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Minnesota car dealer takes comedian John Oliver's commercial challenge

Steve Johnson, who has owned Zumbrota Ford for 22 years, is known for his loud and goofy car commercials that feature him and often his daughter wearing silly costumes. His dealership is making headlines this week, because he agreed to shoot a free commercial script by John Oliver of HBO's "Last Week Tonight." Oliver described the commercial as a “Tense, domestic psychodrama” about the end of marriage and an all-wheel drive minivan from Zumbrota Ford.

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A screenshot of Steve Johnson in the Nickel Pickle Sale commercial for Zumbrota Ford. Contributed / YouTube
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ZUMBROTA, Minn. -- Zumbrota’s “Dealer for the People” is reaching more people than ever after making an “unhinged” commercial written by comedian John Oliver.

“Our phones are blowing up,” Zumbrota Ford owner Steve Johnson said Monday morning, Oct. 18, after his new commercial was launched online by Oliver, the host of the award-winning “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO.

Johnson, who has owned Zumbrota Ford for 22 years, is known for his loud and goofy car commercials that feature him and often his daughter wearing silly costumes, like pickle suits.

So how did Johnson end up filming a 90-second “tense, domestic psychodrama” about the end of a marriage and an all-wheel drive minivan that was written by Oliver and his team?

'Last Week Tonight' segment (Warning: Some language may be unsuitable for all viewers):

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“I was somewhat familiar with the show … He did a bit a few months ago on his TV show kind of lampooning car dealers that all did crazy ads like me, but we're all kind of similar,” said Johnson.

Johnson explained that there is a national “peer group” of dealerships involving marketing, which is why so many dealers use the same script for commercials.

Oliver showed clips of car dealerships from all over the country using the same script involving pickle costumes and a doctor’s order to “turn it down a notch or our hearts will explode.” Johnson previously ran the pickle ads and he brought it back in September in preparation for the launch of Oliver’s commercial.

“What does a pickle have to do with selling cars? I don’t know, but it gets people’s attention and it rhymes with a nickel,” said Johnson.

At the end of his show in June, Oliver issued a dare to dealerships. He offered a free car commercial script, but the dealer would need to agree to shoot the TV commercial without any changes. Plus they would have to agree to the condition before even reading the script.

“We raised our hand. I think we were chosen, partially, because no one has ever heard of Zumbrota before,” said Johnson.

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The script was for a 90-second commercial, which is three times the length of Zumbrota Ford’s usual 30-second ads.

While Oliver’s usual Sunday night show was on a break this week, “Last Week Tonight” posted a short online report about the Zumbrota commercial.

“It’s like a soap opera TV commercial. They liked it. We liked it. It was a lark. I don’t know if it will sell any cars,” Johnson said with a laugh on Monday.

Instead of the usual cartoonish commercial with lots of yelling, the Oliver piece spotlights a couple talking about getting a divorce and how their new all-wheel drive minivan from Zumbrota Ford didn’t fit in the garage.

Long-time Zumbrota Ford employees -- sales manager Jared Maes and approval manager Dorinda Houglum -- volunteered to take on the parts of the troubled couple.

It wraps up with Steve Johnson in his now-familiar pickle costume saying, “Couples therapy. Shumples therapy. A new car is what you want.”

Oliver gushed with compliments about Johnson’s commercial that went above and beyond the script.

“We put you in a pickle and you did something that truly made me feel like my heart was going to explode,” he said at the close of the report.

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The ad is scheduled to air in the southeastern Minnesota market this week.

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