Billboard mannequins get double takes on U.S. 19 between Spring Hill, Hudson

SPRING HILL — Bob Evans peered out the window at Dunkin' Donuts on Wednesday morning and, for a moment, feared for the blond-haired man perched atop a billboard across U.S. 19.

"I thought, 'My God, is this guy going to jump?' " the 79-year-old Spring Hill resident recalled.

Then one of the guys in Evans' coffee klatch broke the news: The man was actually a mannequin, placed there as part of a Village Toyota advertising campaign.

The billboard itself is pretty standard, proclaiming a deal for a Toyota Corolla for $14,995 with "NO FINE PRINT" and the address of the dealership in Crystal River. Dressed in shorts, the mannequin sits with his bare legs dangling over the "O." His shirt — emblazoned with a red Toyota logo on the chest and a Village logo on the sleeve — is the same one the dealership's salespeople wear. But that's impossible to see without binoculars or a zoom lens.

Many motorists and other passers-by have had the same reaction as Evans: They worry for the guy's safety.

The Hernando Sheriff's Office has received more than 30 calls since Sept. 5, reporting a man on a billboard, said spokeswoman Denise Moloney.

After the first caller expressed concern that the man might jump, a deputy went to investigate, Moloney said.

"Once we learned that it wasn't a real person, I don't think the operators were letting the callers get too far into the conversation before they let them know it's not real," she said.

There are three other similar billboards along the stretch of U.S. 19 between Spring Hill and Hudson. The Pasco Sheriff's Office has received at least three calls from motorists and concerned citizens, said spokesman Doug Tobin, who provided excerpts from the agency's call log:

Sept. 8, 3:23 p.m.: Caller said a man is about ready to jump. Deputy called and told the caller it was a mannequin.

Ron Deak, Village Toyota's general manager, said the mannequin was born from a desire to stop offending people.

Several Italian-American groups had complained that the dealership's previous "Wise Guys" campaign, featuring mobster puppets, stereotyped people of Italian heritage. So, by early summer, the radio and television ads were stopped, and billboards in Pasco and Hernando started to come down.

The dealership had spent nearly $50,000 for the billboards and ads for 2012, so pulling the plug on the campaign cost thousands of dollars, Deak said.

In its place, Deak and his staff hatched a campaign that featured the dealership's longtime spokesman, Kent Coble, the blond-haired son of Village's sales manager. A photo of Kent's face looked weird against the red and black background, however, and a cutout head shot sticking out of the top of the billboard looked corny, Deak said.

"Somebody said, 'I've got an old mannequin at home. Why don't we just dress him like Kent and put him up there?' " Deak recalled. "So all of a sudden we're on eBay looking for mannequins."

The media companies that own the billboards were fine with the plan as long as the mannequins didn't extend more than 4 feet beyond the top edge of the sign, Deak said. Village purchased five for $108 apiece.

Deak sprayed the mannequins' hair with enamel to them well-coifed when the wind blows. They are sturdily mounted with boards, but aren't very rugged, so parts of them might yet plunge to the earth.

"They're like eggshells," Deak said.

Evans and his coffee buddies, who meet nearly every morning at the Dunkin' Donuts near Regency Oaks, say they watch as motorists crane their necks to get a second look at the Kent look-alike.

That's dangerous, said Gaylord Walter, 81, of Weeki Wachee.

"They drive like hell out here anyway," Walter said. "They should take (the mannequin) down."

Deak said he would consider doing so if law enforcement says the mannequins are a hazard, but he doesn't predict that will happen.

"Not when you've got every gold and pawn shop with people out there waving signs, and the Tampa Bay Times people standing in the middle of 19 waving papers," he said. "I think we're the least distracting of those three."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

Billboard mannequins get double takes on U.S. 19 between Spring Hill, Hudson 09/13/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 14, 2012 10:06am]

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