The faces behind Baltimore commercials
Sometimes, the best pitchman for your business is you — as a long line of Baltimore commercial personalities can attest
Joseph Tomarchio Jr., co-founder of the Mr. Tire chain, has been the company's at-first reluctant pitchman for years. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / March 25, 2011)
"If you have a phone, you have an attorney."
"You're making a big mistake."
"Nobody bothers me."
"Jack says 'Yes.'"
For better or worse, these are the catchphrases of Baltimore advertising, lines delivered incessantly by TV pitchmen who, not coincidentally, own the businesses they're pitching. They're not actors, and they might not have the greatest voices in the world. But they certainly are one thing: everywhere.
And they're definitely another thing: effective. They may seem silly sometimes, maybe even irritating. But you remember them, right? And these aren't commercials for fly-by-night organizations that don't hang around very long. They've been in business, and have been airing their commercials, for years.
"It can bring local flavor to the business," says Jane Goldstrom, vice president of Baltimore-based MGH, an advertising and marketing firm. "It can be a very good tactic, so people feel like they know the owner, or they can relate to the owner in some manner."
There's Krystal Koons, shilling for Koons Automotive, and Jack Antwerpen, willing to do just about anything for his Antwerpen motor group. There was Scott Donahoo, who sold off his car business in 2008 and is considering a run for mayor. There's even been a handful who don't sell cars, including the late Mark Helman of Bill's Carpet Fair, martial-arts instructor Jhoon Ree and lawyers Steven L. Miles and Ronald M. Sharrow. Surely, a Hall of Fame for local business-owning pitchmen would have to include such immortals as automotive tycoons Gary Hurley and Mr. Nobody (who would often get Orioles Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer to help him out), chicken mogul Frank Perdue (whose commercials earned him nationwide fame), the indomitable Mr. Ray (of Mr. Ray's Hair Weave, a John Waters favorite) and, of course, a Baltimore mainstay for decades, the man who proudly called himself "Mr. Cheap": Jack Luskin.
And then there are these three guys, proud inheritors of the tradition.
Alan Elkin: "We live and breathe this stuff"
Baltimore audiences have been watching Alan Elkin, founder of Advance business systems, for more than a quarter-century. We watched in the early days, when he starred in his commercial alongside his wife, Lois (and the catchphrase was "They need me"); we've continued watching as son Jeff has been brought in to star alongside his father. We've seen Elkin's TV spots grow in sophistication, and we've watched him grow older, too, watched him mature, watched …
"You're being too nice to say 'losing my hair,'" the Brooklyn-born Elkin, 78, who founded Advance in 1964, says with a laugh.
OK, yes. We've watched Elkin's "scalp growing," as he puts it. And we've watched his commercials grow from two-person spots, with him and Lois in bed until the phone rings and Alan has to run out and help a client, to more polished spots featuring Alan and Jeff in a boardroom asking for suggestions from their associates.
When Elkin did his first TV spot, in 1983, he wasn't exactly an experienced thespian itching to get in front of the camera. "The sum total of my experience was a role in my high school play, a cameo role type of thing," he says. "I would hate to have [making commercials] as my day job. I'm not Robert Redford."
Still, Elkin gets a kick out of people recognizing him in public. Not so much because they recognize him personally, he emphasizes, but because they recognize and remember his business.
"You get a deep feeling of satisfaction when what you're doing is recognized," he says.
His commercials' increase in scope is by design, Elkin insists. "The whole idea of 'They need me,' it was a nice ride, a fine message when we were a very small company. But when we became larger, the message was very upsetting to me. …When we did a focus group, the perception was that Advance was too small to serve the needs of a middle-sized or larger company, with multiple offices."
So Elkin brought more people in, to emphasize that Advance was more than just him. Still, it's Alan Elkin that people remember from the commercials. And though he was reluctant to do them at first — "It wasn't me," he says, "it was decided by the advertising agency" — Elkin doesn't plan on stopping them any time soon.