Off-Off-Madison Ave. Ads

Senate Insurance
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

He's played a fake game-show emcee, an angel, a Jerry Springer-style talk show host and, most recently, a mustachioed grandma. Hard to say what role Howard G., a standup comic turned TV pitchman, will assume in his long-running series of commercials for Senate Insurance Agency.

Whatever Howard G.'s guise, anyone who's seen the Laurel auto insurance company's TV ads won't soon forget Howard's -- and Senate's -- exuberantly delivered slogan: "Kiiiii-sss my bumper! Just kiss it!"

Campy? Sure. Over the top? You bet your bumper.

The Senate commercials are something else, too. With their distinctly low-cost look, they're a throwback to an earlier age, when memorably cheesy, and cheesily entertaining, commercials for local businesses dotted the TV airwaves.

Not so very long ago, every region had its own distinct set of hometown hucksters, local legends all. Southern California's was Cal Worthington, a Stetson-wearing car dealer who rode across his lot on hippos and camels ("my dog Spot") and vowed to "eat a bug" to make a deal. Chicago had the grating Timmy, a boy who screeched the praises of the Chevettes sold down at Long's Chevrolet. A generation or two of New Yorkers grew up on ice cream man Tom Carvel, Jerry the appliance guy ("What's the story, Jerry?"), Topsy of Tops Appliance City ("Fuhgedaboutit!") and Crazy Eddie, whose prices for electronic goods were always "INSANE!"(Well, something was. Company founder Eddie Antar defrauded investors, skipped the country for a time and wound up serving nearly eight years in prison.)

Washington's local talent included car dealer Gardner "Ted" Britt, who featured his seven little towheaded boys in his commercials. (Mrs. Britt never seemed to appear, leading to speculation that she must have been way too tired.) During the first Joe Gibbs era, the TheatreVisions TV store chain ran ads featuring a series of Redskins linemen, who were as big as sequoias and could act about as well. And few locals will forget the once ubiquitous late-night spots for martial arts instructor Jhoon Rhee, who bragged, "Nobody boddahs me!"

While the products and services being advertised varied, the ads had several things in common: memorably silly spokesmen, cardboard production values, oddball scenarios. In their own charmingly crude way, they were a kind of folk art, in sharp contrast to the highly polished output of Madison Avenue's pros.

And less sometimes can be more. Hyper-caffeinated infomercial pitchman Matthew Lesko, who's been selling books about free government services and products with frantic TV ads since 1990, says it's often counterproductive to make a commercial look too good.

"My theory has always been that you have to get people out of the bathroom," says Lesko, who lives in Kensington.

There's no chance of mistaking a Lesko commercial for "Masterpiece Theatre." On camera, he wears a suit covered with question marks, as if he had just mugged the Riddler, and jabbers away like a kid with ADD. "My goal," he says, "is to get people saying, 'What's that idiot talking about?' . . . Production values don't matter that much."

Homegrown commercials -- for personal injury lawyers, vocational schools, regional car dealerships and the like -- are still numerous, of course, but a disappointing sobriety and professionalism has crept in over the years. There's no Timmy or Cal Worthington among the current crop. (Krystal Koons, spokeswoman for the Koons auto empire, seems like a Shakespearean actress compared with some of her more flamboyant predecessors.)

And then there's a whole group of commercials that only look local. Those Empire Carpet ads with the lost-in-time jingle ("800 . . . 5-8-8, 2, three-hundred! Em-pire. Today!") and the amazingly antiquated animation come from a company based in the Chicago area that uses the same ads in more than two dozen cities. Similarly, those famously stiff Sticks 'N' Stuff furniture store spots featuring race-car driver Tina Gordon are actually for a national chain, headquartered in Alabama.

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