Wednesday, July 2, 2014

You Couldn't Better Fretter

Before the commercial airwaves on television were taken over by ads for prescription drugs, lawyers and car insurance companies, there was the wild and crazy pitchman.

Every city had them.

The products being pumped were usually electronics, appliances and used cars.

The ads were low on productions costs---usually all we saw was the pitchman screaming into the camera with an occasional glimpse at what he was hawking.

The emphasis was on the supposed insanity of the pitchman, because the deals were so good, you see.

New York had Crazy Eddie, who pitched electronic gizmos while shrieking maniacally at the viewer.

And Detroit had Ollie Fretter.

Fretter, who passed away Sunday at age 91, blanketed the TV and radio ad space with commercials for his appliance store, starting in the 1960s and continuing for about 30 years. He promised five pounds of free coffee if he couldn't beat your best deal.

The appliance wars in Detroit were hot in the 1970s and '80s. Fretter went up against Highland Appliance's creative ads on TV, and Adray Appliance didn't do as much TV advertising, but Mike Adray was in the game. He sponsored lots of little league baseball and hockey teams to help keep his name on people's lips.

We fell in love with the items that Fretter and Highland advertised on television. It was a time when microwave ovens, stereos, color TVs and newfangled refrigerators/freezers hit the market with gusto.

At the forefront was Ollie Fretter, who didn't scream, but who was very prevalent in all his ads, never afraid to look silly and foolish on camera as he shamelessly plugged his metro Detroit locations.


Ollie Fretter, ever shameless

But it was the tag line about the free coffee that became iconic, not unlike Mr. Belvedere's "We do good work," which ended all of those home improvement commercials.

Fretter was hardly the only Detroit-area pitchman on TV at the time.

There was Irving Nussbaum for New York Carpet World ("The BETTER carpet people"); the aforementioned Belvedere; Mel Farr "Superstar" (Ford dealership); and a host of other car dealers, like Walt Lazar Chevrolet and Bill Rowan Oldsmobile.

These days, law offices are all over the dial, but of course it would be unseemly if those types got wacky on the air.

There was no shame in screaming about a steal of a deal on appliances and used cars back in Fretter's day.

In fact, we all waited to see what Ollie's next spot would bring. Each one seemed to want to outdo the previous in terms of silliness.

Fretter shuttered the last of his stores in the early-1990s. His was one of many dominoes to fall around that time as store after store went out of business, outdone by national, big box retail chains.

I always wondered if Ollie ever gave away any free coffee.


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