August 28, 2011, 3:16 pm

The Power and Glory of Cheesy TV Commercials

Branded

An insider’s guide to small-business marketing.

I recently saw a list of cheesy local TV commercials that got me laughing and thinking. Why exactly do these spots have such a time-honored place in our culture?

In Corpus Christi, Tex., where I grew up, the high priest of the daytime local genre was Mr. Louie of Mr. Louie’s Wig City. Day after day, he took to the airwaves, entering our living rooms while standing in front of hundreds of Styrofoam heads, each with a thousand-mile stare and some kind of Eva Gabor number on top. He’d shout their names as if they were horses coming down the home stretch: the Aspire! The Invitation! The Lite and Airy and Cheer! The Perk!

The grand finale of the spots was Mr. L, in solidarity with his target audience, wearing something that looked like coal on his head, and in full-on monotone, delivering the line that somehow seemed to make female follicles sit up: “Ladies, if your hair is not becoming to you, you should be coming to us!” The camera holds for three full seconds and then pulls back to show the support group of big-haired but vacant faces. Fade to black. Many years later, this commercial — $200 to produce, tops — still occupies a shelf in my brain.

But was it effective advertising? Clearly, a lot of other local advertisers thought so. In the New York metro area, Crazy Eddie, the electronics retailer who filled 30 seconds as if he had a vest with explosive devices underneath his Santa suit that would detonate if his decibel level dropped, will not soon be forgotten. Atlanta had the Wolfman and sidekick Donna, pitching sofas. Indiana has Butt Drugs, a sing-along spot with the cheeky line “free parking in the rear.” Houston has Mattress Mack and Gallery Furniture (voted the worst and best TV ads in the Houston Chronicle in the ’80s) and the newer Houston furniture store pitchman making a run for the bedding crown, Hilton the Chainsaw Guy of Hilton Furniture — who wound up being treated to 15 minutes of precious national TV fame courtesy of Conan O’Brien.

These pitchmen — because they’re so good? because they’re so bad? — often ignite their own celebrity, expanding their companies and hanging with sports stars and writing best-selling business books.

The commercials  just keep coming, so they must be getting results. This is professionally painful for me to acknowledge, but some of these spots are very effective in making sales. Here are some thoughts as to why we respond to the high cheese factor:

The spots are memorable. The higher the cheese, the more we gawk. Like a bad wreck, we just can’t look away. They give us something to talk about around the water cooler, a common frenemy to have fun with and, perhaps, feel a little superior to.

We secretly like being yelled at. Cheesy commercials dislodge us from couch-potato stupors. They get our attention.

We have a weakness for faux celebrities. Spokespeople create their own celebrity by putting themselves in front of a camera and buying airtime. Recently, finding myself across the salad bar sneeze shield from a local chiropractor who “stars” in his own TV spots, I got a bump in my pumps — even though he was a lot shorter than he comes across on TV!

We kind of like being told what to do. Yes, we want to think we make our own decisions, but when someone directs us to “Come on down and see me!” we often respond like dogs to bones.

And yet, I must champion alternatives to advertising’s junk food and high-fructose corn syrup. Let’s look at a car dealer whose ads are highly entertaining, memorable, achieve results and are of another genre altogether. The ad agency R/West was hired by the Suburban Auto Group of Sandy, Ore. (about 45 minutes from Portland) in 2004 to create some TV spots. The series of Trunk Monkey ads that resulted were entertaining and affordable to produce — each one less than the dealer’s cost of a new car.

“It’s about recall,” said Sean Blixseth, founder of R/West. “We work in this industry that is sort of paralyzed by the idea that you have to put a lot of information in an ad to get someone to pick up the phone and call you, when sometimes all you need is to get someone to remember you.”

People remember the Trunk Monkey ads and that memory and association — unlike more typical car dealer ads — is positive. The subtle brilliance of these spots is that the whole question of “Do I trust this car dealer?” is whisked off the table. Consumers unconsciously take away that Suburban and its tire-jack-wielding primate are looking out for you. Today, the Suburban Auto Group is one of the top Chevy and Corvette dealers in the Northwest. It also sells thousands of Trunk Monkey T-shirts a year.

The beauty of a good commercial — especially in the age of YouTube — is this: when it’s highly memorable, businesses can spend a lot less on media and get solid returns. According to Mr. Blixseth, the Trunk Monkey series has well over a million YouTube hits. The media value of those views is off the charts.

So, can we step away from the cheese? Or are these kinds of spots — and here’s one more personal favorite — just too much of who we are? What do you think?