Monday, September 09, 2013

Cal Worthington, R.I.P.

Los Angeles car dealer Cal Worthington, in one of his famous TV commercials (Worthington collection via The New York Times)

Cal Worthington died Sunday at the age of 92.  If the name doesn't ring a bell, you (a) never lived in Southern California; (b) don't watch car dealer commercials on TV, (c) never worked in sales, or (d) all the above. 

Mr. Worthington was the Los Angeles-area car dealer whose angular features, cowboy suit and ubiquitious "Dog Spot" (an animal that was never a canine) graced thousands of commercials over a career more than 50 years.  The Television Advertising Bureau described him as the "greatest car pitchman" in the history of the medium, and it's hard to disagree.  At the height of his advertising blitz (mostly late at night, on local stations in LA), Worthington spent $12 million on commercials that aired 50,000 times a year.  His dealerships--that once stretched from Alaska to Texas--sold billions of dollars worth of vehicles and made Cal Worthington a very wealthy man.

Most advertising "pros" recoil at the Worthington model; by their standards, he did almost everything wrong.  In an era that favored smooth-talking announcers, Cal looked and sounded like your uncle from Oklahoma (where he was born and grew up during the Dust Bowl).  His spots weren't particularly artistic, but they certainly caught your attention.  There was Cal, doing a headstand on the hood of a car, promising to "stand on my head, 'til my ears turn red" (to sell a vehicle).  The background music was a jingle that was lifted from "If You're Happy and You Know It," with a home-spun chorus telling viewers to "Go see Cal/Go see Cal/Go See Cal" about every three seconds.  Incidentally, the jingle had 26 stanzas, for those keeping score at home.  Worthington wrote it himself.

But the pitchman reached his zenith in the early 70s, with his "Dog Spot" ads.  As he later told the Los Angeles Times, at least two competitors were featuring dogs in their commercials, including one dealer who promised a new puppy from the pound with every vehicle sold.  Worthington decided to lampoon them with Spot, who was (in other incarnations), a 1,000-pound pig; a bear, various birds, a python, a killer whale and perhaps most famously, a Bengal Tiger who seemed more interested in eating Cal than selling cars.

And, in those days before the 500-channel cable universe, Worthington had the ability to saturate the airwaves with his ads.  Whether your were watching Johnny Carson on KNBC; the CBS Late Movie on KNXT; Dick Cavett on KABC or movies and reruns on KTLA, KTTV, KCAL or KCOP, you couldn't miss Cal.  Seeing him astride Shamu..err, Spot, and hearing that jingle thousands of times a year did the trick; at the height of the great love affair between Californians and their cars, Cal Worthington put a lot of people of the road.

It was a classic American success story.  Born into poverty, Worthington dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help support his family.  When the U.S. entered World War II, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps and despite his lack of formal education, made it through flight school and became a B-17 pilot, flying 29 combat missions over such garden spots as Berlin and Hamburg.  After leaving the service, he hoped to become an airline pilot, but was rejected due to his lack of a college degree.

Instead, Worthington opened a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas.  The station wasn't very successful, but the former bomber pilot quickly discovered his talent for selling cars.  By the early 50s, he had relocated to SoCal, opening the first car lot that eventually grew into an empire that included 29 dealerships.  At the time of his death, Worthington still owned at least four dealerships and a huge ranch in northern California.  He also remained an active pilot for much of his life, flying his Lear Jet to various appointments around the country.

In passing, Cal Worthington will be largely remembered for those thousands of TV commercials that made him a cultural icon.  But that does him something of a dissservice; Worthington belonged to that same generation of Americans that included men like Ray Kroc and Sam Walton; businessmen who were salemen at heart, that knew what their customers wanted and sold the hell out of their product line.  Selling, as practiced by a Walton, Kroc or Worthington, is an art.  But unfortunately, it's a dying art; today's generation seems less interested in closing the deal if it can't be done on-line.   

While reading Worthington's obituary in the Times, I happened to glance up and see a commercial for a local car dealer in the Richmond area.  No cowboy suit, no headstand, no Dog Spot.  In fact, the guy looked like he had stopped by the dealership after a shopping spree at the Armani store.  He was perfectly attired, blown dry and dripping sincerity.  Free oil changes for life; free engines, and a movie theater inside the dealership.  I'm sure the spot was carefully crafted by an ad agency and the message was focus-group tested.  Two minutes later, I couldn't remember the name of the dealer, or the nameplate he was selling.

Cal Worthington never had that problem.  R.I.P.
ADDENDUM: Watch Cal's greatest hits here.

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