Valley TV sloganeers are not what they used to be.
Car super salesman Cal Worthington’s death last Sunday at age 92 gave America — and those in Western cities where he had dealerships, such as Phoenix — the chance to relive those ads more than 30 years ago depicting a chuckling Worthington, in a Western-style tailored suit and white Stetson, telling his audiences he would “eat a bug” if he couldn’t sell you a car.
Cringe as many of us did when his fast-and-furious theme song, “Go See Cal,” started to play at quite literally every break during a late-night local movie, Worthington was one of the originators of the madcap auto-dealer ad, and certainly one of the few people to actually pull off appearing in his own commercials.
For sheer awkwardness, nothing compares to many a local television commercial in which the advertiser himself or herself appears. Throughout a six-decade career, Worthington managed to make it work because unlike most self-pitchmen, he made sure he appeared self-deprecating.
The standard introduction to his ads — an announcer shouting, “It’s Cal Worthington and his dog Spot!” — showed Worthington with one of any number of creatures, some looking as though they were rented for the day from a wild animal park. Not one of them was a dog.
“I’m going to pretend it’s a dog, that I’m really a little stupid,” he told Los Angeles magazine in 2003, according to a Tuesday story in the Los Angeles Times. He drove a tiger around his lot in a golf cart, rode a killer whale and wrestled a bear, always looking as though he was having the best time.
Many who do a “selfie” TV commercial appear as if they actually believe they’re good at it, when of course they resemble the main character in the fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” If they got any training in delivery or diction at all, it’s hard to tell if they paid attention in class.
And what provides us with a second laugh is knowing that they actually are paying the TV station for the privilege.
Plenty of examples exist today. Many markets seem to be inundated lately by a variation in which the advertiser’s school-age children are delivering the message, and it’s plain that the acorn does not fall far from the tree.
But the heyday of the local TV car ad was the 1970s and 1980s.
If you lived in Phoenix then, you were entertained — possibly — by all kinds of characters and sloganeers.
A rather pointed battle for the local used-car dollar on Valley airwaves was between two Phoenix lots. When one encouraged drivers to bring in their current car for a trade, claiming that, “For a nice car, we throw the Blue Book away,” their competition ran ads a short time later showing a cowering man trying to duck as he was pelted with guess what, as the announcer said, “Tired of dodging Blue Books?”
Another ad had a man all in white — three-piece suit, mask and Stetson — who called himself “the Loan Arranger,” accompanied by his female sidekick, “Carlotta Sales.”
You don’t hear slogans too much anymore, but perhaps they ought to be reintroduced. Ask the only remaining Valley car pitchman of Worthington’s generation, octogenarian Tex Earnhardt. The fast-paced Earnhardt’s walkoff line for decades has been, “If you don’t try us, we both lose money — and that ain’t no bull.”
Earnhardt’s opposite for several years was the much more deliberate Lou Grubb. Soft-spoken — and whose message was delivered from a high-backed cushioned chair with a different painting hanging on the wall behind it in each ad — many of Grubb’s commercials didn’t even include pictures of cars.
In his ads Grubb dispensed life advice and observations about integrity and honesty – occasionally commenting about the beauty of the painting– and by the end of them, would say something about how these virtues were important at his dealership. Logo, up music, and fade to black.
Many years ago, Arizona State University’s business school scheduled a “great debate” between Grubb and Earnhardt. I didn’t go, but what I read about it said that instead of mano-a-mano battle for whose ideology was best, each man — who mastered the art of appearing in their own commercials — seemed to respect the other’s approach, so long as it worked.
Unfortunately, as a guy who doesn’t have the technology to fast-forward through commercials, I can tell you that too many others who insist on appearing in their own ads don’t know how small they stand next to Cal Worthington, who as far as I know never tossed a Blue Book, thank goodness.
• Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.