#836: The Rational Madness Of The Used Car Salesman Why are used car commercials so annoying? Meet the original sinner.
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#836: The Rational Madness Of The Used Car Salesman

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#836: The Rational Madness Of The Used Car Salesman

#836: The Rational Madness Of The Used Car Salesman

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KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

One of the things I like best about being able to watch TV online is that I can pay a small fee and skip being bombarded by things like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB: I can help, my son.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are you God?

BOB: No, I'm big Bob (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Howdy. Many trucks here at Carl (ph)...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Blast. It's the big used car sell-off at Toyota of northwest Arkansas.

DUFFIN: Local car commercials. I think we can all agree they're pretty terrible.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, they're terrible but they're so entertaining.

DUFFIN: This is Flora Lichtman.

LICHTMAN: Like, they're not held in by the bounds of the usual formulas of...

DUFFIN: Like good taste?

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Yeah, like good taste, exactly.

DUFFIN: Flora hosts the podcast Every Little Thing. And these terrible car ads, it's something she's been looking into on behalf of a listener, which is what they do at Every Little Thing. They answer questions sent in by listeners. And when they ask people to submit their burning questions, amongst the many things that listeners could have submitted, like, you know, how do magnets work or how big is the universe, one of the questions they got was this.

JAMIE COX: Hi. My co-workers and I were having a conversation today about local car commercials and were wondering why are they all so bad?

DUFFIN: This is Jamie Cox (ph), the listener who submitted the question. And she is right. But it's not just that car ads are bad. It's that they're, like, consistently bad in the same kinds of ways. In fact, as Flora was looking into this, she noticed that there's actually kind of a pattern to the awfulness.

LICHTMAN: Yes, and it seems to be, first, usually a dude.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB WHITE: Rob White (ph) here from (unintelligible) auto.

LICHTMAN: A dude with deals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHITE: One ninety-nine a month (unintelligible). Only 199 a month...

LICHTMAN: ...Who often calls himself crazy. Not our label, that's what these guys call themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: With me, Seamus (ph), the crazy Greek. Our prices are so crazy...

DUFFIN: And this dude with deals who says he's crazy, he usually then proves that by invoking some kind of terrible analogy. Flora told me about a particularly bad one.

LICHTMAN: I don't know if - I should just send you the link but...

DUFFIN: Please do.

LICHTMAN: OK.

DUFFIN: OK, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The holidays are coming and I need to stuff my lot like a Thanksgiving belly.

DUFFIN: What?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Here's a belly unstuffed. Here's a belly stuffed.

DUFFIN: He's, like, actually showing a big, hairy beer belly and then, like, a six-pack smaller belly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Unstuffed, stuffed.

DUFFIN: Wait, does he want to be unstuffed? Is that the goal?

LICHTMAN: He likes his lot stuffed.

DUFFIN: With people or cars?

LICHTMAN: (Laughter) Cars.

DUFFIN: (Laughter) Cars, OK. But preferably by the end of the day, he's got the six-pack.

LICHTMAN: I think you're applying more logic to it than it deserves possibly but, yeah, sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUTURE SATISFACTION")

FREDERIC AUGER: (Singing) Never get away from this nice place. Keep the...

DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I am Karen Duffin. And today we go in search of the patient zero of bad car commercials. And we ask, how did this spread? How is it that someone created this advertising model that is so bad and then everyone else said, yeah, we should definitely also do that? To answer that, we turn over the show to Flora Lichtman and the podcast Every Little Thing and learn there may be a method to this madness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: OK, we promised to find someone to blame for all of these terrible local car ads. Flora, did you find us someone?

LICHTMAN: I did. There's actually one guy you can trace it to.

STEVEN GELBER: Yes, there is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Madman, madman...

GELBER: There's a locus classicus.

LICHTMAN: That's Steven Gelber. He wrote a book about the history of car salesmen. He's a historian and a lover of Latin.

GELBER: Now, he wasn't sui generis, but there's an actual specific person who created this form of on-air hysteria, the originator of the crazy used car ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) From Madman Muntz.

LICHTMAN: One person.

GELBER: One person.

LICHTMAN: These bad ads we can blame on Earl Muntz, otherwise known as Madman Muntz. And to understand that madman, Steven told me you actually want to start in a time before used cars, a time that might surprise you.

GELBER: Yes. There was a moment, a prelapsarian moment.

LICHTMAN: Prelapsarian, meaning the biblical time before the fall of man.

GELBER: An Edenic moment when car salesmen were actually what car salesmen wanted to be.

LICHTMAN: In the time of BS, before sleaze ball, car salesmen were respected. People thought they weren't just knowledgeable, they were trustworthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LICHTMAN: This was back in the early 1900s when the Model T came on the market. A few years later, it gets mass produced and mass production begets mass consumption because cars get cheap or at least cheap enough that...

