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Just before the Super Bowl halftime show, ABC cut to its local affiliates for a commercial break. In D.C., WJLA used the opportunity to run an ad for Fitzgerald Auto Malls, a Frederick-based car chain with nine Maryland outlets. The pitchman for the dealerships was Brad Johnson.
This wasn’t a national ad, nor was it a new one. Johnson signed on to promote Fitzgerald and its Web site back in 1999, when he was playing for the Redskins. Even after he was let go by Skins management two years ago and took a job with Tampa Bay, Fitzgerald stuck by him. And the Johnson ads still run.
“I got an e-mail from a Redskin fan saying I should be ashamed of myself for running that ad, because Brad’s gone from the team,” says Jack Fitzgerald, president of the dealership chain. “But I didn’t run it because he’s gone. I run it because he’s a first-class, honorable man. Straight up and honest. He fits the image we want to project. And I never thought he got the credit around here that he deserved.”
The subtext of the spot: Nobody on the team now projects such an image. Skins fans don’t need Hans Blix to tell them it’s time for a regime change in Washington. The Fitzgerald ads starring Johnson provide enough evidence of the mass destruction that’s been inflicted on the franchise in the Dan Snyder era.
Watching so many former Skins on the field during the playoffs—Brian Mitchell, N.D. Kalu, James Thrash, and Shawn Barber on the Philly roster, Johnson vs. Rich Gannon in the Super Bowl, and so on—was bad. But Sunday’s off-field sighting was equally depressing and revealing.
The nonsightings hurt, too.
Back in the day, Redskins hawked televisions around Super Bowl week, the peak period for marketing big-screen tubes. Former Hog Joe Jacoby’s line delivery in several spots for TheaterVision, a Rockville outpost for really big screens, recalled Andre the Giant more than Laurence Olivier—”And, yes, and you, too can own a big-screen TV,” a clearly nervous Jacoby stammered.
Fans remember those commercials. TheaterVision no longer runs ads with Redskins, however.
Over Super Bowl weekend, Comcast SportsNet, the local sports cable channel, ran several ads for the Big Screen Store, a TV chain with stores in Rockville and Fairfax. The commercials featured another football Joe preaching the glories of the huge tubes. That would be ex-Chief and -49er Joe Montana.
Area retailers have a right to be gun-shy about signing up Redskins as pitchmen, given the ridiculous turnover under Snyder. Last season, American Service Center, a Mercedes dealership in Arlington that regularly used Redskins in radio advertisements, hired coach Marty Schottenheimer as spokesmodel shortly after he signed his four-year deal with the team. That slot had previously been filled by cornerback Deion Sanders, who left town after fulfilling just one year of his seven-year contract.
Schottenheimer, of course, was run out of Washington by Snyder to make room for Steve Spurrier and his Mercedes-sized five-year contract. American Service Center didn’t bother signing up the new coach.
The turnover caused problems for Fitzgerald Auto Malls. After Johnson was disrespectfully cast off to Tampa, the dealership chain decided it would follow Snyder’s lead and let Jeff George take over Johnson’s role as the star of its commercials at the beginning of the 2001 season.
But off the field as surely as on it, George proved he wasn’t Johnson’s equal.
“We loved working with Brad,” says Jack Fitzgerald. “But General Motors brought Jeff George to us, and we decided to give it a try. But, to tell you the truth, we didn’t hit it off that well. Let’s just say things didn’t work out between us and Jeff George.”
Just two games into the year, Fitzgerald pulled its ads featuring George. Days later, Schottenheimer cut him, too.
“We decided to put Brad back on,” says Fitzgerald.
Though Johnson was playing in a Tampa Bay uniform at the time, Fitzgerald’s ads still had him with a Redskins logo on his chest. Before this season, Johnson refilmed portions of the commercial wearing a generic shirt, though Washington’s colors appear onscreen when he’s not in the picture. He’s now introduced as the “former Redskins quarterback.”
Despite the occasional angry e-mail, things have worked out pretty well for Johnson and the dealership since the quarterback got his pitching job back from George.
“People definitely notice the advertisements, especially now with the Super Bowl,” says John Fitzgerald, Jack’s son and the general manager of the Frederick outlet. “I get customers coming into the dealership asking about the commercials, and before long I figure out they really just want to know if I can get them an autographed picture or an autographed football. They think we’re all best friends with Brad Johnson because he does our commercials.”
But management isn’t sure the commercial relationship with Johnson will carry over through next year.
“I really like Brad,” says Jack Fitzgerald. “But now that he’s a Super Bowl winner and he’s all famous, I probably won’t be able to afford him.” —Dave McKenna