Business Columns & Blogs

Bill Virgin: What is modern answer to Cal and Spot? Readers, you tell us

Let’s launch this year’s return of the annual Readers Rate the Ads column with a concurrent reappearance of another, less regularly scheduled feature of this space: Spot the Generational Differences.

West Coast auto dealer and TV ad pitchman Cal Worthington died last week (no word on the condition of “his dog Spot”). Your reaction to the news and his legacy was:

a) Man, I miss Cal and advertising like that. Even if I never bought a car from him, I always paid attention to the ads and got a laugh out of them. Ads like those become part of pop culture and provided some distinctive local flavor. They just don’t make showmen like that anymore.

b) Cal Worthington’s style of advertising was obsolete long before the man passed away. Pushy, amateurish hucksterism like that doesn’t motivate buyers. If anything it turns them off. Consumers are too sophisticated and savvy to react to stunts.

c) Who’s Cal Worthington? I don’t get the joke about Spot. And what’s a local ad? What’s a TV ad? What’s local TV? What’s TV?

The temptation in writing about the passing of the great or famous is to invoke the phrase “marks the end of an era,” and with the news about Cal Worthington you have got the passing of multiple eras and phases of ads and advertising medium, all of which play into the broader topic that Readers Rate the Ads is meant to address.

One of the challenges in doing Readers Rate the Ads in recent years has been the declining quantity (never mind the issue of quality) of ads that are funny, unique, quirky and, most of all, local.

Every market used to have them. Those who have been here for some time can recall memorable ads for Rainier Beer, the Mariners and Alaska Airlines, or not only sing along to the jingle but name the sponsor of such classic ditties as “Take a princess to sea, have a crumpet and tea,” or “who’s got crab legs?” or even “Sale-o, one-day sale-o” (the Princess Marguerite ferry to Victoria, Sea Galley restaurants and the Bon Marche, in case you were wondering).

Cal Worthington wasn’t the only auto entrepreneur to build a string of dealerships, although his network (which included one in Federal Way) was larger than most. But he would have remained at best a regional phenomenon, barely known outside Southern California, were it not for his willingness to make himself the brand and his antics the focus of attention. Millions had heard of Cal Worthington without ever having lived within hundreds of miles of his dealerships or seeing one of his ads, thanks to guest appearances on Johnny Carson’s show (and there’s another reference that’s going to need explaining to the younger set).

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, you can now see those ads exhorting you to “Go see Cal!” Maybe that will prompt a wave of nostalgia. Or perhaps it will just puzzle you. Who uses jingles any more? Who advertises like that these days?

The Puget Sound region is home to major national and international retailers. Can you name a catchy tune or a tag line associated with Nordstrom, Starbucks, Costco or Amazon? Do those companies, relative newcomers like Starbucks and Amazon, even do marketing and advertising as it was thought of a few decades ago?

No they don’t, and that’s a prime indicator that it’s not just the style of advertising that has changed but the channels through which would-be advertisers attempt to reach potential customers. Cal Worthington’s ads didn’t have to compete with a near-infinite universe of advertising outlets and media, including cable channels and websites, to reach viewers. Local broadcast radio and TV stations and newspapers, maybe some billboards, were about all you needed.

Today’s readers, listeners and viewers are scattered across the medium and device spectrum, and even when advertisers find them, they may be employing ways of ignoring those messages. If an ad airs and no one’s watching or listening, did they really try to sell you something?

At this point in advertising, the one safe conclusion is that nobody knows nuthin’ – what works, whether anything works, where the audience is, are they paying attention. Consequently advertisers are trying anything and everything – they might even try a revival of hokey ads in the style of Cal Worthington to see if that gains anything.

We’re still in the experimental stage, and there could be serious consequences to the results of those experiments. Already have been, as newspapers can attest. If insurance companies Geico and Progressive ever make major changes in the way they market themselves, half the Internet would have to shut down.

But while we’re waiting for those trends to play out, it’s time for you to nominate the ads, from whatever medium, that have caught your eye or ear recently, good or bad, amusing, serious or just infuriating. Send them to the email address below, and we’ll present your comments in an upcoming column.

And if you see his dog Spot, you’ll understand that it’s not just the passing of His Master’s Voice (one more archaic advertising reference) that’s got him looking a bit forlorn these days.