The Television Bureau of Advertising described the late Cal Worthington as “probably the best-known car dealer pitchman in television history.” Some of his most memorable “Go See Cal” commercials show Worthington wrestling a grizzly bear, hanging upside down from an airplane, riding an elephant and standing upside down on his head.
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.”
Easterns Auto Group’s Robert Bassam allots up to six figures to hire celebrity talent for his ads. Actor Kevin Pollak, comedians Gilbert Gottfried and John Witherspoon, rapper Fat Joe, hockey player Alexander Ovechkin and just about every quarterback to start for the Washington Redskins since 1988 have sung the Easterns jingle.
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.