NFLer Turned Dealer Puts on the Blitz

SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – What do Roger Clemens, Lady Gaga and the Rev. Terry Jones have in common? They have all received New Jersey Hyundai dealer Brad Benson’s “Idiot of the Week” award.

Clemens, the Major League Baseball pitcher got the dubious award for lying to Congress about steroid use; Lady G for wearing a “meat dress” at the MTV Video Music Awards; and Jones for threatening to burn the Quran last year.

On his persistent (and persistently amusing) radio commercials, Benson offered each of them free use of a Hyundai for a year if they would abandon their outrageous behavior.

Jones actually took him up on the offer, but then reneged on the deal. Benson, an ex-New York Giants tackle, gave Jones a new Hyundai Accent for not burning the Quran.

Jones traveled from his home state of Florida to Benson’s dealership to collect the car. He gave it to a charity that helps battered women. But in March, Jones claims to have burned the Muslim holy book, sparking deadly protests in Afghanistan.

Benson, who is playful in his commercials, got serious in talking about Jones. The dealer called the Quran burning “deplorable,’ adding the pastor should be held criminally liable for the ensuing deaths.

It was one promotion that didn’t go so well. But that was the exception.

Benson’s local commercials, on WKXW-101.5 FM and WFAN-66 AM, are outrageous. The spots skewer public figures and more. Benson often takes aim at himself and family members, sometimes showing a locker-room sense of humor.

He uses double entendres, such as the time he told listeners to stop by the dealership to see his “40-ft. (12 m) erection.” He was speaking of a goalpost he had purchased when Giants Stadium was demolished.

Benson is convinced the commercials have been a touchdown for business, moving sales forward from 50 to 80 cars a month in 2005, to the current level of about 500 a month.

It puts Brad Benson Auto Group into contention as one of Hyundai’s most successful U.S. dealerships.

Benson, who does the commercials himself, is no stranger to the public eye. He played 11 seasons as an in the National Football League, going to the Pro Bowl in 1986. That also was about the time he became involved in the auto business.

“I had planned to teach when my football career ended,” the 54-year-old Benson recalls. “But my friend, Gerald Lustig, had other plans for me.”

Lustig was an auto dealer. Benson regularly supplied him with Giants’ tickets, and he reciprocated with free use of a car. Benson also told his teammates about the dealer, and 15 of them wound up buying cars from Lustig in a single season.

Next thing he knew, Benson was a rookie dealer, joining the veteran Lustig in the purchase of a Jaguar store.

A few years later, they moved their dealership to well-traveled U.S. Highway 1 in South Brunswick. By this time, they had added Mitsubishi to the lineup.

Then, as Benson says, “Jaguar hit some bumps in the road. We sold that part of our operation to Ray Catena and brought in Hyundai.” This was a major new effort, and Benson was more eager than his partner to take it on, so Benson bought him out.

For the first few years, Benson acknowledges, it seemed he suffered more punishment than he ever did on the gridiron. Hyundai, a hot brand now, was struggling badly in the late 1990s and early 2002.

“We weren’t making any money,” he recalls. “We were breaking even, at best.”

The turning point came when Benson was approached by Dave Cantin and Joe Liccardi, two of his most senior staffers, who pitched a bold plan. “They wanted to have a sale, and not just any sale – 30% off sticker price,” Benson recalls. “And they wanted me to spend $100,000 in a single month promoting the sale. That was about $70,000 more than we had been spending.”

Benson admits to being leery, but he gave in. He has never been sorry. “I said, ‘OK, but if this doesn’t work, we’ll be out of business in three months.’ Well, we’re still here.”

While the inspiration for the sale came from his trusted advisers, the details came from Benson himself. He decided to do a radio blitz. “I had already been on the radio, but not as consistently as I am today,” he says. “Mostly, we used professional announcers. I had just met an advertising man from San Francisco, D.J. O’Neil, and he insisted that I become my own pitchman. He liked my sense of humor and my delivery.” Prior to the 30% sale and promotion, Hyundai had expressed concern about the dealership’s sales performance. That issue disappeared overnight. Today, Benson’s ad schedule achieves what he calls a “roadblock.” One-minute spots run once every hour all day and all night, seven days a week, on 101.5, which features a talk format Monday through Friday, and “oldies” on the weekend.

