The pitchmen

As Jolene Youngster steps away to adjust her microphone, the four-man production crew snickers about the sound-deflecting quality of her ample cleavage. Then it's back to work taping TV commercials for Central Florida Chrysler Jeep Dodge.

First up are a series of spots that will air before the green flag drops at the start of NASCAR races. Clad in a partly unzipped red top and blue jeans, Youngster strikes a cheerful pose beside a bright yellow Ram 1500 pickup. With her hourglass figure and incandescently white teeth, the former beauty pageant queen from Kentucky is a knockout. But in Orlando's lowbrow-yet-lucrative auto advertising world, a blond bombshell may be no match for a bored-looking, transsexual terrier.

If you watch the local news in Central Florida, you know car commercials are ubiquitous. We've all seen ad after ad for Bob Dance, Lexus of Orlando and, of course, the never-ending spots for Toyota of Orlando featuring Tom Park, Angie Stevens and their canine sidekick, Mr. Toyota. (More on them in a bit.)

"Obviously, automotive is a large advertising category for us," says Bill Bauman, general manager of WESH-TV (Channel 2).

To reach the 1.26 million viewing households in the nation's 20th largest market, several local dealerships are plunking down more than $1 million annually on TV ads, according to an industry insider. Nationally, dealerships spend an average of $344,000 per year for all forms of advertising.

Central Florida Chrysler Jeep Dodge is one of the new kids on the block. The dealership, which moved into a behemoth facility last May near Sand Lake Road and John Young Parkway, aired its first TV spots five months ago.

Thomas Grabbe, the dealership's fixed operations director, guides me around the four-story complex while the production crew sets up its gear. Measuring 285,000 square feet with 2,000 new cars and 200 employees, this is the largest Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealership in the country. It's got a cappuccino bar, a full-service restaurant and personal computers in the waiting room.

No blinking

"Start talking when the camera stops moving," producer Jack Toothman tells Youngster.

Toothman is seated next to cameraman Simon Banning on a Super Peewee dolly inside the dealership's showroom. With tape rolling, the soundman and a grip push the dolly down a set of portable tracks toward Youngster.

After flubbing her lines on the first take, Youngster forgets to speak when the camera stops. Take four is ruined by people talking in the background and take five goes awry when a heavyset man with a gray ponytail wanders into the shot. "My daughter used to be a model," the man tells Youngster, with obvious pride.

She finishes take 11 with a flourish of bubbly enthusiasm: "Ladies and gentlemen, let's go racing!"

"That's a keeper," Toothman announces.

Five takes have gone by the wayside for the second spot when Toothman offers an important pointer to Youngster: "I know it's hard, but try not to blink." Work on the next commercial is interrupted after several false starts when Banning's leg falls asleep.

All told, it takes 90 minutes to complete three 10-second TV ads.

Toothman and Youngster -- the creative spirit and talent behind the commercials -- seem intent on doing a good job. Both also have aspirations beyond selling cars. During breaks in the taping, Toothman says he's aiming for a "classy" look in his spots for the dealership.

A Miami native, Toothman moved with his mother to Los Angeles when he was 7. After working at a music magazine, he went on to produce segments with David Bowie and Peter Gabriel at "Entertainment Tonight." He also was a casting director for Star Search.

But Toothman returned to Florida to be his own boss. Based in Lake Mary, his Bottom Line Productions handles an array of TV and video projects.

Back when he was covering the Grammy Awards, the middle-aged freelancer says he "never dreamed" that he would wind up writing and producing local car commercials. These days, he dreams of getting back to the Big Time with a runaway hit reality series.

As for Youngster, she commutes from Naples to tape commercials twice a month. Like countless other models and actresses, Youngster would love to break into movies. "That would be wonderful," she titters, "but I'm doing this for right now."

Toothman says Youngster's character in the Central Florida Chrysler Jeep Dodge commercials is evolving and growing. The previously anonymous model now frequently mentions her first name in the spots.

"She's getting a lot of recognition," Toothman says, adding that Youngster's next big test will be hosting the dealership's first anniversary celebration, May 15.

It's going to be awhile, though, before Jolene Youngster is as well known as Mr. Toyota.

A guy, a gal and a dog

Humorist Lewis Grizzard had strong opinions about car commercials.

"It should be against the law for automobile dealers to do their own television or radio commercials," Grizzard wrote. "If they do, then the penalty should be somebody sticks a hot exhaust pipe ... well, they should be severely punished."

Unfortunately for us, Bob Dance, Mike Erdman and David Maus don't share this viewpoint. Each of them is front and center in their dealerships' frequent TV ads.

Like a number of other dealers in the area, the management at Central Florida Chrysler Jeep Dodge has opted for another tried-and-true approach: enticing viewers with a pretty girl who stands or strolls by sale cars. But there is only one local dealership that has a guy, a gal and a dog in its TV commercials.

Situated amid the commercial squalor of West Colonial Drive, Toyota of Orlando looks like a run-of-the-mill car lot. At 7 p.m. on a Monday, edgy salesmen are on the prowl in the dingy showroom, anxiously awaiting fresh meat.

