Leavin’ The Light On
The strange, fascinating career of Tom Bodett, who parlayed NPR radio essays into the longest-running spokesperson gig around. Not that it’s all he does.
Hey all, Ernie here with another slice of life from my pal David Buck. This time, he gives us the story of the Great American Motel Chain, and the man whose voice defines that story.
Today in Tedium: You may recognize the voice of Tom Bodett as the whimsical narrator of those hilarious Motel 6 radio spots that have been floating around the airwaves for the past thirty years. Today’s Tedium seeks to explore the career of the man behind the voice and how he helped take what was essentially a discount motel chain and helped change its image through what AdAge magazine calls “the greatest ads of all time.” — David @ Tedium
Today's GIF comes from a particularly bad dub of a Motel 6 ad.
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The original price of a single night’s stay at the first Motel 6. Nowadays, there are over 1,200 Motel 6’s across the country and the prices are a bit higher—$45.99 per night at the local establishment—but the same basic tenets apply.
The largest owned-and-operated hotel chain in North America
From its humble beginnings in Santa Barbara, California in 1962, Motel 6 has always been at the forefront of promising clean, comfortable rooms and the one thing most weary travelers seek—a good night’s rest.
The need for a budget-based, comfortable motel arose in the early 60s when places like Holiday Inn began renovating their locations and slowly transformed their brands from budget motel chains to something slightly more upscale.
Until 1994, Motel 6 ran all of its buildings. After that, the chain allowed franchises across the country and was eventually acquired by the French multinational corporation Accor.
The chain has remained largely the same for most of its life. In 2015, Motel 6 expanded, remodeled and renovated many of its locations, with a new ad campaign to accompany the changes.
Though times have changed for the company, one thing has remained constant from the mid-80s onward—the ads.
“For the record, and at the risk of exposing myself as a complete fraud, we don’t actually leave the light on for you. We just say that to be friendly. You have to turn it on yourself once you enter the room. There. I’ve said it. Hmm ... I feel oddly peaceful, unburdened.”
— Tom Bodett, in a 2007 AdAge interview. The Motel 6 spokesperson improvised the famous phrase “we’ll leave the light on for ya” shortly after doing a script test run on the original advertising campaign. It stuck and has been a constant presence in the ads ever since.
A Motel 6 TV commercial from 1999. Yeah, that's Bodett’s voice.
Motel 6 made ads for the everyman—and updated those ads with the times
When The Richards Group, a Dallas-based ad agency, won Motel 6 as a client in 1986, the company’s creative director, David Fowler, knew just the guy for the campaign. Fowler was a fan of Tom Bodett’s mid-‘80s NPR commentaries about being a home builder in Homer, Alaska, and decided Bodett’s voice and attitude were “one he could employ some day.”
Per Bodett, the ads were tested in California and Texas in December of 1986, then rolled out across the country the following year. And the result is one of the radio dial’s most familiar voices.
While the company’s early ads took lighthearted jabs at the seriousness of the competition, they reinforced the idea that Motel 6 is the everyman’s lodging—a comfortable place to sleep without all of the other “nonsense” associated with luxury hotels. In that same AdAge interview from 2007, Tom points out, "you don't need to have art on your motel room walls because your eyes are closed anyway."
Later ads follow a similar theme, adjusting to the culture of the times, including podcasting in 2005.
It is this timeliness that makes the ads work so well. Over the years, we’ve heard about Y2K, mushrooms, how to save a buck, vampires (both standard and sparkling), trends like planking and hashtags and more recently, a humorous take on millennial lingo.
As Bodett says in the latter ad, “we’ll keep it lit for ya.” I’m still not quite sure what “on fleek” means, but I have to hand it to them for keeping up with the times. The Westwood One Radio Network awarded both first and second place to the Richards Group Agency in 2017 for these Super Bowl radio spots.
The Richardson Agency has handled the Motel 6 ad campaign for its entire run. The campaign originator, David Fowler, eventually departed the agency, handing the reins over to its current operator, Chris Smith—who got into advertising and joined the Richards Group because of the Motel 6 campaign.
Per Bodett, he was once heavily involved in the script-writing process, but has backed off a bit in recent years. Those in charge of the campaign have always given him room to have fun and improvise with the content in the studio, so that’s exactly what they did.
In an interview with Tedium, Bodett sums it up quite succinctly, “Besides the incredibly talented creative people at The Richards Group, this loose grip on our recording process is one of the biggest reasons the campaign is so easy on the ears and has stayed fun and successful for over 30 years.”
“I didn’t expect to be doing it 17 months later. I think everyone will know when it’s over, but it never seems to be over.”
