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September 2, 2014

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Vegas auto pitchman appears to get around

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Tom Park stands in a lot full of Hyundais wearing a crisp white shirt and blue, tie taping commercials for Syracuse ("Great selection, great savings!"), for Schenectady, N.Y. ("What a great time to save!"), for Albuquerque, N.M. ("There's no comparison!") and for Columbia, S.C. ("Give us a call!").

And the day is just starting.

By day's end, Park tapes 59 television commercials for a group of dealerships in more than 10 cities -- from Chevys in the Buffalo area to Subarus in Las Vegas. All the commercials are shot on a few car lots in upstate New York.

You might recognize Tom Park if you watch TV in Dallas, Orlando, Oklahoma City or the other 18 domestic markets he sells cars in. With his well-groomed hair, affable demeanor and buttery voice, many TV viewers mistake him for a car salesman. But he's a pitchman for hire, working for auto dealers around the country. He's been promoting deals too good to pass up since the K-Car era, which might make him the car commercial king.

After 21 years, even Park isn't sure how many commercials he's done.

"In my resume I put 50,000, but I know it's over 100,000," he said. "Nobody ever believes it, so I don't put it in there."

These are simple commercials made fast. Usually, they show Park dressed in business clothes, speaking -- not shouting -- to the camera about specific car and truck deals. No scripts are used. And Park, who has a classically smooth broadcaster's voice, rarely blows a take.

"My approach has always been that I didn't want to announce to people. I would rather talk to them. That's why I don't like to use a script," Park said. "When it's spontaneous, I think it's a little more sincere and hopefully a little more believable."

Park said he tries to project an image of who he is: A married 49-year old with two teenage boys living in Austin, Texas. He is a former radio broadcaster and a rock 'n' roller who came to selling cars on TV through, in his own words, "blind, staggering luck."

Park played lead guitar in a band called Talewind in the early '80s. His wife sang. It was fun, but not steady enough for a young couple planning a family. A talent agent helped him land a job in 1981 doing ads for a Dallas Datsun dealership run by Carl Westcott.

"He gave me a salary, a car and health insurance," Park said, "and I thought I had died and went to heaven."

Park started his own production company in 1985 with one client, Lynn Hickey Dodge in Oklahoma City. The dealership's sales grew and Park's business snowballed by word of mouth. One dealer who noticed was Syracuse, N.Y.-based Billy Fuccillo.

"The guys he was working with sold mega-cars. So I knew it was working," Fuccillo said.

Fuccillo contracted with Park 10 years ago and is now among about a dozen Park clients. Park was working for Fuccillo the day he taped 59 TV commercials (plus radio spots). Park flew in from Austin for the taping marathon, which is typical of the way he works.

Park is not unique in his career as a TV pitchman in multiple markets. But William Harvill, chief executive officer of the Intermark Group advertising agency, said having such broad success is rare in that segment of the industry.

New car dealers spent $957 million in television advertising last year. Harvill said a large portion of TV commercials are cheaply-made "dollar and holler" spots featuring a loud voice pitching cars over factory footage. Park's delivery -- not soft sell, but not too aggressive -- helps give him credibility, Harvill said.

"Probably half the people watching think that he's the dealer. Very effective," said Harvill, whose Birmingham, Ala.-based business works with 55 individual dealers.

Although he works without a script, Park's spots are peppered with stock phrases like "Hey folks, Tom Park!" or "It's a buyers' market!" Park uses them like jazz musicians play riffs, repeating and tweaking them through his performances.

Production manager Bobby Walker said Park hits about 90 percent of the time. On the morning of the Fuccillo commercials, Park is able to rip through 21 commercials in an hour without a flub. This occurs even as Park's ad-libbing abilities are tested by Fuccillo, a big, extroverted man who often appears in his own commercials with Park.

The Park-Fuccillo spots are car commercial meets improv theater by way of vaudeville. Park is the affable straightman, Fuccillo the big ham, draping his meaty arms over his co-star and bellowing his trademark kicker line: "It's H-U-U-G-E!"

Fuccillo's Hyundai dealership in Syracuse serves as the backdrop not only for local commercials but spots for Fuccillo Hyundai dealerships in other cities. The patter changes slightly for each market. The biggest clue as to where they "are" is the hand-held sign printed with a phone number, which changes from commercial to commercial.

Park and the crew travel north to other Fuccillo franchises to do more commercials later in the day.

The commercials will start airing three days later. And Park moves on to other cities, pitching for Fuccillo Subaru in Las Vegas and other dealerships, talking into other cameras and selling other cars with that chipper signature line:

"Hey folks, Tom Park!"

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