Owner Joe Siviglia is out in the front driveway with a TV production crew. He's wearing a dark suit that looks like a million bucks and carrying a clipboard. Siviglia doesn't star in his dealership's commercials -- he makes them.

Siviglia has used a consistent production formula for more than two decades in Dallas, Atlanta and Orlando. The human "talent" in his ads -- Tom Park and Angie Stevens -- has been doing this same gig together for 13 years.

And there's also the dog, Mr. Toyota.

Siviglia first put a bull terrier in his TV commercials in Atlanta after the canine Spuds McKenzie debuted in a Budweiser ad during the 1987 Super Bowl. The format didn't change when he opened Toyota of Orlando 10 years ago.

Casting a dog with a well-dressed, cheerful couple conveys a "professional, family-type atmosphere," Siviglia explains.

"Kids love the dog," chimes in younger brother Bob Siviglia, the dealership's vice president. "Kids love the dog."

Well, kids, here are some things that you probably didn't know about Mr. Toyota. For starters, he is really a she -- a 3-year-old female named Lily, to be exact. Lily is "very laid-back and likes being around people," says owner and trainer Betty McCreight of Apopka.

Lily is also not the original Mr. Toyota. During the taping of a commercial several years ago, the original Mr. Toyota darted into Colonial Drive and was squished by a passing car. McCreight wants to make sure nothing like that happens to Lily.

"That's why I am always here," she confides.

"Any trade goes"

A few feet away, tape is rolling as Park banters pleasantly with Stevens, who has a firm grip on Mr. Toyota's collar. Looking characteristically disinterested, the dog sits passively on a mat on the hood of a car.

"Tomorrow, any trade goes," Park announces as he walks along a line of cars. The camera crew follows his progress while riding in a pickup that is carrying a bank of stage lights.

Park currently appears in car commercials in 15 different cities from Dallas to Traverse City, Mich. In an interview last year with an Associated Press writer, the slick-talking pitchman from Austin, Texas, estimated that he has been in 100,000 auto spots. "It's all pretty much the same thing: price and item," Park says between shots while puffing on a cigarette.

But he does have a fondness for the work that he and Stevens have done together over the years. "There have been a lot of water-cooler conversations about whether we're married," Park laughs. (They're not.)

I disclose that my wife naively assumed that he and Stevens were the owners of Toyota of Orlando. "We get that a lot, too," Park says.

The taping proceeds smoothly, and at stunning speed. Joe Siviglia rarely pauses for a second take. He and the crew shoot spot after spot after spot without slowing down. The look and message of each ad barely changes.

By the end of the day, they've taped 61 commercials in less than three hours.

Siviglia, Park, Stevens and the rest of the crew have to hustle to the airport for a flight. Tomorrow they'll be taping spots at Siviglia's other Toyota dealership in Huntersville, N.C. At that location, Mr. Toyota will be played by another of McCreight's bull terriers that is staying with a friend.

Moving product

The Bush recession has been hard on auto dealers. Smaller, privately owned dealerships are disappearing across the United States. In another troubling trend, attorneys in states like California and Tennessee have begun targeting dealers with a wave of lawsuits involving lending practices and other issues.

But things should turn around in 2004. Americans are expected to buy up to 17 million new cars this year, the highest total since 2001.

To get all of those customers through the door, local dealers depend on advertising. Nationally, they spend slightly more than half of their advertising dollars on newspaper ads. Spending on TV spots has declined in recent years while expenditures on Internet advertising have grown quickly.

Deviating from the norm, all of the advertising money at Toyota of Orlando is devoted to TV. While the strategy isn't cheap -- a 30-second spot during the local 6 p.m. news can cost upwards of $3,000 -- it's apparently paying off.

"Business is good," says Bob Siviglia, Toyota of Orlando vice president. "Year-to-date, we're the 18th largest Toyota dealer in the country."

Central Florida Chrysler Jeep Dodge relies on a mix of TV commercials, newspaper ads, direct-mail and telephone solicitations for its advertising. The dealership buys the bulk of its airtime on WB affiliate WKCF-TV (Channel 18), the No. 5 station in the Orlando market.

Though pleased that the palatial dealership already ranks as one of the top Chrysler Jeep Dodge sellers in the nation, Thomas Grabbe wishes more could be spent on advertising.

"Toyota gives dealers money to advertise -- Chrysler doesn't," he grumbles.

Final pitch

Despite the best efforts of Jack Toothman and Jolene Youngster, the ads for Central Florida Chrysler Jeep Dodge fail to capture the essence of just how nice the new dealership is. Conversely, Park's affable on-camera demeanor and the presence of a dog don't accurately convey the run-down surroundings at Toyota of Orlando.

The point is hammered home while Bob Siviglia, Betty McCreight and her dog walk behind me in a parking lot after the evening's taping has concluded. McCreight is concerned because Lily (Mr. Toyota) is tugging on her leash.

"Oh, I see," McCreight says. "She wants to go over and sniff that dead cat."

"Yeah," Siviglia sighs. "I've got to get someone to come out and clean that up."


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