Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN)

April 8, 2012

Making a statement -- Eye-catching outdoor ads give some Memphis businesses an edge
   Story and Photographs by John Sale
Edition: Final
Section: Business
Page: C1

Dale Wilson thinks big. Really big.

During his 40 years in the fireworks importing business, he acquired two smiling giants and built his own massive rocket ship.

The president of American Fireworks Co. in Walls, Miss., says that the two- to three-story-high icons draw customers to his seasonal fireworks tents.

"You see a figure that large and it gets your attention."

His largest giant, a 27-foot fiberglass man, spreads his arms over U.S. 61 near the Tennessee-Mississippi state line. It wasn't always selling fireworks. Formerly known as Gutterman, this giant had to be disassembled into three pieces, cleaned, repaired, painted and moved on trailers to its present location.

Wilson said there used to be many such giants holding grocery sacks at Giant Food Stores. Most were destroyed. Preserving a part of history makes him happy, and of course, "It's good advertising."

Wilson is not alone in using creative, funny or even inspirational figures and messages to reach customers.

Take the giant rat of Elvis Presley Boulevard, for instance.

"He's not a rat," said Carese Rice, owner of Atomic Pest Control Co., Inc. at 2371 Elvis Presley. "He's too cute to be a rat."

The "he" Rice refers to is a mouse - a 1,200-pound fiberglass mouse standing 11 feet tall, with 3-foot whiskers, an 11-foot tail and holding an 8-foot high wedge of cheese, slightly chewed. Perched atop the roof of Rice's business a couple miles north of Graceland, the mammoth mouse is hard to miss.

"He's just real famous," she said.

People from all over the world stop to take the rodent's picture. Some want T-shirts, or other mouse mementos. It has been featured in national magazines and on websites dedicated to roadside attractions, as well as in a Zippy the Pinhead newspaper comic.

But it wasn't always a roof rat (or mouse). Rice's father, Stanley Lester Tubbs, who started the business in 1958, first saw it at the old Crosstown Theater on Cleveland. It was a prop for the 1971 movie "Willard," starring Bruce Davison and about a million rats (or large mice).

Tubbs bought the mouse, replete with light-up eyes and a speaker mouth, and used a trailer to haul it around town on a personal pest control public information campaign. But another variety of pest halted his efforts.

Local fraternities regularly kidnapped the mouse as a prank. It wasn't hard to find a missing 11-foot tall rodent, but Tubbs got tired of retrieving it and put it on top of the building in 1978. It has been gathering attention - and fresh coats of paint due to an algae infestation - for decades.

General contractor Floyd Newcomb, owner of Ranaco LLC Roofing at 4226 Clarke, also appreciates scale in advertising, but he opted for a long message rather than a big one.

Newcomb drives a 30-foot-long stretch limousine with both halves of a 40-foot extension ladder mounted on top. His business' name and phone number are emblazoned on the sides.

"Usually I get a call when I'm driving it," he said, citing a customer who called from his car after seeing Newcomb on Germantown Parkway. "I followed him to his house for an estimate."

Newcomb already had the idea for the stretch ad campaign when he saw a 1995 Lincoln Town Car for sale in a Millington yard. His mobile billboard has been on the road for the past two months.

"It's incredible," he said. "It paid for itself in the first month. People cannot help but look at it." He estimates that 400 to 500 admirers have taken its picture.

"I have yet to pass a group of people who didn't go from a straight face to a smile," Newcomb said.

Dewayne Johnson, owner of DJ's Custom Welding and Designs, agrees that humoring customers is good business.

While several Memphis glass repair companies offer to "look at your crack," Johnson's business at 2992 Summer offers to weld it.

"People come in here to get their crack welded all the time," he said. "Everybody likes a good joke now and then."

Parish Transmissions at 699 Linden offers to "get your shift together."

The sign on Krosstown Kleaners at 1400 Madison reads, "Jesus is Lord, check web site for special." It used to read, "Jesus is Lord, starch pants, $3 prepay." A Google search for "lord starch pants" reveals a variety of pictures and comments wags have posted about the sign.

But the folks at Krosstown Kleaners are not joking.

Theresa Berryman, who owns the cleaners with her husband, said, "It's the truth. That's what we believe."

Berryman explained that many customers see the "Jesus is Lord" message and come into the business to say, "Thank you, I needed that."

She said, "It's not so much an inspiration for the business. It's more for people who are looking for something."

Whether it's big inspiration or a big mouse, if a customer looks for something in Memphis, there are creative business owners all over town delivering both services and smiles.

- John Sale: (901) 529-2489


"It paid for itself in the first month. People cannot help but look at it."

Floyd Newcomb, on the 30-foot stretch limousine that is a rolling billboard for his roofing company