By Joel Keller
SOUTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- On a sunny Wednesday in late July, Brad Benson pulls up to the offices of New Jersey 101.5, the dealer plates on his car ending with 60, the number he wore for his entire 10-year career as an offensive tackle for the New York Giants. The station is in a nondescript office building in an industrial park. This is where Benson records the radio commercials for his Hyundai dealership, and as he gingerly walks through the halls of the station -- he's almost fully recovered from recent back surgery -- he warmly greets the people who work there. The small talk they shoot back to him, though, might seem odd if you didn't know about Benson's unique ads.
"Is this one going to be another 40-foot erection?"
Benson promises anyone who asks that this ad will be as good as that one, especially because it talks about everyone's favorite political punching bag, Anthony Weiner. Even though he's confident that the ad will pass muster with both this Trenton-based talk station and his other radio client, WFAN in New York, he calls over the station's program director, Eric Johnson, to read the copy, just in case.
"I want to make sure it can run," he tells me. "I think it's funny; it's fine if you listen to it in context." Johnson gives the ad a hesitant thumbs-up.
It doesn't take long for Benson to record the spot with the help from the station's digital manager, Chris Swendeman; he stops once during the read and then restarts at a certain point, but otherwise, the ad is read in one take. After 10 years, he's got the process down pretty well:
"I'd like to say it's time for the Weiner to pull out. Now, Anthony, if you're listening, I said it's time for the Weiner to pull out of the election, not time to pull out your wiener. You say that sexting is behind you, which in itself sounds dirty, but it's time to step down. Don't think of this as a sign of weakness; no one is going to think of you as the limp Weiner. In fact, most people will think you're the biggest Weiner they've seen in a long time. But it's time to put the Weiner away."
After Swendeman inserts a soft pitch for the dealership, Benson brings it home: "So Weiner-wagging politician or not, come see us at Brad Benson Hyundai."
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Benson's dealership, in South Brunswick, N.J., is a surprising beehive of activity for a Wednesday afternoon. Ongoing construction will more or less double the size of his showroom and offices, and every table that has been jammed into the remaining space is filled with salespeople making deals with customers. As soon as I got out of my car, a salesperson was on top of me, asking if I needed any help.
The crowded hallways are lined with mementos of Benson's career: His Giants jersey from the 1986 Super Bowl season, newspaper clippings about his proudest moments, photos of himself with Hall of Famers like John Madden and Bill Parcells. His cramped office, which he shares with his company's vice president, David Cantin, and CFO, Joe Liccardi, is also hopping; as we talk, salesmen and administrative staff pop in and out, Cantin's phone rings off the hook, and Benson's oldest son, Tyler, who works at the dealership as a sales manager, sits for a chat. The office smells vaguely of long-ago-smoked cigarettes; now, a few tins of Copenhagen give Benson and whoever else wants it their nicotine buzz.
Yet Benson, 57, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, seems pretty relaxed. The only worry he expresses is whether his radio clients and Hyundai will clear the Weiner ad. "Hyundai has a new company approving ads," he says. "We have to break 'em in."
When Benson started doing these ads in 2003, his dealership wasn't even close to this busy. In fact, it was doing so poorly, they were barely able to pay their bills. "We were basically kissing our sister," he said. "We weren't making any money." His name recognition, as a Super Bowl champion and the guy who shut down Dexter Manley in the 1986 late-season game against Washington that gave the Giants the NFC East title, wasn't translating to sales. "I had people walk in here and say they're huge Giant fans, but said, 'We're not going to be able to buy a car here today because I got an offer for $150 less'" at another dealership.
So Cantin and Liccardi came up with a plan. "[They] came to me and said, 'We're not doing anything here, the place is going downhill, Hyundai is on our butt for not selling cars, let's take a shot. Let's put $100,000 out there on an advertising campaign.' And it was a make or break deal." A consultant told them to do an ad based on current events, and another consultant suggested that D.J. O'Neil, the CEO of San Francisco-based agency Hub Strategy, help Benson write it.
In the ad, Benson offered a brand new car to Saddam Hussein if he fled Iraq. The spot was so successful, according to Cantin, that "At the time, we had a stock of 150 cars, which is a three-month's supply, and we ran out."
