On such occasions as Halloween, masquerades and fanciful kids’ birthday parties, witches, ghosts, skeletons and other alarming creatures roam the land. And, of course, there are cowboys, brave knights, ETs, lovable bears, monkeys and small dinosaurs. But in Portland, Ore., there are also kids wearing very unusual masks, masks that make them look like a 58-year-old appliance-store owner with a geeky crew cut. These singularly disguised small fry are part of a phenomenon unique to the Pacific Northwest-Tom Peterson impersonators.
The largest independent TV retailer in his state, Peterson is Oregon’s answer to the East Coast’s Crazy Eddie or L.A.’s ubiquitous used-car dealer, Cal Worthington. Peterson’s haircut is known throughout the state. It’s the kind of spiky flattop that people stopped paying for after the ’50s and it is now available largely to members of the Marine Corps. It’s also available every Sunday afternoon in summer-for free-at Tom Peterson’s electronics stores.
The Halloween mask and the free haircut are just two of the promotions that have made Tom Peterson the best-known pitchman in Oregon. Tom Peterson has also given away Tom Peterson posters, Tom Peterson coffee mugs, Tom Peterson T-shirts, Tom Peterson balloons and Tom Peterson coloring books for children. His malleable mug can be seen on giant billboards that grace his four buildings, on the side of his delivery trucks-and on a special minting of silver coins that he’s giving away to celebrate his 25th anniversary in business. Peterson also writes and stars in his own TV commercials.
The gregarious George Gobel look-alike started doing his own ads in 1968, long before it was the rage. “I was so bad, I got off the air for a time,” he says. “Then I discovered what the problem was: My ad guy wrote the spots the way he would talk, not the way I would talk. So I started my own in-house agency. Tom Peterson became Tom Peterson.” In his most memorable spot, which aired between midnight and 3 A.M., he yelled, “Wake up! Wake up!” at would-be customers who had the temerity to nod off.
The son of a government meat grader and a housewife, Peterson was born in St. Paul. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he first affected the hairstyle he has favored ever since. After 10 years as a production supervisor for Green Giant in Minnesota (“My job was getting the right number of peas in the can”), he decided to change direction, and, in 1963, he and his wife, Gloria, bought a color TV franchise in Portland for $10,000. He grossed $400,000 the first year. Since then, he has expanded to four outlets with 150 employees. Last year Tom Peterson Inc. grossed $30 million. “We made it,” says Peterson, “but it’s a wonder. I knew nothing about the retail business, and my wife knew nothing about bookkeeping. We just worked things out as they came up.”
The Petersons live in a four-bedroom house alongside an extinct volcano in the Happy Valley section of Portland. A tireless worker, Tom rises at 3:30 or 4 in the morning and is in his office by 6. But the avid hunter, fisherman and gardener also knows how to relax. “When I leave the store, the shade goes down. Zap! It’s over. I don’t give work another thought. I’m in bed by 9:30, and the next morning I get up and start all over again.”
Peterson makes no apologies for his self-promotion: “Some people say I’m an egomaniac. So what? If you’re going to spend a lot of money on advertising, you might as well spend it advertising yourself.” Yet for all his antics, Peterson doesn’t like to be compared with other hyperactive TV pitchmen. “I is who I is,” he says. “The Tom Peterson on the TV commercials and the guy down at the store and the man who sits on his patio with his dog and a beer—we’re all the same guy.” And Oregonians would know them anywhere.
—Michael Neill, and Suzanne Adelson in Portland