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.
Still, some local advertisers still make 'em like they used to. These days, the more idiosyncratic work shows up mostly on cable systems, not on broadcast stations. That means the audience is far smaller, since an ad placed on the cable system in, say, Fairfax or Alexandria reaches only a fraction of the audience served by regional broadcasters such as WUSA (Channel 9), WTTG (Channel 5) or WBDC (Channel 50).
So, unless you live in the District, you probably haven't seen the Shoe City chain's grainy rap commercials ("My city / Your city / . . . Shoe City!"). And if you live outside Montgomery County, you'll never be regaled by commercials for Ranger Surplus, an outdoor-gear chain, that feature a character named Captain Happy. Similarly, the comic stylings of Howard G. are now primarily reserved for cable subscribers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Local advertisers say the rising cost of airtime on broadcast stations has driven them to the cheaper precincts of cable. A 30-second spot during daytime hours can go for as little as $20 on a local cable system, compared with 20 or more times that amount on a broadcast station.
Of course, a commercial on a big broadcast outlet blankets a vast metropolitan area. But small advertisers say they don't really need to reach every TV household.
Senate Insurance, for instance, put its "Kiss My Bumper" commercials on the broadcast stations when the company began in 1986. Yet with 10 of its 12 offices located in Montgomery and Prince George's, the company has narrowed its ad purchases to just those two locales, says Geary Katz, Senate's president and founder. Result: Howard G. is no longer on TV in places like Manassas or Annapolis.
Besides cost, cable has another advantage: Since cable programming tends to attract a particular demographic cluster -- younger men typically watch ESPN, teens watch MTV, and so on -- small advertisers say they can more efficiently target their most likely prospects.
Harvey Kramer, who owns the five-store Ranger Surplus chain in Gaithersburg, says he targets male viewers by running commercials during the Discovery Channel show "Monster Garage," carried on Montgomery Cable. (That show, of course, is carried on other cable systems, where it may include ads for businesses in those localities.) He also advertises on the History Channel to reach "military buffs," and on Cartoon Network's late-night "Adult Swim" to reach "stoned kids." This sort of approach makes sense from Kramer's perspective because three of his stores are in Montgomery.
Among other images, Ranger Surplus uses a brief stock clip of a nuclear explosion in its commercials. Its spokesman, Captain Happy, wears sunglasses and a Smokey the Bear hat and reminds viewers "to carry a knife. . . . You'll never realize its many uses until you have one on you!"
The chain's unusual ad slogan -- "This store is the cat's ass" -- was a bit of a fluke, says Kramer. A customer uttered it spontaneously during the taping of a testimonial ad five years ago, and it stuck. Now it's a badge of honor, appearing on T-shirts and bumper stickers. "People stick their heads in the store and shout it out," says Kramer proudly.
And that's the whole point of any ad, isn't it? Whether it's a multimillion-dollar production or the low-cost version ("I've never spent more than $5,000 making a spot," says Geary Katz), the idea is to be fresh and original -- and memorable.
"We are what we are, which is very blue collar," says Kramer. "The whole idea of our ads is to grab the attention of a guy who's melting away in his La-Z-Boy. That's a pretty hard thing to do in just 30 seconds, but it's got to come from somewhere."
There are so many commercials around that an advertiser can get lost in the clutter without a little something extra, agrees Howard Maleson, who heads Senate's agency, the Breakthrough Group of Towson.
"I've been doing this for over 40 years, and I've learned what makes you stand out is coming up with a point of difference," he says. "You hear [Senate's] name, and you think 'car insurance' because you remember that slogan. If our commercials bring a smile to your face, then we've succeeded."