"We had two weekends back to back where we sold so many cars, when the bank came in [to collect on their line of credit after the sales], our lot was vacant," said Benson. "'Where'd all the cars go?' We got calls from executives at Hyundai who said, 'This is not good.' And I said, 'This is real good.'"
He recorded an apology at the same time he recorded the original ad, because "we knew, but we didn't really know" what the public's reaction would be. After the publicity the campaign generated, including invective from potential customers, he ran the retraction. "I had every conservative, patriot-minded person in the world calling me up and saying 'Don't you dare take that ad off the air,'" he said. A comment line the dealership set up was jammed with thousands of messages. "Sam Donaldson called and interviewed me for his syndicated show. He wasn't calling me with honorable intentions. He said, 'It sounds like you fell on your sword.' I said, 'If you call three million dollars worth of free publicity falling on my sword, I guess I'm a dead man.'"
From there, Benson's career as a funny pitchman took off. In his ads, he tries to not take sides in an issue, especially if he's making fun of a politician. And it's not just the ones who have engaged in sexual misconduct, like Weiner or Eliot Spitzer. If he makes fun of Chris Christie, for instance, he usually pokes at the New Jersey governor's weight, prefacing any joke by saying he's a big guy himself. He'll give both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner grief for not getting things done in Congress. He'll joke about Barack Obama's ears but not his politics. "Sometimes it's hard to hold back from what I really think," Benson says, citing O'Neil as the guy who brings him back from the brink.
But he's fully aware that taking a stand isn't good for business. "To take a side is to take the fun out of it. Then I become a politician and not a salesman."
When he turns the joke on himself, sometimes getting a little risqué in the process, the ads seem to stick in people's memories. For instance, there was the series of ads he did where he took a vow of celibacy until his dealership became the top seller in the country. "That ad was pretty easy to write," he said. "The only person I have a chance of offending there is my wife. I didn't get her on board with that ad, I just kind of did it." That saga lasted for months, bringing some interesting attention to not only him, but to Lisa Benson, his wife of more than 25 years.
"I went to Giants Stadium for one of our reunion things, while that ad was running. They introduce us and I was on the sidelines. And fans were screaming to me, I mean thousands of people, 'Hey Brad, you gettin' laid yet?' And [Giants co-owner] John Mara is standing there shaking his head."
Then there is the goalpost that sits in front of his dealership. He bought the one from the home end zone of Giants Stadium as it was being demolished in 2010. His initial intention wasn't to make it a marketing tool, but to preserve it as a career memory, as the collector selling it was going to cut it up into pieces. "I thought I'd put it up at my farm, it was so nostalgic for me."
Never let it be said, though, that Benson passes up an opportunity to promote. Instead of putting the goalposts up at the central Jersey horse farm, Rainbow Run, he and his staff recorded a number of memorable commercials where Benson talked about buying the goalpost and putting it up at the dealership, alluding to his "40-foot erection," a term that his "computer guy, Larry Bailin, who's not the greatest comedian," came up with.
What won't he touch in his ads? Religion tops the list, and he has to tiptoe around how he discusses the president. "They're just extra careful with synonyms and how to approach Obama, much more than with Bush," he says of his radio clients. But the biggest subject he avoids is anything to do with hate crimes or bullying, since he was bullied as a kid growing up in Altoona, Pa. "I was big. I was 6-2, 225 in sixth grade. Seniors in high school would beat the s--- out of me. If I got new pair of shoes they'd make me walk through a creek, and the kids would beat me up for that."
With the sales and publicity that the ads bring, however, comes some undue attention. Benson tells the story of the chaos he generated in 2010 when he offered extremist preacher Terry Jones the use of a Hyundai for a year if he backed off on his threat to burn a copy of the Quran, and Jones took him up on the offer. The scene that ensued when Jones came to New Jersey to pick up the car -- after Benson convinced him to donate it to a non-denominational shelter for battered women -- made Benson briefly think that the ad went too far.
"We had Homeland Security, FBI, bomb-sniffing dogs checking everyone as they came in, checking their cars. It was crazy," he said. "That one made me think a little bit. I was concerned; you never know who will find out where I live and maybe doing something to my family. That's the only way it makes me think, 'Should I have done this?' I thought I was just being paranoid, but when I see a SWAT team guy up in the trees with a sniper rifle, I'm not being paranoid."
