I never thought I’d be writing about the death of a (car) salesman, but this one is different. Chances are you’ve never heard of Cal Worthington, not unless you grew up or lived in Southern California in the 60’s and 70’s, in which case you had no choice but to know who he was.
Cal Worthington became THE icon in car salesmanship (if there is such a thing) because he had an innate sense of style, panache, creativity, marketing and, whether he knew it or not, an eye for the power of public relations.
When he passed away this week (having lived nearly 90 years and sold more than a million cars in his day) every media outlet in the West took note. They all paid homage to SoCal’s greatest car pitchman and poster child for early integrated marketing. A four-column feature in the LA Times touted his accomplishments, with particular emphasis on his natural ability to generate media, print, TV, radio, for himself and his cars.
You see, Cal did a great deal of TV advertising back then but it wasn’t just the traditional “buy my cars, they’re cheaper, they’re better, and I’m your friend” ad. Cal would appear on camera with a car and his dog Spot. Cute, but certainly not memorable. But here was the brilliance, here was the catch.
“Spot” was never a dog.
What was on the leash and on camera was indeed always referred to as “my dog Spot,” but it varied from a lion, tiger, cougar, aardvark, monkey, you name it. The public became entranced with Cal’s quirky ads and he took advantage to the fullest. He would appear on the street walking “Spot” (could have been a puma one day or a chimp the next) and the TV news crews and newspaper photogs would show up to cover it. Cal made appearances at public functions, customer showroom events, weddings and bar mitzvahs touting his latest “Dog Spot”, nearly always to media attention, and always weaving in his sales proposition.
He had the vision long before it was in vogue to use a creative idea and, via integrated communications, to extend and take it to the next level. That’s what made it memorable. He was also consistent, varying the package but never straying from his shtick.
Simple idea? Yes. Silly? Of course. Masterfully done? Absolutely yes. Sticking to core messages/theme over the years? You betcha.
So, four decades and one million cars later, here’s to you Cal Worthington. Millions of Californians will never forget you.