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These ads ain't pretty

Those folksy commercials for local businesses may be cheesy, but they work.

Without a doubt, the most burning question on most people's minds today is this:

Why do the Bay City Plywood guys bend over and wave their hands in front of their knees at the end of their TV ads? No, really. They look like they're in umpire school, practicing calls at the plate. And what's with that creepy laugh?

What does any of that have to do with selling cabinets and fences?

Plenty.

When that ad comes on, what do you do? You know what's coming. You know they're going to do it. And yet you sit through the whole commercial just to watch three grinning Bay City employees do the knee dance.

"It's one of the most successful ads we've ever done," said Per Andersen, president of Andersen Advertising, the Tampa-based ad firm that started the campaign eight years ago. "They (the knee dance guys) have built a following. People call the stores and ask when the next new commercial is coming on."

The Bay City Plywood spot is just one of dozens of locally produced TV ads that the Tampa Bay area has been treated (mistreated?) to over the years. The commercials are usually done on a limited budget. While a 30-second national TV ad costs from $175,000 to more than a $1-million to produce, a local TV spot can be done for $10,000 to $25,000.

But inexpensive doesn't have to mean ineffective.

You know you can't say Allied Discount Tires without thinking, "Tahrs ain't pretty!"

If there were a Local TV Commercial Hall of Fame, the Allied ads would make it on the first ballot. Leading the pack would be the 1987 ad where Allied pitchman Sam Behr lampooned TV evangelist Oral Roberts, who at the time had caused a stir by telling his flock that God would "call me home" if he didn't raise a certain sum of money.

Enter Sam Behr. "I got a message from upstairs," he pleaded in the commercial. "It says I gotta sell, we gotta sell 80,000 tires in the next 30 days or . . .

"I'm gonna die!"

The ad got national attention, and two local TV stations _ channels 10 and 13 _ pulled the spots after viewers complained.

You can't buy publicity like that.

Like all of Behr's ads for Allied ("Allied got tires for all seasons; football season, baseball season, hockey season ... ") the Oral Roberts commercial was improvised. Behr said he thought of the idea "about five minutes" before he taped it.

"I'm sorry if I offended anybody," he said at the time. "It wasn't planned. I ad-lib all these things."

The same pitchman who clued us in to the intrinsic beauty of synthetic rubber in the 1980s turned up last month selling Peltz shoes. But don't count on seeing a lot more of Sam Behr. Allied owner Stanley Hanin sold the business in 1989, the Peltz ad was taped two years ago and is no longer being aired, and Behr has retired.

Most local ads are more like home movies than something out of DreamWorks. It's as if business owners start with the best intentions, then lose control when the cameras start rolling. They want to work their kids into the shot, then the family dog, then the camera-shy employees. And so on. You end up with a cast of thousands telling you what wonderful auto parts they have down at Wayne & Dwayne's Salvage Yard.

That's Dwayne there on the left. Holding the poodle.

Y'all come and see us.

Here's a look at some more classic local TV ads (past and present).

+ The Silas' Steakhouse ghost. Okay, it's a corny ad. There's nothing special about the special effects, and the man who plays the ghost gives a clinic on over-acting even though he doesn't have any lines. But sometimes, corny works. The catch phrase "Don't you be fearin' no ghost!" isn't up there with "His prices are insane!" Then again, most restaurants settle for the happy couple at the table clinking wine glasses. Remember any of those spots? That's the point.

+ The Dinettes Unlimited guy. How on earth did soft-spoken, unassuming Owen K. Parvitt manage to get thousands of people to buy bar stools and tables? He had a smooth, easy delivery and above all, a killer catch phrase. He'd close every ad by saying, "By the way ... free delivery." Gotcha. Although the ads stopped appearing nearly 10 years ago, customers still come in and say the line. Parvitt, who is not an actor and did the ads as a favor to the family who owns the store, is living in Atlanta.

+ Bennett New Car Alternative. A beautiful woman and her dog. That and a simple but effective catch phrase, "Evvvvvrybody rides," propelled the local used car dealership to ... well, it got noticed. The premise was simple: Kim Bennett sat in a Corvette, smiled at the camera and delivered the immortal line. Turbo, her faithful dog, sat in the passenger seat and responded in kind by drooling and panting. High art. Bennett became a minor celebrity, showing up at Bucs games and on local radio.

Alas, everybody rode, but not everybody paid. In 1998 the dealership declared bankruptcy, and Bennett and Turbo, their 15 minutes of fame having expired, motored off into the sunset.

+ The Tire King. What is it about tires that makes people get weird in front of a camera? First Allied, and then this.

Pitchman and Tire Kingdom founder Chuck Curcio obviously didn't care how ridiculous he looked performing rap songs about steel-belted radials while wearing a robe and crown. A versatile artist, Curcio also dressed as an ancient Egyptian, thus becoming the Tire Pharaoh. It was like watching a segment of the Gong Show. Or being at open mike night at the Olive Garden. Curcio, who could have passed for Gene Shalit's younger brother, left the company in 1996.

+ Morgan Colling and Gilbert. On camera, John Morgan makes a good case for those seeking the services of a personal injury attorney. He also makes Bob Dole look like Carrot Top. We know he has to appear professional _ he certainly can't do the knee dance _ but his speech and movement conjure up Disney's Hall of Presidents. Something in a Millard Fillmore. And that incessant catch phrase: "For the people. . . ."

Makes you want to run out and step in front of a bus.

But then, of course, you'd need an attorney.

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