambitious, focusing more on the rap and less on the product, culminating in a wonderfully ridiculous video apparently based on the premise that Shoe City is actually a bumpin’ nightclub. While a female rap group spits lines about Shoe City, the crowd gets funky in the background on a massive dance floor, and dudes and chicks in bikinis bounce to the beat while chillin’ inside an indoor Jacuzzi. “Wall to wall / floor to floor / Shoe City got it right / you know the gear’s tight!” goes the rap. As I recall, the commercial never actually shoes any shoes. You can’t even really see the shoes the clubgoers are wearing. (I feel sorry for the confused folks who showed up at Shoe City wearing bathing suits under their clubbin’ gear, ready to lounge in the Jacuzzi and share some high-end champagne with the ladies, only to find shelves of Reeboks and some T-shirt racks.) Shoe City’s website used to have all their commercials, but they’ve since taken them down. Most mid-Atlanticites are going to go on and on about the Eastern Motors commercials, and, yes, those are pretty memorable too, but for me, “My city… is Shoe City. (Shoe City!)”
This is Texas, and down here we work and play hard, so we need trucks that can stand up to everything we throw at ’em. Also, pride. And Texas. There, I’ve summed up three-quarters of the ads you’ll see in the Lone Star State, where everything from appliances to hamburgers are built “Texas tough, for real Texans,” and any visitor who catches our local broadcasts would have to go home assuming that we all spend half our lives hauling huge cuts of lumber through knee-deep mud pits. Then, naturally, we end every day by standing solemnly in wide-open fields, our meaty, Toby Keith-like arms defiantly crossed, gazing into the wilderness as if to say, “Yeah, come on, wilderness! You want a piece of this? I’m a Texan! Pride and such!”
But you know, most of those just blur together after a lifetime of exposure; the local commercials that really stand out for me, oddly enough, also belong to lawyers—particularly the long-running one for Austin attorney Betty Blackwell. Blackwell’s spot manages to pack all the pathos of a Lifetime movie into 30 heartbreaking seconds: A frazzled woman clutches a phone and tells whoever is on the other end, “It’s so nice of you to call. I didn’t know you’d heard about Brian’s problems.” (Insert shot of Brian, looking so happy and full of potential in his school photo. What went wrong? What more could a mother have done?) “No, he’s been released from jail,” she says. “But now we have to go to court.” (How could it have come to this? It must be those friends of his!) She then pauses all of two seconds before saying, relieved, “Oh, you do know Betty Blackwell?” It’s an unlikely catchphrase, but it’s that weird emphasis on “do” that’s ensured I’ll probably still be murmuring it to myself decades from now. Right now, whenever the subject of drinking and driving comes up (which is often, because down here in Texas, we work and play hard), I actually have to restrain myself from saying, “Oh, you do know Betty Blackwell?” out loud while Brian’s cautionary example plays out in my head.
Of course, Blackwell represents only the tough-love, Ann Richards aspect of Austin. The other sides of our eternally conflicted identity can be seen in ads for two of Blackwell’s competitors: First, there’s David Komie, whose ponytail and goatee suggest that, like a lot of Austinites, he’s just doing this law thing until his bass-playing career takes off. Komie’s signature shtick is, “People say I don’t look like a lawyer. That helps me sneak up on them,” which is a line I use on my lawyer wife all the time whenever she’s getting dressed, because I’m hilarious. Then there’s Wayne Wright, a lawyer so rootin’-tootin’ that he doesn’t just ask for justice like some pussy Yankee. No, he demands it—and just in case you think he’s fucking around, pardner, he thrusts his cowboy hat at you for emphasis. Yeah! Texas tough! Pride and such!
Thanks for giving me Texas flashbacks, Sean. Reading your entry instantly reminded me of the jingle for this commercial that not only furthers all of your “Texas tough, for real Texans” sentiments, but also serves as a reminder that real, tough Texans listen to country music. 99.5 KPLX was pretty much the king of the airwaves in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex when I was a kid, and if you didn’t dig the popular country they were spinning, well, that was just weak. Look who’s flexin’ their plex! See how many local and national country luminaries you can name! I think I got two. The commercial starts right after the drop from the old Channel 11 Late Show. I also recommend sticking around for a commercial for something called CHIMP that pops up around the 3:20 mark. He truly was the star of the Texas State Fair.
