Here is a trivia question: Who was the first car dealer reportedly to start advertising on TV? Stay tuned for the answer.
The question is relevant, in part because of a new reality-TV series on A&E featuring life in a Las Vegas dealership. The show, King of Cars, is a new spin on what had been a long-standing practice in automotive retail — outrageously creating a personality using television and other means in an effort to develop a brand and ultimately drive traffic to the showroom.
It is a practice that has waned. And that is what makes Josh Towbin (a.k.a. Chop) and the King of Cars so fascinating. He is a throwback to an earlier, and arguably, more entertaining era of dealership marketing and branding.
Many of today's dealership television ads are staid and safe. It is inevitable. As large corporations owning dealerships expand, there are fewer “personalities” in the business that has become more button down.
While some dealers today may cringe at Chop's depiction of life in a dealership (one dealer says the show scared him at first), others, including Ward's columnist and Philadelphia-area dealer Peter Brandow, like the energy Chop brings.
“It shows this business can be fun,” says Brandow.
Often, those days of yore included dealers engaging in goofy stunts while wearing crazy costumes. Perhaps most famous, or infamous, depending on your perspective, are the old Cal Worthington spots.
More recent are the zany ads featuring the guitar-playing Fred Ricart and his wife Lynne. Fred and his brother Rhett own the Ricart Automotive Group in Columbus, OH.
What about that dealer who started it all? None other than the conservative founder of JM Family Enterprises, Jim Moran, who, in an earlier life in Chicago, convinced fellow Hudson dealers to sponsor a smack-down wrestling show.
— By Cliff Banks
With the recent proliferation of TV programming dedicated to automobiles it was only a matter of time before an enterprising Hollywood producer dreamt up a reality series set at a car dealership. A&E's King of Cars, a look at the inner workings of a busy Las Vegas dealer, is that series.
To those of us who toil in anonymity for humdrum, small-town stores the notion of a prime-time television show revolving around our life on the lot seems destined to put the viewer to sleep. Yet as is readily apparent from the show, Towbin Dodge is not a humdrum operation.
Claiming themselves to be variously “the most successful used-car lot in the nation” or “No. 1 in Nevada,” the guys at Towbin seem less like car salesmen and more like circus clowns.
Daily business at their store involves outlandish costumes, bizarre contests, dunk tanks and gongs.
The ringleader of this greatest show in the car business is “Chop,” a 30-year- old car-sales prodigy and self-styled rap impresario whose given name is Joshua Towbin. He is co-owner of Towbin Dodge and son of Dan Towbin, head of Towbin Automotive Group. In character, Chop parades around the showroom draped in gold jewelry, using his outsized personality and knack for sensation to dazzle customers into buying cars.
Among self-promoters, he truly is “King.” In addition to the A&E gig and a regular televised infomercial, Chop has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as well as The Jimmy Kimmel Show and decorates his dealership with pictures of the many celebrities he has met and sold cars to.
In an interview with Ward's, Towbin admits that at first, making the TV show was “a bit of a distraction” to the dealership operation. Music playing over the speakers was once a staple at Towbin Dodge. Now it has to be shut off during filming.
Also, he says, there are customers who like to show off their negotiating skills for the camera, creating a challenge.
The other personalities on the show, apart from the larger-than-life Chop, seem to reflect a cross-section of car sales today, except that there are no women. Presumably the alpha-male attitude that pervades the store discourages women from applying.
The salesmen are more young than old, ambitious, aggressive and a bit abrasive. Towbin says the dealership prefers to hire sales people with no experience; he wants to mold them in his own way.
As is common practice, sales people are divided into teams. Each team has its stars and stragglers and their daily routine is much like it is at any other dealership.
That is except for Chop's crazy sales contests and bizarre promotions that require the staff to don absurd outfits and play the role of a genie, construction worker, even a female impersonator.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their crazy antics, Chop and his crew sell a lot of cars, sometimes 500 per month. In 2005, Towbin Dodge ranked 103rd on the Ward's Dealer 500 list with nearly $150 million in total revenue, selling 2,536 new vehicles and 3,768 used.
Much of this is attributable to advertising. Towbin became the King in part through his use of an outlandish late night infomercial called “The Chopper Show.”
