Pitchman enjoys his work


Saturday, June 21st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Eyes bulging, arms spinning like an insane wristwatch, Johnny Ross stares desperately through the television screen into Tulsa living rooms, his mouth running constantly.

``If you don't come see me . . .''

All of Tulsa knows where this pitch is going, but each time Ross manages to raise the tension level by hanging off the edge of a couch or wearing a hard hat and standing on a raised scaffold.

Will he fall before the 30 seconds is up? Will something fall on him? ``. . . I can't save you any money.''

Relief.

Johnny Ross, the frantic pitchman for Four-Day Furniture, has turned a rapid spiel, idiosyncratic hand gestures and an appearance of dangerous distraction into Tulsa celebrity. But at home in Norman, Ross is not the nutty guy whose got-ta, got-ta, got-ta get you in the front door.

Sometimes he's quiet, often reserved, maybe contemplative.

He likes gardening and lives his dream of ranching horses.

Oh, and he's afraid of heights.

While Ross is working on the greater questions of life, here are a few answers to the lesser ones: No, he doesn't own the store.

Yes, he is paid for what he does.

No, he doesn't work from a script.

``I started doing commercials to sell my own furniture,'' Ross said.

Soon owners across the country wanted Johnny Ross as their spokesman.

A native of Oklahoma City, Ross grew up in the state and Texas.

He began his career in Oklahoma City selling central air conditioners and eventually started a partnership that liquidated retail stores nationwide.

Over 15 years, Ross and his partner bought about 40 stores, liquidated the inventory, and split the profits. During that time, Ross started doing commercials for his own stores.

He discovered that humor was the best way for a stocky bald guy to sell furniture.

He shot commercials stating he was the nation's largest liquidator with the bottom of the screen disclaimer ``over 300 pounds.''

For Four-Day Furniture, he'll encourage customers to ``take the slightly dangerous trip to the north side.''

``Last year, more people were attacked by sharks in Oklahoma than were mugged at Four-Day Furniture,'' Ross points out.

Ross eventually got tired of the liquidating business and started only shooting commercials, which he has been doing for the past 12 years.

Three years ago, Ross was contacted by a Louisiana business owner to help him liquidate his store. They shot a few commercials and business dramatically increased profits. The owner never liquidated and Ross has been doing commercials for him ever since.

Clarence James, the owner of Four-Day Furniture, is a friend of Ross' who comes in once a month to shoot commercials.

``He is the thrust of our advertising programs,'' James said. ``He's just annoying enough to get your attention but not annoying enough to drive you plum up the wall. The whole idea is to get your attention, not really sell anything.''

James said he sells the same brands as other stores in town, but lower advertising costs and overhead equal lower costs.

He said many people will come into the store and ask for Ross, with about 60 percent of them twirling their arms.

James politely tells him Ross is just the pitchman.

``We try to make friends out of our customers,'' James said. ``Johnny is a way to start to do that.''

Jim Cagley, marketing professor at the University of Tulsa, said the key to Ross' success does not come from people's love or hate, but memory.

``He has broken through the commodity clutter and is so annoying that people will remember him forever,'' Cagley said.

Cagley uses Ross as an example in his marketing classes. He said that through name recognition, Ross draws people into stores.

``How many furniture stores do you know of around town?'' Cagley asked. ``One. Four-Day Furniture.''

Ross' face is known to Oklahomans and people nationwide. About once a week, he travels to various spots across the country to do commercials selling television satellites, cars and emu oil.

It's not really work to him. He's just having fun with friends.

Ross said he thinks his marketing success comes from being different from the beautiful person image that appears on most commercials.

``You see a short, fat, bald guy bulging his eyes out, you're going to watch the commercial,'' Ross said.

Ross attributes his humor to Rodney Dangerfield, the king of one-liners.

``Call me anything, but _ call me'' is printed on his business card, with a picture of his bug-eyed smiling face.

His trademark arm-swing comes from a commercial he did in Texas. He would twirl his arm when he said ``Loop'' in the business' address, 1212 Loop 12. He said it was so annoying and catchy that he has been doing it ever since.

Off screen, the 56-year-old lives on a ranch with his wife of 14 years, Denise, and two quarter horses. He jokingly said living with a barrel racer isn't easy.

``If you have the option of that or a woman on drugs, take the woman on drugs,'' Ross said. ``It's cheaper.''

For now, Ross' career in advertising has no end in sight.

``I'm gonna retire as soon as I get enough money,'' Ross said.

But Ross said he has recently started exploring other options.

He would like to start a syndicated gardening show, possibly nude, in Oklahoma City, working with a nursery owner for whom Ross does commercials.

He has also been asked to be a color commentator for an upstart wrestling league. He said he is enticed by the opportunity to poke fun at the wrestlers and one other thing.

``There are these the two attractive bodybuilding women that would stand next to me the whole time and be my bodyguards,'' Ross said.

Ross said he has enjoyed becoming a semi-celebrity.

Last October, he was a presenter at the Spot Music Awards.

Small audiences gather for commercial shoots.

People recognize him in restaurants and bars.

Regardless of where someone is, being around Johnny Ross is bound to equal a good time.

As the guy on the commercial say, ``You'll have more fun than a fat man in a donut shop.''