GELBER: A car becomes available to the middle class. It's no longer a luxury item.

LICHTMAN: By the 1920s, those new Model T's are now used Model T's. That means even cheaper cars and that becomes a problem for new car dealers.

GELBER: There weren't a sufficient number of used cars that people had to be induced to buy new cars.

LICHTMAN: It feels obvious now but back then, this was a new problem. Cars are expensive enough and durable enough that why would you pay a ton more for a new car if your old one still runs? So car dealerships adapt. They start offering trade-ins, buying back cars. And now they sell not just new cars but used ones, too, giving birth to the used car salesman. And very quickly, they leave the parking lot of Eden.

GELBER: The bad reputation then of car dealers begins to take deep root in the 1920s.

LICHTMAN: Selling used cars inspires some less-than-honorable sales techniques on the part of the used car dealers.

GELBER: They were from the very beginning considered the sleaziest, the least honest, the bottom of the automobile business.

LICHTMAN: And that's because negotiation is baked into used car sales, a negotiation in which the seller is at an advantage. It's something economists call information asymmetry. One person knows more than the other, which gives the person in the know, in this case the used car dealer, a huge advantage. In human terms, it's a situation where you feel like you might get screwed. There's a famous economics paper all about this theory and used cars called "The Market For Lemons."

COX: I mean, you don't know where that thing's been. It could have literally been driven off a cliff and then reassembled.

LICHTMAN: That's Jamie again, the listener who brought us this question. And Jamie's right. You have no way of knowing the car's history or condition. But the used car salesman does. He knows the used car's secrets, dirty and otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LICHTMAN: So used car dealers see this juicy apple of information asymmetry and take a big, old bite. They become notorious for coming up with tricks to hide the car's faults.

GELBER: For a while, it was even legal to roll back the speedometer or the odometer so long as you rolled it back to zero.

LICHTMAN: Other tricks included etching treads into balding tires to make them look younger, using sawdust or heavy oil to mask mechanical problems, spiking gasoline with ether to boost performance. And within a few decades, we go from trustworthy new car salesmen to slick-talking, odometer-rolling used car salesmen. Most people would probably consider this sleazy reputation an obstacle, a minus. But one used car dealer seemed to find inspiration in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Madman, madman, madman...

LICHTMAN: I called Jamie our listener to introduce her to this sleaze-inspired car dealer because he is the man we can blame, the OG of terrible local car ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) He doesn't care what shape or size. He shuts his eyes and buys and buys and buys and buys...

COX: Who was it?

LICHTMAN: The locus classicus, the originator of the crazy used-car ad is Earl Muntz, better known as Madman Muntz.

COX: It's that - wait, is that, like, his God-given name, Madman?

LICHTMAN: No, it's his self-given name. And here's his deal. Muntz is a used car dealer in California in the 1940s. He has this idea to buy cars for cheap in the Midwest and then sell them in California for a profit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) He's not at all concerned with...

LICHTMAN: And he teams up with this advertising mogul, Michael Shore. And it is these two who develop the madman persona.

COX: The madmen behind the madmen.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Psychiatrists have given up...

LICHTMAN: Their strategy was to take the obvious move, appear trustworthy, and do the opposite on purpose.

MARTIN GOSTANIAN: You have to distinguish yourself. You go the opposite. They zig, you zag.

LICHTMAN: That's media historian Martin Gostanian. And the idea is that rather than running away from the terrible used car salesman persona, run towards it.

GOSTANIAN: Earl had a very, very larger-than-life personality. So Shore thought, you're eccentric, you're wild, you're a madman.

LICHTMAN: So they built an entire ad strategy around Muntz's self-proclaimed craziness. Muntz and the ad exec hire the studio that makes Bugs Bunny to make them a logo, which is basically just a picture of Muntz drawn to look like Napoleon, which fits the image they're going for.

GOSTANIAN: It had always been, you know, one of the cliches that if you were crazy, you thought you were Napoleon.

LICHTMAN: Jamie, are you by a computer? I want you to look at this logo.

COX: I can look on my phone. Oh, there he is.

LICHTMAN: So it's a drawing of Muntz as Napoleon wearing classic Napoleon outfit, like the hat and boots, but also, he's strangely in red PJ's.

COX: Yeah, I was thinking that that looked a little bit like a onesie.

LICHTMAN: And Muntz himself, the actual person, not the cartoon, also appears as the madman in ads and pictures. I had Jamie google it.

COX: Madman Muntz. I see him next to a billboard. I want to give them away, but Mrs. Muntz won't let me. She's crazy.

LICHTMAN: I found that ad very confusing.

