SIGNAL TO NOISE ‌ Johnny's Juggernaut 

Automotive infomercials clog local airwaves

To say local car dealership Johnny's Suzuki launched an advertising "campaign" this summer is like saying the German armed forces launched an "offensive" against Poland, France, and Russia in 1939.

No, what Johnny's has going is an all-out advertising blitzkrieg, a commercial juggernaut the likes of which I've not seen in my 15 years in Charleston.

For the past several months, few channel surfers have escaped regular, recurring glimpses of the omnipresent Johnny's Suzuki infomercials, particularly on broadcast (not cable) Channels 2, 4, 24, and 36, often running on several of them at exactly the same time. Not even the president gets that kind of TV access these days.

And we're not talking about 30- or 60-second spots. The Johnny's commercials are full-blown 30- and 60-minute programs.

Infomercials, of course, are hardly new. But neither are they cheap. What's novel here is that Johnny's Suzuki is a local company. Television is far and away the most expensive advertising medium. In Charleston, 30-second spots range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Thirty-minute infomercials cost in the tens of thousands. And then there are the production costs for each new one.

Another local car dealer tells me it's common for manufacturers, such as Suzuki, to reimburse dealerships for advertising costs, even as much as 50 percent. And with gas prices what they are now, the marketplace could be ripe for Suzuki's fuel-efficient rice burners.

Still, the "campaign" seems far from a slam dunk. Like many people, when I hear "Suzuki" I still think of the two-wheeled kind. But after exposure to hundreds more hours of Johnny's ubiquitous infomercials and splashy newspaper ads, maybe more of us will associate Suzuki with cars. After all, Honda managed it decades ago.

I recently taped a few of the full-length programs and finally forced myself to sit down and watch them in their entirety with a sinking feeling that a trip to my dermatologist might be more fun.

But I was surprised how watchable these infomercials can be. Johnny Dangerfield, the owner of Johnny's Suzuki, is the homegrown, homespun host, and he exudes a true salesman's enthusiasm and confidence in his products. His co-host is the attractive and perky Natalie Phillips. (A friend of mine told me his mother-in-law will watch these infomercials because she likes to watch Phillips.) Whether talking about and showing cars, trucks, toolboxes, or trailer hitches, Phillips and Dangerfield have an undeniable chemistry, and their banter is comfortable and energetic. When things don't go exactly as planned, they laugh it off, improvise, and move on.

Come to think of it, if Channel 2's new anchor team doesn't work out, Natalie and Johnny might be worth an audition.

Patrick Harwood teaches broadcasting and other media courses at the College of Charleston.


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