In a tidal wave of exclamation, the character Chop leads a parade of used cars, each driven by an absurdly costumed member of his sales staff. The price of each car starts out at what is ostensibly list price and then is “chopped” over and over. When the price hits what is presumably rock bottom, everyone bellows “hit the gas” and it is on to the next car.
Towbin estimates the infomercial originally drove 80%-85% of the store's traffic. But now the dealership is seeing more repeat business as customers who came in because of the show are returning a second and third time, “because we treated them right,” says Towbin.
Like any so-called loss leaders, cars on the show are sold quickly, and prospects are thereafter shown other similar cars. Because of its hilarious, often bawdy nature, “The Chopper Show” has become somewhat of a cult favorite among Las Vegas residents.
Clearly this unique style of marketing works; it drives herds of traffic to the dealership. But getting customers in the door is only half the battle. It is up to the sales staff to close the deal — and close they do.
When it is time to get down to business, the salesmen don't resemble clowns anymore. Some might say the tactics they employ are high-pressure. Many would argue that a little pressure is sometimes what is needed to make the right deal at the right time.
Yet the customers are sometimes cajoled to such a degree that you wonder why Towbin agrees to show how the hamburger is made, so to speak.
In almost every respect, King of Cars is an exaggerated depiction of the practices of most dealerships. Yet, to the uninitiated who make up the show's audience, it might appear to confirm their worst fears about all dealers.
But the purpose of the show isn't to educate the buying public about car dealerships, it is to make money for A&E through ad revenue. To do that, the show must entertain. It does that. King of Cars is snappily edited and manages never to be boring.
But what, if anything, can Chop teach us about the car business?
It seems that even the most over-the-top advertising will draw customers. Humor and antics can help lighten moods of tough customers.
Chop's in your face marketing sets him apart from an increasingly similar dealership society that values adherence to the mainstream. While people inside the industry might know what makes each store different, customers have a tendency to lump all dealerships together. Towbin Dodge however, will never be confused as just another dealership.
“It does help that we are in Vegas,” Towbin says. “I don't know if it would fly, in, say, Utah.”
King of Cars also has something to teach about motivation. Rather than the fear or resentment of management that some might expect at such a high-stakes store, the sales staff at Towbin Dodge seem to adore Chop.
He endears their loyalty with both his magnetic personality and propensity to hand out cash to salesmen who make deals. The enthusiasm in the morning sales meetings reflects his infectious car-selling charisma.
What's more, the store's amped-up atmosphere has none of the forced, phony quality that it often does at dealerships.
“All of that energy and enthusiasm you see in the meetings is genuine,” says Towbin.
The salesmen appear willing to do anything to please their mentor, including dressing up in outlandish costumes.
Chop attributes this to a positive attitude. He doesn't deride salesmen for making small mistakes or demoralize them with threats of being fired or “sent home.” Instead he focuses on building upon recent victories and translating that into future success.
He does not coddle his staff, though. They have to move the metal. Otherwise, there are consequences.
But from all appearances, it's a fun place to work. Towbin has managed to create an atmosphere where having fun distracts from, or perhaps enhances, the routine of selling cars.
— with Cliff Banks
Jesse Berger is a former car salesman at a Massachusetts dealership.
A TV Program or a Horror Show for the Industry?
King of Cars may offer TV entertainment to casual viewers, but to some people in the dealership industry it's a horror show.
“That show gives all dealerships a bad name,” says Harry Douglas, a former Tennessee dealer and now host of Car Concerns, a talk-radio show. “It's just terrible for the industry.”
Dealership trainer Paul Webb says the show shows how tough the dealership business can be. He says Josh Towbin's Chop character displays something of a “tainted side.”
“There's a good-bad to everything,” says Webb. “If you look for the bad, you'll find it. But the show can be a benefit if you are a struggling dealership salesman who watches and realizes you're not the only one who hasn't sold a car in four days.”
Webb says King of Cars offers visual demonstrations of both what to do and what not to do.
“I remember one episode in which a salesman was walking the lot, not knowing where a car was, while the customer grew more and more impatient,” says Webb. “That comes under, ‘What not to do.’”
