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Car dealer stirs the competition with ads

Cosby Swanson III knows his fellow car dealers hate him. And he knows why.

It's because of Craven Bamboozle.

Since February, Craven Bamboozle has been the centerpiece of Swanson Chrysler-Plymouth's advertising in the Times and smaller local newspapers.

In case you haven't seen Mr. Bamboozle in Swanson's comic-strip ads, he's a fictitious car dealer. He lies and he cheats and he tricks customers into buying cars, using all those awful tricks of the trade you've ever heard that car dealers might use.

You won't find any Craven Bamboozles at Swanson Chrysler-Plymouth, Swanson's ads suggest, but you might find them at other dealerships.

"We're not trying to say all dealers are Craven Bamboozles," said Swanson, who runs the company his semiretired father started 27 years ago. "But there are enough of them out there that I think it's a real issue for car shoppers."

In a business that's known for friendly competition _ but also for its camaraderie _ Swanson's ads are as odd as an Edsel with low mileage.

Last week, the New York Times published a story about the ads, which Swanson says are based on true stories gleaned from customers and his own sales managers.

Among other local car dealers, the Swanson ads are about as popular as a sharp poke in the eye.

Said Brad Kenyon, president of Kenyon Dodge in Clearwater: "I think it's a shame that he has to revert to those tactics."

Said Steve Uiterwyk, vice president of the Ferman group of car dealerships in Tampa: "He's making fun of dealerships that don't exist today, and from that perspective I find it insulting."

Said Al Leo, managing partner of Scott Buick in Pinellas Park and president of the St. Petersburg Auto Dealers Association: "We feel it's demeaning . . . and we're flabbergasted as to how an auto dealer can actually demean his own industry."

The ads have so irked some dealers that they threatened to pull their advertising from the St. Petersburg Times if it didn't quit publishing Swanson's ads. Some advertisers have already left.

Judith Roales, the Times' executive vice president and general manager, said she and other managers at the paper have been concerned about the Swanson ads since they started four months ago.

"We're always concerned when one advertiser angers another advertiser," she said. "However, satire and gross exaggeration have been legally found to be acceptable ways of making a point, as long as that's clear that's the approach being used _ and certainly the cartoon nature of the advertisement makes that abundantly clear."

Roales said the newspaper asked Swanson to "tone down" the ads, but chose not to accede to other car dealers' pressure to drop them because they don't violate standards of acceptable advertising. Also, she said, the paper doesn't want to threaten Swanson's freedom of speech.

"I don't think we want to be in the business . . . to arbitrarily stop accepting advertising simply because it angers somebody else," she said.

To the Times, the defiance of other car dealers is a gamble: Automobile and auto-related advertising accounts for about 15 percent of all ad revenues at the paper.

Leo, whose association represents 11 St. Petersburg-area dealerships (Swanson is not a member), said his group is most upset not about the comic-strip ads but about a Swanson ad the Times carried in a special section on auto leasing earlier this year. That Swanson ad, Leo said, contained untruths. (Swanson disagrees, and Times advertising managers could find nothing untrue about the ad).

Leo and his group are also perturbed by the Craven Bamboozle ads, however.

"It's almost unbelievable that . . . an auto dealer would stoop to (maligning) his own industry like this," he said.

Judging from consumer complaints at least, the Swanson dealership itself seems to have a good record. Neither state nor Pinellas County consumer regulators have gotten a significant number of complaints about Swanson in recent years.

Swanson, 40, studied law at the University of Florida but chose not to become a lawyer because he had problems with the ethics of the profession. He thinks the ads are perfectly acceptable.

"I think ethics are entirely appropriate to talk about in an advertising sense," Swanson said.

Besides, he said, the comic strips have helped Swanson sell more than 75 new cars a month since February, up from about 50 a month before the ads began.

"What I was looking for was long-term results," said Swanson, who creates each Craven Bamboozle ad with the help of Mark Dubowski, a longtime friend and artist from North Carolina. "But I'm very happy with the results we've had already."

This isn't the first time that Swanson Chrysler-Plymouth has raised the eyebrows of observers and the blood pressure of competitors.

Three years ago, the dealership grabbed national headlines after it eliminated its sales force and let its salaried sales managers take over the car lot in an attempt to make car shopping more hassle-free.

The dealership also boasts of its "one-price" deals, in which it claims to offer a single price to buyers based solely on its costs plus a small profit _ void of sales commissions, dealer add-ons and other extra costs.

As for the Craven Bamboozle ads, don't look for them to go away any time soon, Swanson said.

The dealership already has another 13 comic strips in the works, and it has allocated the money _ between $15,000 and $20,000 a month for the Times' bills alone _ to run those ads and others, Swanson said.

What comes after that for Craven Bamboozle?

"We're trying to syndicate (the comic strips) and sell them to other dealers to use in other parts of the country," Swanson said.

"And then we're going to animate the little sucker and put him on TV."