COX: Yeah, like, your name is literally Madman.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

COX: But he also - it's also like you can tell he's not actually a madman. It's like what you would imagine a madman to be.

LICHTMAN: It's like a caricature of a madman.

COX: Yeah. It's, like, I kind of want to know what he was like in real life.

LICHTMAN: Well, I can tell you the answer to that right after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LICHTMAN: So Madman Muntz didn't just invent bad car adds. He also patents a design for an early TV and, in fact, names his daughter Tee Vee but spelled T-E-E V-E-E. He also invents the 4-track cassette, which inspires the 8-track. And Muntz's inventing method is kind of brilliant. It actually gets named after him. People call it Muntzing.

GOSTANIAN: And Muntzing was basically taking a component, trying to strip it down to its bare essentials to prune away what he felt were the non-essential portions of the componentry.

LICHTMAN: This is media historian Martin Gostanian again. And the idea is that the cheapest version of, say, a TV is the one with the fewest parts. So Muntz would just start taking away parts.

GOSTANIAN: Until he got to the point where he clipped off one wire and then if the set went dark, he said, well, I guess we have to keep that one in.

LICHTMAN: He's kind of a dis-inventor. And in his time, he's also kind of a pop icon. Like, Bob Hope makes fun of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB HOPE: I had a little trouble getting here. Madman Muntz chased me for three blocks, ladies and gentlemen.

LICHTMAN: The Three Stooges make fun of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUMMY'S DUMMIES")

MOE HOWARD: (As Moe) You can't buy a chariot for half the money over at Madman Ramesses.

LICHTMAN: His used car lot becomes an attraction on Hollywood tours, the same car lot where a new genre of car advertising is born. And once you get a sense for who Earl Muntz was, you can sort of understand why he took the madman advertising route. But why did other car dealers follow suit? Some experts we talked to say it comes down to the most basic goal of advertising, be memorable. And if these ads are anything, they are hard to forget. And being memorable sometimes turns these car dealers into local celebrities.

So some experts told us that the ads are an ego thing. They bring some amount of fame. They also said it just comes down to money. These kinds of ads are cheap to make. Like Muntz's stripped-down TV's, stripping down a commercial to, say, a stuffed belly doesn't cost that much. And more importantly, it seems to have worked. Jamie our listener again does it.

COX: Does it?

LICHTMAN: Well, for months, it does seem to have. He was reported to have sold over $70 million worth of cars in a single year. In present-day money, that's, like, over half a billion dollars.

COX: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, that's really impressive.

LICHTMAN: And the approach spread from Muntz in the '40s to Cal Worthington in the '50s and '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAL WORTHINGTON: (Singing) I will stand upon my head to beat all deals.

LICHTMAN: To electronics dealer Crazy Eddie in the '70s and '80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Crazy Eddie, his prices are insane.

LICHTMAN: And now it's kind of everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We are in the midst of a marathon of madness, with every new Toyota car and truck reduced...

LICHTMAN: Jamie our listener, she actually works in marketing. So I asked her does she think this is a good strategy?

COX: I mean, he did something right. And it must be working if it's gone on since the '40s. But the thing is, like, I just - I don't think I would want to trust a person like that (laughter).

LICHTMAN: Steven Gelber thinks that's kind of the point. Here's his theory.

GELBER: The whole thing is to create a circus atmosphere, an atmosphere of excitement, an atmosphere of unsureness.

LICHTMAN: And that atmosphere might, in a way, help balance out that information asymmetry where the dealer knows so much more than you about the car because if the dealer is a madman, Steven's theory goes, it helps you feel in some odd way more comfortable. Like, sure, he knows more but I'm saner than him. So maybe I actually do have an advantage.

GELBER: Maybe they're really getting a good deal. Maybe the salesman wouldn't really have sold it to this price to anybody but his mother. In their hearts, they probably know it's not true. But maybe it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) You will see what they mean when they claim that he's on Benzedrine. Sell your car and you will get much more, 11th street (unintelligible).

DUFFIN: Thank you to Every Little Thing, whose staff includes Aaron Reiss, Flora Lichtman, Phoebe Flanigan, Zakiya Gibbons and Annette Heist. They also had help from Nicole Pasulka and scoring by Dara Hirsch. To hear more of their answers to their listeners' questions, check out Every Little Thing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. And if you have any questions for us here at PLANET MONEY, you can send them by email, PlanetMoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We're @PlanetMoney.

Also, if you have not seen PLANET MONEY's new video series Planet Money Shorts, you really should check them out. They are at npr.org/planetmoneyshorts. That's npr.org/planetmoneyshorts. Our latest one is about the economics of graveyards. Nick Fountain and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi from PLANET MONEY helped produce today's show. Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark and Bryant Urstadt edits the show. I am Karen Duffin. Thanks for listening.

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