Minnesota Ford dealer takes up John Oliver on challenge, makes epic TV commercial

The intersection between automotive news and the mainstream media is usually rather cringe-worthy for car folk, due to lack of proper context (not to mention an interest in a nuanced discussion). You’d think it would get even worse when a local car dealership is under the media’s microscope, but don’t worry, what we have here isn’t the latest update on the Reagor-Dkyes scandal. Instead it’s political commentator/comedian John Oliver, taking a break from his usual blend of topical satire and socioeconomic deep dives to poke fun at uninspired car dealership advertising on local TV stations.

On a previous episode of his HBO Series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Oliver put a spotlight on the shocking lack of creativity among local car dealership advertisements. (Several commercials utilized the same “I’m in a pickle” shtick, in which the salesman is wearing a literal pickle mascot costume. For real.) He concluded by offering a unique script for a local car dealership to use, promising “it will pass broadcast standards in your area” but insisted that “you have to agree to some simple terms, the main one being you have to agree to produce this exactly as it is written, and you can’t read it before you agree.”

The end result?  A brief update, posted on Last Week Tonight’s YouTube channel. Keep in mind this is an HBO production, so the content below is PG-13 and not intended for general audiences.

The folks at Zumbrota Ford in Zumbrota, Minnesota, certainly wowed Oliver and his audience; this video has well over 2 million views as of this writing. Clearly it was a success, which makes me wonder just what kind of dealership would accept such a risky challenge, especially in this world of milquetoast, homogenized marketing and OEM brand standards.

Zumbrota Ford

Turns out the folks gambling with their media budget have a good online reputation. Online reviews and a website with a heartwarming “For the people” video are one thing, and Zumbrota’s Facebook page even goes as far to suggest they are a “Dealer for the People.” This notion appears to be evergreen in their marketing, not just a fad to comfort people in times of need, so I gave Zumbrota Ford a ring to confirm my suspicions.

I asked for the guy in the pickle suit, a gentleman named Steve Johnson. To my surprise he was both ready and willing to speak to me at length about the experience with Last Week Tonight.

Steve Johnson not only has (at least) four years of experience this month as a pickle impersonator, he’s been in the retail car business for a long time—selling Fords for over 49 years—and has owned his own dealership for 33 years. As a small business owner, he prides himself in getting involved in all aspects of his operation, from cleaning bathrooms to helping close deals for his sales staff. Johnson describes himself as “The guy that does the things no one else wants to do,” but his kindness to a total stranger on the phone was beyond impressive. And he’s even got the vintage car guy cred, with his personal taste leaning toward Klockau-worthy classics—there’s a low-mile 1976 Ford Thunderbird with the rare Creme and Gold luxury decor group in his stable.

In the interest of not wasting a business owner’s time, my chat with Mr. Johnson was short and to the point. He gleaned the TV pickle theme from a marketing group filled with like-minded dealers across the country. When Last Week Tonight (lightheartedly) put him on blast, he discussed their offer with his daughter and gladly took it on. Johnson has no regrets and speaks fondly of the experience, saying this was “in the spirit of what we do: We are unique, we always try to be interesting and entertaining.”

Zumbrota Ford
Zumbrota Ford

Indeed, the entertainment factor cannot be understated, and Johnson suggests Last Week Tonight’s commercial helps his business by not messing with his “For the People” messaging. More to the point, it indirectly proves his mission of not hollering about low prices on people’s screens, of not committing to things the dealership cannot do, and to differentiate his business from the local competition. Hard to argue with that!

But what really impressed me was Steve Johnson’s encyclopedic knowledge of Ford Motor Company products, paired with a brilliant way to entice people into buying a car from Zumbrota Ford. Once he learned of my penchant for collecting Lincoln vehicles of my childhood, he casually offered this creampuff on his lot. And he knew, without hesitation to my inquiry, that it wasn’t a Signature Series trim level.

Zumbrota Ford
Zumbrota Ford

Nicely done, Steve. I better book a flight up there to Minnesota just to shake your hand!

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