Norm and Fred wanna make me an offer I can’t refuse. In the commercial for the Maryland-based Family Furniture, the chain’s two owners, dressed as tough mob guys, tell me they’ve got a warehouse full of spider lamps, bunk beds, and sofa/love seat combos that they need to unload, and I gotta help ’em get rid of the goods. Dressed as mobsters, each of the men carries a menacing violin case—they could come and whack me if I refuse to buy, but with prices so low, they don’t think they’ll have to! The latest furniture specials are splashed across the screen, and then the fellas sign off with a catchy jingle and a listing of area stores.
As a sick 8-year-old stuck at home watching the tube, I thought Norm and Fred, and their clichéd gangsterism, were endlessly entertaining. The guys were part of a large cast of characters that ruled local commercials. Falling ill was the only way to catch the gut-busting ads on daytime TV. And seeing two salesmen dress up like thugs and threaten to kill me if I didn’t take home a cheap credenza was almost worth having to down a bottle of Dimetapp.
Anyone who grew up in the D.C. area between 1980 and 1990, owned a television set, and ever came down with the flu should be well acquainted with Norm and Fred, along with the hair-weaving abilities of one Mr. Ray, the monotone drone of Henry (of Henry’s Auto Insurance), and many other local celebrities.The cheesy commercials they starred in—filled with bad hair, strange slogans, and science-lab-caliber special effects—dominated the airwaves of my childhood.
The commercials on Channels 5, 20, and 50 were almost as entertaining as the programs themselves. Sandwiched between old episodes of Barney Miller and The People’s Court, the marketing dollars of law firms such as Saiontz & Kirk and the all-you-can-eat chow house Fabulous Feast were used to wonderful, campy effect.
Various attorneys used official-looking talking heads and screeching car-crash sounds to attract personal injury clients. TESST College of Technology, and the Aviation Institute of Maintenance offered myriad opportunities for those who were unemployed, underemployed, or looking to turn their careers around. And retailers such as Morton’s signaled the dreaded “back-to-school” time by spelling out the words in 3-D lettering as an excited announcer pushed little boys’ all-cotton polo shirts for only $9.99.
The commercials for Jhoon Rhee’s martial-arts studio coined what is probably the most popular regional catchphrase of all time. To showcase the effectiveness of his technique, Jhoon Rhee enlisted the help of his two young children. After busting a few moves, his daughter exclaimed, “Nobody bothers me!” His son followed with, “Nobody bothers me ei-ther!” and a big wink. The words of the little skit came to precede nearly every playful schoolyard fight that took place at my elementary school.
Some 20 years later, the few businesses from that time that still exist have changed their commercials in drastic ways. Today, Family Furniture’s ads still feature Norm and Fred in wide-lapel “gangster” suits, but the guns and threats that were funny enough to make chicken soup come out of my nose are gone. They still feature furniture montages filled with glamour shots of discounted beds and desks and the trademark jingle at the end, “Have we got a deal for youuu!” But the mafia slang is limited to a “deeze” here and a “doze” there—the company has made a concerted effort to tone down the nods to La Cosa Nostra.
Joe DeCampo, Family Furniture’s merchandise manager, says that the old ads, and the operation’s name itself, were inspired by the popularity of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. But nowadays, the store prefers that their spokespeople aren’t referred to as mafiosos at all.
“We prefer a more lighthearted reference,” says DeCampo. “It’s ‘the Family,’ but it’s not intended to glorify violence.”
Although DeCampo advocates eliminating violent images on television, he perks up when recounting the details of the mock-violent Family Furniture ads of his youth. “When I was 10, they had the violin case, and they threw the machine gun away—‘We don’t need these, because we’re giving it away!’” he recalls.
Family Furniture isn’t the only local business that is pandering to what it perceives as the delicate sensibilities and bland appetites of local television viewers. The low-budget, long-running local commercials that Washingtonians like me grew up on are being replaced by new, slick, unfamiliar versions—sometimes out of mere necessity. Many of the old characters are no longer around: Mr. Ray’s Hair Weave salon is gone, and the Morton’s announcer was silenced when the store went belly up long ago. Master Jhoon Rhee still has Tae Kwon Do studios throughout the D.C. area, but his infamous commercial no longer runs.
It’s also become easier and cheaper to throw together a professional 30-second spot. Those establishments that still advertise on TV have completely revamped their ads—rendering them almost unrecognizable. The results—toned down if still not quite tasteful—look a little better but aren’t nearly as fun.
The Gebco girls, the always-shifting group of women who urge locals to insure their property with Gebco, are the best example of how changing with the times, and showing a little skin, equals longevity. The women started off as a quartet of Madonna wannabes who, dressed in the finest ’80s fashions, sang the Gebco Insurance ditty into a large hanging microphone.
Jeff Order, of the Baltimore-based production company Order Productions, is the man who created the comely team of Gebco spokeswomen. “I started bringing in dancers because of branding. People were like, ‘What do dancers have to do with insurance?’” he says.
But Order says that any skepticism over his vision for the commercials—to use dancing ladies to promote Gebco—has quieted over the years as the company has grown more and more successful. “[The company] went from three offices to 14,” he says.
Part of what has kept the ladies in the limelight is the series of makeovers they have undergone. When rap went mainstream, the ladies sang behind rapper Chill Rob G of “The Power” fame. In the mid-’90s, the ladies began to resemble the Fly Girls of In Living Color and started dressing more provocatively. In their current incarnation, the women have been joined by football player Jonathan Ogden of the Baltimore Ravens, who shakes it with them every time he falls into a dreamlike state after realizing how low Gebco’s rates are. Once the central focus of the spots, the women are now relegated to dancing in the background in their jean shorts and pageboy caps while Ogden steals the show.
Currently, Order has three spots running for Gebco—all featuring Ogden. He says that it no longer works for companies to have one recognizable commercial that they keep in rotation forever; they need to have a couple different ones and shoot new spots more often.
“You have to constantly keep it fresh now,” Order says. “Think of McDonald’s, Bud Light, Quiznos.You can’t change that often with local commercials because the cost is prohibitive to do it every couple of months, but you have to do it once a year, or [the commercial] loses its effectiveness.”
With commercials being replaced by new ones so frequently, it seems that there wouldn’t be enough time for locals to fall for any particular character. But Order says that the world itself has sped up. “Kids today understand TV at the pace they watch it at,” he says.
Order claims that kids will feel just as nostalgic about today’s commercials when they’re older as I do about the ones I watched as a kid. But whenever I spend a few hours enduring the current commercials, it’s hard to pick out any elements that a kid would gravitate toward.
Sitting home on a recent Monday holiday, catching up on some Ricki Lake, I saw back-to-back nursing-school ads—no spots for cool products or services. Between watching nursing students wield blood-pressure cuffs and thermometers were national advertisements—mostly for fast-food chains and beauty products. No wacky used-car salesmen or crazy record-smashing DJs. The old local ads may have been corny and grainy and cheap-looking, but, when compared with quick-cuts of sweaty Whoppers and Coke cans, to me they still look like television magic. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Jessica Hale.