Love or hate his tacky ads, Scott Donahoo is riding high

March 15, 2004|By KEVIN COWHERD

THE COMMERCIAL that's running now, the one you either watch transfixed in horror or laughing so hard you spit coffee across the room, is the Beverly Hillbillies take-off.

It opens with Scott Donahoo in a straw hat and standard-issue hick overalls warbling:

There was a little car dealer on Belair Road

"Your Kia store ain't big enough!" - dat's what he's told

So he builds it bigger, bigger, bigger than you'd ever be-leeve

Making Scotty the man, the man you want to see!

Hoo, boy. And all this is accompanied by a cartoon-ish graphic of a car dealership swelling up like it's on steroids.

Suddenly, the scene shifts to the showroom floor and Donahoo is in some sort of urban cowboy get-up - think James Carville if he worked a booth at the Wyoming State Fair.

Then people come flying out from behind bales of hay: a faux Jethro, a banjo player, some guy blowing on a moonshine jug, an Ellie Mae look-alike in cut-off jeans and shirt tied at the waist.

If you can process all that without your head exploding, Donahoo might even sell you a car.

It's tempting to think the Hillbillies spot might be Scott Donahoo's tackiest, most outrageous commercial ever as the czar of Foreign Motors Kia on Belair Road in Hamilton.

But how do you rate these things?

Is the Hillbillies spot any crazier than the one where he played a black-robed justice in a courtroom, crooning that he wasn't here to judge you if you had bad credit?

Or the Christmas commercial where he's in a Santa hat with sleigh bells around his neck, with his dog wearing reindeer antlers?

Or the one where he plays a slick-haired lounge lizard in a sequined jacket backed up by three Motown-style singers?

"People either love 'em or they hate 'em, but they don't forget 'em," says Donahoo of the commercials. "Even if you're a hater, when I come on TV, you freeze. You're thinking: `What's that crazy SOB up to now?' "

And here's the truth of it: That crazy SOB doesn't much care if you don't like his commercials - especially if you're not one of his target customers.

And why should he? He sells a ton of cars and makes a ton of cash, enough to make him a 48-year-old multimillionaire - not bad for a guy who grew up in a modest rowhouse in Northwood and barely made it out of Northern High School.

Plus there's this: Those goofy commercials have made him a genuine celebrity.

"There are a lot of Scott Donahoo fans," says Kenny Brown, Donahoo's friend and advertising manager. "They like what he does. They get what he does ... especially young people."

When Donahoo appeared on WJZ-TV's morning show with Don Scott and Marty Bass two years ago, the show got its highest rating ever.

School kids mob his car when he's stopped at a traffic light. When he showed up at Attman's Deli the other day, the noontime crowd went nuts - you would have thought it was Bill Clinton ordering a corned-beef sandwich.

He just finished judging a local version of American Idol for Fox 45, and he'll be a judge on UPN's Who Wants to be a Top Model? next week. And now he gets asked to give commencement addresses at high-school graduations and speak to college marketing classes and have dinner with the old ladies at nursing homes.

In fact, he's so well-known he actually began a run for mayor last year, before ultimately deciding a politician's life would leave him too stressed out.

But this is the celebrity story Donahoo loves telling: about the guy rushed unconscious to Shock Trauma with a gunshot wound.

"The guy comes conscious," Donahoo says laughing, "and the first thing he sees is one of my commercials on the television!"

"The guy told you this?" I ask.

"Not only that," says Donahoo, "but he came in when he got out of the hospital and bought a car! He said: `You made me laugh.' "

So don't bother telling Donahoo that some people find his commercials incredibly cheesy, almost a parody of a bad commercial. (One of his first e-mails after the Hillbillies spot read: "I always thought you were crass and tasteless. But you took it to a new level.")

Because when you say this, he rises from his desk and points to a nearby mantelpiece and all the trophies proclaiming him the No. 1 Kia dealer on the East Coast.

"Seven out of 10 people who buy a car from us buy a second car from us," he says. "So something is working."

Your typical car-dealer commercial, he says, is this: standard shot of a car riding down a scenic road, voice-over screaming about having the biggest selection, lowest prices, most convenient location, blah, blah, blah.

Donahoo sees those kinds of spots as nothing more than visual anesthesia.

"I want to be the topic of conversation around the water cooler," he says.

And if you can't get that what he's doing is parody, a kind of self-parody - "Hell, it's clear I can't sing or dance" - that's your problem. You're taking it way too seriously.

And anyway, says Donahoo: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

When I ask about his next commercial - with Donahoo there's always a next commercial - he smiles and says simply: "Sinatra."

"Oh ... my ... God," I say.

"A smoke-filled lounge," says Donahoo, a dreamy look on his face. "Old-fashioned microphone. Grainy black-and-white video. Scotty in a tux. Top button unbuttoned. Tie hanging down. Fedora."

Again, the mind reels.

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