Dean Palmer, vice president of a Florida dealership group, Wilde Automotive Management, says Chop can get away with the antics portrayed on the show because his dealership is in glitzy Las Vegas.
“We're near a retirement community,” says Palmer. “What he does in Las Vegas, is not going to work in Sarasota. They'd run you out if you had someone running around in a genie suit.”
— By Steve Finlay
Jim Moran, King of Cowboys
Long before Jim Moran created the Florida-based JM Family Enterprises, the 17th largest private company in the U.S., he was one of Chicago's most notable celebrities, in addition to being one of its largest car dealers.
Moran recounts his experiences in an autobiography he wrote, Jim Moran the Courtesy Man. His celebrity status began in 1948 when he convinced 12 fellow Chicago-area Hudson dealers to sponsor the Wrestling from Rainbow TV show for 13 weeks for $1,200 a week.
During 18 minute-long intermissions, separated by bouts with the likes of Gorgeous George, Dick the Bruiser and Hans and Max Schnabel, Moran ran used cars in front of the camera one after another as he described each one with their price.
Soon, Moran moved onto more aggressive early TV marketing, sponsoring a show called the Barn Dance. Moran, as the emcee, would dress up in a cowboy outfit and cowboy hat. The show had its own dance troupe. Many old-time country stars appeared on the show.
Later, Moran started a variety show called the Courtesy Hour. A cast of zany characters, including Professor Backwards and Professor Irwin Corey, with his infamous ties, would participate in various skits while big-name stars performed.
By 1967, Moran sold his Chicago dealerships and moved to Florida. He acquired a Pontiac store in Homestead, FL the next year. He also acquired a Toyota distributorship and other dealerships and founded JM Enterprises with businesses that include finance and insurance training and auto loan financing.
Before signing the papers for the Pontiac dealership, Moran personally had to promise a GM vice president he would not appear on TV.
— By Cliff Banks
Fred Ricart, King of Corn
Comedy works. Just ask Fred and Rhett Ricart, two brothers who run one of the country's largest dealer groups, based in Columbus, OH.
Ads promoting the Ricart Automotive Group are arguably some of the more fun (some might say corny) campaigns developed by car dealers. The group's tagline, normally spoken (or sung) by Fred, “Hey, we're dealin,” is one of the more well-known phrases in Columbus.
Most of the TV ads feature Fred acting as comedic relief to his wife Lynne. The couple usually engage in a silly skit or parody of a famous song, with Fred on the guitar. Meanwhile, Rhett mostly stays off-camera, opting instead to do news interviews and speak at industry conferences.
The ads often sport a familiar theme, such as “The Boogie-Woogie Dealin' boy of Rt. 33,” “Ricart Junction" and the Olympic series of “Gold Medal Challenge,” or “Flash Back Dealin.”
One ad, according to the Ricarts, resulted in a 28% sales increase for the dealership's conversion-van franchise. Dubbed “Mr. Vanman,” and patterned after the song, “Mr. Sandman,” the ad has Fred flying in as a magical character who transforms old vehicles into new conversion vans.
— By Cliff Banks
Cal, King of Cows?
Google search Cal Worthington's name and read through some of the thousands of listings that appear. It is evident the southern California dealer's madcap television ads affected people in ways most ads could only hope to.
Worthington has been selling cars since 1945 and has been a southern California mainstay since the 1950s.
In posts on several message boards and personal blogs, people claim that as youngsters growing up in California, they misinterpreted Worthington's famous jingle, “Go See Cal,” as being “Pussy Cow.”
Appearing with Worthington was his “dog” Spot, who never was a dog, but instead, was an elephant, a tiger or some other outlandish animal. In many of his ads, Worthington performed silly acts, such as standing on his head while on the hood of a vehicle, or on the wing of a plane while it was flying.
In addition to sponsoring his own country-music variety show, Worthington was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
He also appeared as himself in a couple of films, including Into the Night and Killer Tomatoes Strike Back.
Worthington used those ads to become what was reportedly the largest dealership chain in the country by 1990 with revenue exceeding $300 million.
Worthington, now 85, still owns four dealerships and does voiceovers for the occasional ad. Clips of his vintage ads are on the dealer group's website, www.calworthington.com.
— Cliff Banks