If you ever meet someone who says they’re from New Orleans, the easiest way to confirm it is to look at them and say, with enthusiasm, “I got the 50 dollars!” If they answer, “Let her have it,” then you know they’re telling the truth. The Frankie & Johnny’s Special Man brings all New Orleanians together:
For extra credit, you could ask them to sing along to the short-lived Frankie & Johnny’s song: “If you want good service and a price that’s low / Frankie & Johnny’s is the place to go / Take my hand / See the special man.”
Bonus, because I miss their turtles and king cakes (the Tastee Donuts version of McKenzie’s just isn’t the same): Oh! McKenzie’s!
They don’t make ’em like they used to, do they? I mean, you can still hear the “588-2-300, Empire!” song in Chicagoland whenever you want, but the truly dumb commercials don’t seem to make it to the air much anymore. (Either that, or I just never see commercials anymore because God created TiVo.) But during my high-school years, a law firm in Milwaukee called Eisenberg, Weigel, and Carlson hired every Green Bay Packer they could get their hands on to give testimonials about their personal-injury attorneys. The kicker (pun intended) was this amazing line, delivered by every player who did the commercials: “Don’t drop the ball, make the call.” As we all learned from Rocky 2, sports stars aren’t necessarily good actors, nor can they necessarily read very well. The best Eisenberg, Weigel commercial starred Gilbert Brown, who was clearly reading HIS OWN NAME from cue cards, and still couldn’t quite enunciate it. And he delivered the tagline so gracelessly, it almost seemed like he was in pain. That was his best take?
In slightly more Milwaukee-universal terms, there was the ubiquitous Rosen car dealerships, whose Wild West-themed jingle featured just one word. It went like this: “Rosen Rosen Rosen. Rosen Rosen Rosen! [twangy guitar] Rosen!!! [Whip crack.]” (That looks like a mathematical equation.) And finally, there was the one I absolutely couldn’t stand: an anthropomorphic pencil named Stubby Heiser, who sold cars. I wanted to kill that fucking pencil. I had to turn my TV off every time it came on.
So long as “favorite” is synonymous with “most annoying,” I have to go with the “Save big money at Menards” commercials for the Eau Claire, Wisconsin-based home-improvement chain Menards. As anyone from Wisconsin will tell you, the banjo-driven “Save big money at Menards” is the catchiest song ever written about saving large amounts of cash at a Wisconsin-based home-improvement chain. Even better, the commercials featured a white-haired pitchman named Ray Szmanda (better known as “the Menards guy”) barking about discounts on lawn chairs and power drills, like the world’s drunkest grandpa.
Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any clips on YouTube. So I’ll mention another, more recent local commercial featuring A.V. Club favorite Eugene Mirman shilling for Milwaukee radio station Lake FM, which plays a “variety” of tired pop-rock and AOR oldies. In the ad, Mirman tells us that he can play his favorite songs—like Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love,” Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs,” and matchbox 20’s “Unwell”—on his finger. Ain’t he a stinker? Actually, Mirman made this commercial several years ago to be used for generic “Jack”-style radio stations across the country. I sent him an e-mail about it, and Mirman admitted he was “hesitant to do it, but at the time I made it I was totally fucked and had no money… I had maxed out all my credit cards and was selling stuff back to thrift stores for spending cash.” Perhaps there’s a lesson here—for every terrible local commercial, there’s a pitchman who faced a worse alternative than doing them.
Wow, my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, is sorely underrepresented on YouTube. That means it’s hard for me to share the joys of BHA (“…means Better Home Appliances… Better Home Appliances… Better Home Appliances!”), the Neil Diamond-fixated car deal Steve Tatone, or Roberds, an electronics chain that made a series of ads in the ’70s and ran them until it went out of business a couple of years ago. But I can share this guy, whose Xeroxed harmonies haunted my youth. See you… pleeeaasseee?: