New Choice hotel ad tries to cash in on country singer's fame

November 06, 1991|By Michael Pollick

On Monday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that singer Johnny Cash would be a 1992 inductee.

But the real sign that Mr. Cash has been immortalized came yesterday, when he taped three suitcase commercials for Choice Hotels International.

After all, the $65 million rock hall of fame, planned for Cleveland, won't be finished until 1994.

But the Silver Spring hotel chain, working with Baltimore-based advertising agency Gray Kirk/VanSant, has spent $52 million on its whimsical suitcase commercials.

You've seen them. A "somebody" pops out of a suitcase resting on a hotel bed and tells you to stay at one of 2,700 hotels worldwide (Quality, Comfort, Clarion and Sleep) and get a real deal.

Mr. Cash thus joins the really "important" stars -- the ones who make people want to call Choice for hotel rooms: Pat Boone, Joe Frazier, Eva Gabor, Tip O'Neill, Vanna White and the Flying Wallendas, to name a few.

Mr. Cash didn't actually come out of a suitcase, like most of the other celebrities have. He came up out of a guitar case, wearing that black shirt, strumming that six-string and singing in that croaky way.

"Now this is a story/ about a travelin' man./ He's worked all of his life/ and now he's seeing the land./ When he needs a place to stay/ he gets a room in a flash./ He just calls up Choice Hotels/ and gets that 30-percent-off-anywhere-you-want-to-go senior discount/ and he saves a whole lot of . . . cash."

After 39 takes, the crew of two-dozen-plus working at Sheffield Studios in Phoenix in Baltimore County called that 30-second commercial a wrap. Then they moved on to tape two others, including one called "a positioning spot." Rather than concentrating on a specific pitch the way the senior citizen discount ad does, it just educates the public about all the room choices they will have by calling 1-800-4-CHOICE.

When Roger Gray left the W. B. Doner agency and opened his own ad firm in 1981, the hotel company was one of his first clients, and its executives had budgeted $900,000 a year for advertising, he said.

This year, Choice Hotels' advertising and marketing budget is $32 million, of which $16 million goes toward those suitcase ads.

Although Doner is still a bigger agency, Mr. Gray says, the Choice account is the largest individual account handled by any Baltimore advertising firm.

Meanwhile, Choice has grown into a giant, vying with Holiday Inns for the title of No. 1 hotelier in the nation.

It was Gray Kirk Executive Michael Diliberto who came up with the suitcase idea.

He started employing celebrities in 1988, and the combination has turned the suitcase commercials into one of the longest-lived ad series of its type in history.

Mr. Diliberto's favorite is the Evel Knievel spot, in which a suitcase falls to the ground from an airplane, filmed by cameramen using parachutes, before Evel pops out.

"We try to keep it fresh," he says. "If we use Evel again, what are we going to do for an encore?"

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