He also believes that the ads have put a target on his back. For instance, the creators of the JibJab animated shorts sued his dealership and others for infringement on their brand; Benson's dealership was eventually dropped from the suit. New Jersey's Attorney General's office settled with the dealership in 2011 after citing it for not indicating on their website listings for used cars whether a particular car was used as a rental. The Better Business Bureau has given the dealership a C rating based on 41 complaints filed over the last three years.
Benson figures that, with the volume of business they do, some complaints are inevitable, but they're a tiny percentage of the people who come into his dealership every month, a number he estimates as more than 3,000. "It's a really unique thing in how they work" at the BBB, Benson said. "It takes so many years for a complaint to drop off. We had to deal with Middlesex County Consumer Affairs; we had complaints going back to 10 years ago, but none since."
The not-so-double entendre that Benson uses in ads like the one about the "40-foot erection" also haven't gone unnoticed, mostly by the New York Post's sports media reporter Phil Mushnick. In various columns, Mushnick has described the ads as "vulgar" and "hideously unfunny," and has said they convey the message of "come on in and buy a car from a pig!"
Benson's response to the criticism is equally pointed. "I'd tell Phil that he shouldn't really worry about writing about my ads because people don't read the Post anymore," before acknowledging that people do read Mushnick's column online. "Maybe he needs to just grow up and live a little bit. What made him so angry?"
I emailed Mushnick for a response, which generated seven e-mails from him, the first of which included this statement: "Imagine if every few minutes someone entered one of his showrooms and began to shout vulgar, unfunny cracks to his customers and their kids. That such ads are accepted only underscores the money-desperate condition of modern media. Interesting, too, is how people such as Benson who seem so proud and eager to go low then lower in public -- happy to dump a surprise pile of crude garbage in your ears and call it marketing -- are so sensitive about themselves. Where's his sense of humor?"
But where the glare of the spotlight is most bothersome to Benson is when it comes to his family, especially his 21-year-old middle son Clint. In 2011, Clint was implicated in a fight that broke out at a house party in Millstone, N.J., but was later dropped from the case due to "insufficient evidence." Then, on March 17 of this year, he was arrested on various charges, including aggravated assault and assault by auto, after allegedly hitting someone from behind after a dispute in Branchburg, N.J. A grand jury indicted him on the charges in May.
What gets to Benson, he says, is how the media has covered his son's cases. "What has happened in this case with my son has taught me a lesson," he said. "When I read something in the press, it could be a million miles from the truth, whereas before if I read something like that, I would have thought, 'That's a dysfunctional family. That kid's really an angry child.' But I didn't have the facts to analyze that. The bottom line is, if his name was Jones, this would have never been in the paper."
Later, he goes into a few specifics about how the most recent case is being portrayed. "He's charged with having 22-caliber bullets in his truck and assault with a deadly weapon. Now if you read that you make the assumption that he had a gun in that truck. The 911 call that's on [the online story about the incident]. You heard that? When you hear a 911 call, what's the first thing you hear? You hear '911 what's your emergency?' You don't hear someone saying, 'I'm going to dial 911. I'm going to dial 911.' And then you hear them dialing the phone, and then you hear the operator. Where's the real one? Strange, right?"
The coverage of Clint's problems has been tough on Benson, because he feels he's brought his kids up the right way. He believes his appreciation of what he has, and his work ethic, has filtered down to his three children (his daughter Destini is a photographer and competes in riding competitions). The Super Bowl ring he wears on his right hand is a reminder of his accomplishments. But so are the fans.
"People will come around and bring a child with them; they're not here to buy a car, they're just here to meet me. And I take extreme honor in that," he said. "I don't think, 'Jeez, I have to get up from my desk and go out there.' I think, 'Isn't that nice that someone would take the time to drive down here to meet me?' I shake my head. I'm shocked by it, but shocked in a good way that someone would do that."
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Joel Keller is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Parade.com, TheAtlantic.com, Fast Company Co.Create, Vulture, The A.V. Club and elsewhere. He is also the co-founder of Antenna Free TV.