HBO'S 'Last week tonight' was behind this viral Ford dealer ad

Following a challenge by John Oliver, a small-town Minnesota dealership agreed to make the spot, script unseen

Published On
Oct 22, 2021

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A small-town Minnesota dealership known for its wacky commercials got an assist on its latest TV ad from the writers of HBO's "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver."

The store, Zumbrota Ford, was featured on the late-night show in June during a segment about multiple dealerships using a single advertising company for TV scripts and often producing nearly identical ads. Oliver concluded the segment by offering a one-of-a-kind script written by the "Last Week Tonight" team for free to any dealership that agreed to produce the commercial before reading the script.

Zumbrota Ford accepted the challenge and filmed a 90-second spot about a failing marriage that ended with owner Steve Johnson appearing in the same pickle costume from his ad in the original "Last Week Tonight" segment. The commercial is airing in Minnesota this week and was uploaded to the show's YouTube channel as a "web exclusive" video. It had racked up nearly 3 million views as of Thursday morning.

The stunt, which drew a Twitter shoutout from Ford CEO Jim Farley, already has led to some direct sales.

Johnson told Automotive News that a business owner from Oregon called to buy an F-150, and a brother and sister who drove from an hour away after seeing the video left with a pair of Maverick pickups.

"Our Internet and telephone leads are just blowing up; it's crazy," Johnson, whose store is about 60 miles southeast of Minneapolis, said in an interview. "People from all over the country are on our website and trying to get more information."

The store's general sales manager and finance director acted in the commercial, which was filmed in Johnson's home kitchen.

While Oliver did not identify the ad company that created the pickle script so many dealers used, Johnson said his dealership gets get ideas (like the pickle skit)  from Gravitational Marketing in Orlando, which supplies them to a number of dealers. He said they typically use a local TV station in nearby Rochester, Minnesota to film their commercials (including this one) and add special effects.

Johnson admitted he had never heard of "Last Week Tonight" before the segment but said his godson texted him that the store had been mentioned. When he watched the episode and saw Oliver's dare, he told his staff to contact the show.

"It was kind of outlandish; we had to follow their script exactly," Johnson said. "They made a promise there was nothing illegal, immoral or offensive. Other than that, we had to go on faith."

In fact, Johnson said he wasn't thrilled when he first saw the script, though he's very pleased with the final result.

"The first thing I said was, 'This is not going to sell cars, and it's 90 seconds long. This is a real commitment,' " he said. "A commercial should say why buy from me and why buy now. This commercial had none of those things. But the people responded in spite of that, and it's just been a hoot."

Michael Martinez is a reporter for Automotive News