Detroit's Local TV Commercial Hall of Fame
There’s something unmistakably comforting about loopy, low-budget local television commercials, something that confirms those people in the TV are your friends, your neighbors, a connection to your community. And boy, does Detroit have an archive of those.
Below are 10 commercials that are consummate, past-and-present local staples, usually featuring sticky-sweet jingles, phone numbers so unforgettable you couldn't shake them even if you wanted to, or eccentric characters forever stuck in our memories. 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 a slip-and-fall case; then you, my friend, also watched daytime television in the Detroit area in 1993, and for that, you are the richer.
First aired: 1998
In the competitive field of cheesy local television ads, Mr. Alan's should be the first thing you think of as a Detroiter. Mr. Alan's has it all: low-budget appeal, non-professional actors, his unforgettable catchphrase ("29 or two for $50"), a voiceover shrieking that catchphrase at you in all kinds of audio mixes, and a view into that peculiar world where live-action and animated characters hang out without it being questioned.
We'll never forget this company's perplexing cartoon mascot (who we always assumed was the "Mr. Alan"), an evident poser in sunglasses, baggy jeans, and wagging index finger, who would appear and whirl around hapless dressers, Tasmanian Devil-style, until they were head-to-toe in FUBU and Pelle Pelle. He barked with the scratchy voice of someone only a few years away from needing an electrolarynx to order smokes at the gas station.
Mel Farr, superstar, and his cape
First aired: Early '80s
Old-timers will remember what Mel Farr "Superstar" did as a running back and receiver for the Detroit Lions, but latter-day Detroiters remember Farr for a different feat: his ability to don a cape and fly over his own used-car lots. Presumably in search of great deals? (Or, perhaps, to battle 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 has cemented, one thing we look for in today's used-auto salespeople (who can't fly either!), it's that superhuman ability to battle our collective enemy: too-high prices on secondhand cars.
The Detroit Zoo
First aired: 1982
This classic jaunt through the highlights of the Detroit Zoo has the kind of loose, spitballed, go-with-the-first-joke-we-think-of appeal of most '90s-era nostalgia, that fun, improvisational quality that most of us attribute to and miss about that decade. The commercial is undergirded by some strong voiceover performances from whoever slimily voiced the alligator, the jazz-singing flamingo, and the seal who sounds like a precursor to Larry David.
First aired: 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 the preeminent personal injury firm in Michigan, and is the first resort for anyone who so much as sits down on a rusty tack at the DMV.
Watching Bernstein Law Firm commercials, one from 1991 and another from 2016, there's hardly a noticeable difference (setting aside the production value). There’s a simple genius in letting a bunch of normal (and not-so-normal) looking people relate their successful settlement stories in mechanical fashion. After viewing these commercials, it's tough to blame a person for wondering whether the smartest thing to do economically isn't avoiding the ice, but rather, charging at it full-speed, with 1-800-CALL-SAM ready to be dialed during the ambulance ride.
First aired: Late '90s
Andy Jacob, alleged president of World Wide Financial, was also the "canary in the subprime mortgage crisis coal mine," according to Crain’s Detroit. Jacob was the president and smiling face of World Wide Financial, a mortgage company all-too-eager to lend. Jacob’s '90s-era mullet, suspenders, imperturbable demeanor, and Patrick Bateman-esque good looks were supposed to be all the encouragement you’d 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 the latter aughts.
First aired: The '90s
You have to don a sexy pair of rose-colored glasses to really get the "Sexy Specs" theme song in terms of lyrical quality. "Put on some specs, some sexy specs. Put on some specs, some seee-xy specs." (Actually, now that we sing it to ourselves, it sounds better.)
On the other hand, the sexual appeal of Sexy Specs' front man, Richard Golden, lands somewhere between JFK Jr. and Mr. Belding from Saved by the Bell. He's like Andy Jacob, but with sexy glasses instead of subprime mortgages. He’s like... well, an angular, jaunty CEO who rode the latter move to ownership of the popular glasses store SEE (which is still around). Swing by one of his locations and see if he still feels like dancing. He prolly does.
Father and Son Construction Company
First aired: Mid '80s
Stealing full armfuls of storyboards from the animators of Puff the Magic Dragon, the father and son of Father and Son loom like Paul Bunyans over the field of home remodeling in the Detroit era, "where modernizing is such fun." No job’s too big, no job’s too small, and no jingle catchier than the old-fashioned one these local geniuses sang while climbing their way to the apex, or should we say attic, of home remodelers. Hear it once, and you tend to hang around for that wonderful low note they hit at the end ("we're father and son, we'll do it alllll") on subsequent listens.
First aired: Late '80s
There are zillions upon zillions of businesses trying to sell cheap furniture and appliances to unsuspecting Metro Detroiters, innocent folks who didn’t even realize their living room was crying for an all-new sectional, and that they wouldn’t need to pay a dime for it until 2060. But there’s a charm about ABC Warehouse that distinguishes it from its competition: the whimsical backing organ music, the legitimately great deals (we’ve heard rumors of someone purchasing a washer/dryer combo for less than what most urbanites spend on "folding services" monthly), and most of all, the dopey appeal of "Gordy," ABC Warehouse’s founder, who looks like the kind of person who’d do all the bargaining for cheap stuff on your behalf, so you don’t have to.
Attorney Carl Collins III
First aired: Late '00s
Proving that in the international capital of cars, a fortune can be made and an empire built merely on the basis of owning the phone number 1-800-CAR-HIT-U, attorney Carl Collins III manages to raise the bar of personal injury law. Yes, he isn’t merely a savvy attorney. "He is good." With three simple, immortal words, the honorable Collins reassures his potential clients that while your car may be totaled, your personal injury case is in good hands.
Tell 'Em You're From Detroit
First aired: 1985
Where does one begin? This WDIV bumper is the Hamilton of local Detroit commercials, a relentlessly upbeat jingle that swells to an impossible falsetto. Every Detroiter alive should have the irrepressible urge to rise to their feet, whether at their condo in Ferndale, or scattered in the diaspora of former Detroiters who’ve sought their fortunes elsewhere, to stand up, and tell 'em (whoever ‘em are) you're from Detroit.
Sign up here for our daily Detroit email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun the Motor City has to offer.