Don Lutrario, owner of retractable-awning company Fiberama, likes to see the glimmer of recognition as customers walk through the doors at one of his two retail locations.
"They are often surprised to meet the guy on TV when they come into our stores," says 51-year-old Lutrario, who has owned the business with his two brothers since taking it over from their father in 1985.
How do you move lots of retractable awnings? The Lutrarios give some of their family history but let two elderly women do the selling. "My neighbors think they're a work of art," says a sweet, red-haired gal in one particular spot. As for the payoff, it was better when the economy was healthier, says Don Lutrario. Still, he adds: "You're not going to meet the Colonel when you go into KFC. That often helps us close the deals."
Lutrario writes the commercials with help from his staff. Fiberama, with roughly $1 million in annual revenue, burns about $125,000 every year to get 300 commercials on cable television each week — about half of its overall marketing and advertising budget. Lutrario targets the spots by ZIP code so they hit areas of Brooklyn and Staten Island with homeowners, not apartment dwellers. "I need to be in people's faces all the time," he says.
Result: About 25-30 percent of Fiberama's customers walk through the doors because of the commercials. "It's an imprecise science," admits Lutrario. "Some weeks we get tons of traffic because of them, other weeks not as much."
Lutrario has plenty of company. Tune into the local news or a late-night rerun in any U.S. market and you'll find a commercial for a local law firm, retailer or used-car lot. Production costs for these spots are relatively low, perhaps a few thousand dollars. In some cases the local TV or cable station will help finance the production if the advertiser agrees to run a minimum number of spots.
Despite the rise of the Web, local television advertising (ads that run in a defined area or network region) has been the most resilient form of geographically targeted advertising, says Brian Wieser, head of global forecasting at Magna Global, a unit of Interpublic. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, he adds: "Television is the worst form of advertising except for all the others, which have been tried."
While newspaper and Yellow Page ad revenues have dropped over the past decade, local television advertising sales have grown at a 0.5 percent clip and are expected to top $20 billion in 2010. National television ad revenue has grown at 3.3 percent a year, to $34.5 billion; online advertising, at 6.5 percent, to $25 billion. Blanketing many markets with one ad is obviously more efficient than targeting individual markets, though many small businesses can't afford the cost.
The Web has more attractive economics, especially free forms of distribution like YouTube. The popular, user-generated video site has put entertainers, entrepreneurs and downright knuckleheads on the map. Still, it's no panacea.
Jorge Castro, owner of Cantina, a Birmingham, Ala., taqueria, experimented with a Web-based advertising campaign when he hired a local Web magazine to produce a quirky video about his restaurant — a surreal, sci-fi western in which a tan agave-chugging robot, named Tequila-bot, helps his human friend hunt for "gringos" in the desert. Unfortunately, Tequila-bot's buddy dies in a gunfight. To ease his suffering, the robot starts throwing back shots of tequila. The background jingle: "What do you do when your war buddy dies, eat a fish burger and garlic fries?"
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Even though the video has racked up 211,000 hits on YouTube, Castro says it has roped in few new patrons at his restaurant. "I mostly get calls from people around the country asking about the video," he says. Castro plans to put Tequila-bot on local TV stations soon.
"When people want to have an impact, they still want to get their audience directly through TV," says Robin Flynn, senior analyst at SNL Kagan, a media research firm.
And when it comes to local TV spots, often the wackier the better. Here's are some of the wackiest from around the U.S:
Crazy Bruce’s Liquors
West Hartford, Conn.
Bruce Goldberg, owner of Crazy Bruce’s Liquors from 1964 to 2007, stopped at nothing to look crazy and grab the audience’s attention. In this commercial, Goldberg waltzes down the store aisles singing a song about his store set to a polka-esque version of “Roll Out the Barrell" and peppering the verses with dog barks.
Payoff: Huge. Drew Truncali, one of the store's new owners, says the dollar value of the goodwill generated by Goldberg's image accounted for the vast majority of the purchase price of the store (undisclosed), including a commitment by Goldberg to tape an additional 15 commercials after the sale.
A wizened courthouse custodian offers up testimonials on the skills of Rob Levine, a personal injury attorney, while he mops the courtroom floor. Levine — who calls himself the "Heavy Hitter," also weaves in a catchy jingle: "Heavy hitter is the way to go. Call: LAW four 'O' four 'O'."
Payoff: "Pretty much all of our business is created from these ads," says Adam Noska, one of Levine's associates. "It's how people know about us."
Culver City, Calif.
Warning: Do not click on the above link if you have anything else to do today but think about the ridiculously irritating staccato refrain about why people love Tito’s Tacos. The singer likely chugged a Red Bull, sucked on a helium balloon and then belted out the jingle. Happy taco-eaters appear to be photo-shopped onto the screen. The tune runs in Spanish and English and is equally irritating in both languages.
Payoff: Owner Lynne Davidson started airing when business dipped seven years ago. Since then things have been on the rise and customers enter singing the jingle.
Brothers and second-generation owners Nick, Ron and Pete Cardi star in their own commercials, updated monthly to spin off of local events and pop-culture phenomena. Their latest — starring their 89-year-old mother — spoofs octogenarian actress Betty White’s resurgence in Hollywood. In it, the brothers walk over to a soccer field in football gear, only to get kicked off — at which point Mom notes that even she knows it’s the wrong sport.
Payoff: The Cardis say the commercials drive the bulk of walk-in traffic, but that they constantly tweak their strategy based on which ideas and time slots work best.
Georgia Car Credit
Clad in white-tipped shoes and a flowing, black curly wig, the "Credit MacDaddy" rolls up in a big white car and lays down hilarious raps that just don't work: "Got credit problems? Not these days, the credit MacDaddy gets you out of the haze." Rap videos have background dancers; here, a gleeful couple jumps for joy at finding a car until the wife throws a pie in her husband's face.
Payoff: While the ad got the bulk of customers in the door, says owner Jerry Frazier, it also stirred up controversy because of its racial overtones. He has since swapped the ad with a cartoon.
For a list of all nine commercials, including links to each of the videos, click here.
© 2012 Forbes.com