On WFAN, New York’s leading sports talk station, the schedule is one spot an hour every day from early morning until the end of evening drive time. Now something of an expert on radio effectiveness, Benson says, “Typically, you need at least three months of repetition for a residual buildup. A start-stop-start approach, which many advertisers choose in looking to save a little money, often results in money being wasted because it doesn’t produce results.”

O’Neil, founder and owner of Hub Strategy & Communications, collaborates on many of the scripts. He says the spots change frequently, usually every two weeks. Many of the spots are topical, satirizing events in the news.

“They are impossible to ignore; they are funny and Brad is likable,” O’Neil says. “He has a ‘John Madden-esque’ everyman quality that people identify with. And he is a natural on the air, usually nailing a reading in one or two takes.”

Benson had very little training for his gig as an on-air talent. He did a bit of sports anchoring in his hometown of Altoona, PA, during the off-season when he was still a young member of the New York Giants’ squad. He gives even more credit, however, to Scott Geesey, his high school speech teacher.

“When I was going into my sophomore year, my mother took me aside and said she thought I might someday be good enough to play in the NFL,” Benson recalls. “She said, ‘If that happens, you’ll have to talk to people, and I don’t want you sounding foolish.’

“She urged me to take a speech class, and I stuck with Mr. Geesey for three years.” Benson doesn’t say, but chances are his mom had the same conversation with his three younger brothers. All four Benson boys played major college football, and Troy, the youngest was a linebacker for the New York Jets.

As good as Benson sounds on the radio, it’s not his voice but his words that capture attention and attract customers. His first offbeat radio ad ran during the buildup to the Iraq war.

He went on the air and offered to give Saddam Hussein free use of a Mitsubishi Outlander for a year if he would leave Iraq immediately. Public reaction was instantaneous. Sam Donaldson interviewed Benson on national television. Newspapers carried stories about the offer. It was discussed on Britain’s BBC network.

There was more publicity than there had been when Benson won the1986 Super Bowl with the Giants. But not all of it was positive.

“Some folks found the ad offensive,” Benson acknowledges. “We had anticipated backlash, and I had already prerecorded an apology. When the apology ran, others became angry. But we had some fun, and we certainly were getting noticed.”

On occasion, Benson gets personal, even playfully talking about his own sex life. He once took a public vow of celibacy until his dealership became the No.1 store in the U.S. Upon hearing the ad, no one was more surprised than his wife Lisa, he says.

As far as the Rev. Jones affair, Benson says that after he made the original car offer, the pastor contacted him, asking for the car and indicating it would be donated to a Christian organization.

In a follow-up ad to the original offer, Benson urged listeners to call and weigh in on the situation. Should he go ahead with the offer or should he have no more involvement with the controversial pastor?

O’Neil, who fielded the calls, says there were about 1,500 responses in the first five days, with a slight edge favoring fulfillment on the commitment. Summing up his client, O’Neil says, “Brad is a character, but he also has tons of character to go along with his brash exterior.” Beyond the tongue-in-cheek radio ads, Benson realizes he must back up those ads with sound business practices.

The service area is a prime example. Under the direction of Benson’s 24-year-old son Tyler, who has worked in the shop since he was in high school, the parts and service department has undergone a thorough sprucing up.

The effort is designed to improve not only the quality of car care, but the morale and well-being of the 20-plus people who work there. Most dramatic was the installation of air conditioning in 2009.

“It has made a night-and-day difference in workers’ attitude and energy,” Tyler Benson says. “Regardless of what the temperature is outside – and we went above 100° degrees F (38° C) a lot in 2010, our guys hustle all day, maintaining the same pace of production all day every day.” In addition, the dealership installed a new service floor and installed modern equipment.

“My goal is to present the best image we can for the customer, and that means having the best equipment, the best tools and the best facility,” Tyler Benson says. “And one our people can take pride in.”