There’s something unmistakably heartwarming about wacky, low-budget local TV ads, something that confirms that those people on TV are your friends, your neighbors, a connection to your community. And boy, does Detroit have any records of it.
Below are 10 commercials that are local staples past and present, usually featuring sticky jingles, phone numbers so unforgettable you couldn’t shake them even if you wanted to, or quirky characters forever etched in our memoirs. If you ever hear the number 29 and think “or two for 50”; if your idea of Superman is a former Detroit Lion and used-car salesman in a cape; if you know the first number to call in the event of a slip and fall; then you, my friend, you also watched television during the day in the Detroit area in 1993, and for that, you are the richest.
First broadcast: 1998
In the competitive realm of corny local TV commercials, Mr. Alan should be the first thing you think of as a Detroiter. Mr. Alan has it all: low-budget appeal, non-professional actors, his unforgettable catchphrase (“29 or two for $50”), a voice-over that screams that catchphrase in all manner of audio mixes, and a view of this strange world where living, animated characters hang around unquestioned.
We’ll never forget that company’s confusing cartoon mascot (who we always assumed was “Mr. Alan”), an obvious poser with sunglasses, baggy jeans and a wagging index finger, popping and twirling around the ill-fated, Tasmanian Devil-style dressers, until they were head to toe in FUBU and Pelle Pelle. He barked with the hoarse voice of someone who only needs a few years of an electrolarynx to order cigarettes at the gas station.
Mel Farr, superstar, and his cape
First broadcast: Early 80s
Oldies will remember what “Superstar” Mel Farr did as a Detroit Lions running back and receiver, but Detroiters today remember Farr for a different feat: his ability to don a cape and fly over his own used-car lots. Presumably looking for bargains? (Or, maybe, to fight Warren Mayor Jim Fouts aversion to used car lots.) Alas, the Flyin’ Lion passed away in 2015. But if there’s one thing his legacy cemented, one thing we look for in today’s used-car salespeople (who can’t stealing either!), it is this superhuman ability to beat our collective enemy: the excessively high prices of used cars.
First broadcast: 1982
This classic jaunt through the highlights of the Detroit Zoo has the kind of loose, spitting appeal to go with the first joke we think of most ’90s nostalgia, that fun, improvisational quality that most of us attribute and miss about this decade. The commercial is backed up by strong voice-over performances from the one who coyly voiced the alligator, the jazz-singing flamingo and the seal sounding like a precursor to Larry David.
First broadcast: Early 90s
Rick Snyder may be Governor of Michigan and Mike Duggan mayor of Detroit, but when someone asks us who’s really in charge of Michigan, we say Sam Bernstein. Bernstein is the face of Michigan’s leading personal injury company and is the first resort for anyone sitting on a rusty spike at the DMV.
Watch the advertisements of the law firm Bernstein, one from 1991 and the other from 2016, there is hardly a noticeable difference (apart from the production value). There’s a simple genius to letting a group of seemingly normal (and not-so-normal) people tell their stories of successful colonization in a mechanical way. After watching these ads, it’s hard to blame a person for wondering if the smartest thing to do economically isn’t to avoid ice, but rather charging at full speed, with 1-800-CALL-SAM ready to be dialed during the ambulance ride.
First broadcast: Late 90s
Andy Jacob, alleged chairman of World Wide Financial, was also the “canary in the coal mine subprime crisis,” according to Crain Strait. Jacob was the chairman and smiling face of World Wide Financial, an over-eager-to-lend mortgage company. The mullet, the braces, the unflappable demeanor of 90s Jacob and the good looks of Patrick Bateman were meant to be all the encouragement you would need as a borrower that World Wide was trustworthy. Never mind that regulators shut down World Wide in 2006 for the kind of predatory lending practices that would soon define these last things.
First broadcast: The 90’s
You have to don a pair of sexy rose-colored glasses to really get the “Sexy Specs” theme song in terms of lyrical quality. “Put specs, sexy specs. Put specs, seee-xy specs.” (In fact, now that we sing it to ourselves, it sounds better.)
On the other hand, Sexy Specs frontman Richard Golden’s sexual appeal falls somewhere between JFK Jr. and Mr. Belding of saved by the bell. He’s like Andy Jacob, but with sexy glasses instead of subprime mortgages. He’s like… well, an angular, flippant CEO who piloted this latest move to ownership of the popular eyewear store SEE (which still exists). Drop by one of his spots and see if he still feels like dancing. He probably does.
father and son construction company
First broadcast: Mid 80s
Steal armfuls full of storyboards from the animators of Puff the magical dragon, the father and son of Father and Son, like Paul Bunyans, dominate the field of home improvement in the days of Detroit, “where modernization is so much fun”. No job is too big, no job is too small, and no jingle is catchier than the old-fashioned one these local geniuses sang as they climbed to the top, or should we say the attic, of the home renovators. Hear it once, and you tend to hang around for that wonderful low note they hit at the end (“we are father and son, we will all“) on subsequent plays.
First broadcast: Late 80s
There are Billions on Billions of companies trying to sell cheap furniture and appliances to unsuspecting Metro Detroiters, innocent people who didn’t even realize their living room was crying out for a brand new sectional and they wouldn’t need to pay a dime before 2060. But there’s a charm about ABC Warehouse that sets it apart from its competitors: the whimsical organ music, the legitimate bargains (we’ve heard rumors that someone is buying a washer/ dryer for less than most city dwellers spend on monthly “folding services”), and above all, the dumb call from “Gordy”, the founder of ABC Warehouse, who sounds like the kind of person who would do all the haggling for cheap stuff on your behalf, so you don’t have to.
Attorney Carl Collins III
First broadcast: Late 2000s
Proving that in the international car capital, a fortune can be made and an empire built simply by possessing the phone number 1-800-CAR-HIT-U, attorney Carl Collins III manages to raise the bar personal injury law. Yes, he is not just a shrewd lawyer. “It is good.” With three simple, immortal words, the Honorable Collins reassures potential clients that while your car may be wrecked, your personal injury case is in good hands.
Tell ’em you’re from Detroit
First broadcast: 1985
Where do we start? This WDIV bumper is the hamilton of local Detroit commercials, a relentlessly upbeat jingle that turns into an impossible falsetto. Every living Detroiter should have the urge to stand up, whether in their apartment in Ferndale, or scattered among the diaspora of former Detroiters who sought their fortunes elsewhere, to stand up and tell them (whoever they are ) you are from Detroit.
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