— Bodett, in a 2003 AdWeek interview. At that point, the campaign was 17 years old. Now at over 30 years old, it still has the same spokesperson and follows the same basic format as it did at the beginning. Recently, a television ad traced the evolution of how families travel, with the destination of Motel 6 remaining constant through the years.
Personal anecdote: How the Motel 6 experience lives up to the ads
It wasn’t the best experience I’ve had at a motel, nor was it the worst. Between Dec. 31, 2003 and Jan. 2, 2004, I worked for a local television station as an assistant engineer. At the time, our crew did an overnight for a professional bull-riding event. This being Colorado—where such things are popular, multi-day affairs—we ended up being forced to find a place to stay in a hurry. The station was cheap and decided put the crew up at a local Motel 6 in Longmont, Colorado, just north of Denver.
I remember the bed being comfortable enough, but the room was cramped and a bit disorganized. The “continental breakfast” consisted of generic cereal and stale danishes, but at least they had a decent cup of coffee.
The motel advertised cable, but our room’s TV was on the fritz. It didn’t matter, though, because we got to the motel so late, the only thing we wanted to do was sleep. It wasn’t anything special and I did get a good night’s sleep for a reasonable price. I would definitely go back, if the need arose. Therein lies the genius of ads.
The ads always make Motel 6 seem like a warm, inviting place to stay, largely because of Bodett’s delivery, wit and sincerity throughout each spot. And he is sincere—Bodett told AdAge in 2007 that be uses Motel 6 himself during his travels.
The phrasing and humor in these spots go a long way to bring brand value to the listener. One listens to the ads and hears Motel 6 depicted as a smart, economical alternative to a higher end establishment, rather than touted as cheap lodging.
The portrayal of Motel 6 as a decently-priced alternative to its competition, creates a sense of value for the consumer. Through the commercials we learn—somewhat humorously—that Motel 6 includes various amenities (free Wi-Fi, anyone?), allows pets, and welcomes all weary travelers, regardless of social status and background. At least that’s my impression.
There appears to be a neat juxtaposition of ideas and relatability in these ads that appeal to people from all walks of life, growing the brand and cementing Motel 6 as the place with the highest brand recognition of any economy lodging brand.
The ads are so beloved, that even bad reviews of Motel 6 apologize directly to Bodett.
“There were a number of years where people thought I owned the motel chain—there’s still some of that—and that left some people confused as to what I thought I was doing publishing books and voicing cartoons, but it’s never been a burden to me.”
— Bodett, in an email interview. Bodett has done a wide variety of work outside of the Motel 6 advertising campaign, including a number of books (along with corresponding versions on tape, of course), a handful of TV-narration credits, and a lot of work for NPR.
Five unusual places where Tom Bodett made his pop-culture presence known
- “Good Idea, Bad Idea”: This animated segment of the ‘90s cartoon Animaniacs followed the antics of Mr. Skullhead—a skeleton in a blue suit, hat and bowtie—as he stumbled his way through some entertaining misadventures. Bodett also provided the narration for the Animaniacs film Wakko’s Wish.
- The “city” of Rockport: An episode of The Adventure Zone, a popular Dungeons & Dragons podcast, features Rockport, a locale where every citizen is a clone of Tom Bodett. The Bodett army helps the characters on their journey. Sadly, the Bodett clones are not voiced by the man himself.
- The career of Jewel: Bodett once gave a struggling Alaskan-born singer named Jewel Kilcher a $5,000 check—a check that that helped her get back on her feet, and possibly launched her multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated career.
- ”Manger 6”: On his 1994 album I am Santa Claus, radio personality and parodist Bob Rivers took a Christmas-themed stab at Bodett’s style. “Hi, this is Tom Bodett from Manger 6,” the skit begins. “We know you’ve been traveling a whole lot this season and been told there’s no room at the inn …” It continues in the tradition of the Motel 6 voice over style we all know and love. Rivers reportedly hired a Bodett impersonator to perform the piece. In total dedication to the parody, it wraps up with the line, “we’ll even leave a star out for ya.” A fitting tribute indeed.
- Milsford Spring Water: In a 1996 Saturday Night Live sketch, Bodett provided the narration for commercial featuring a variety of spring water that gained its purity through a murderous rampage. Will Ferrell is a monster.
Before Tom Bodett was a creator, he was a carpenter. Now, he’s a regular renaissance man.
Tom Bodett began his career through a series of fortunate events. Before he became the spokesperson for Motel 6, Tom Bodett made his living as a carpenter in Homer, Alaska. He began submitting essays to his local paper and doing commentaries about life in the little town for his local radio station, KBBI. In 1984, Bodett sent some of them to National Public Radio and—to his surprise—the NPR show All Things Considered chose to play them.
On the subject of NPR, Bodett recalls, “ATC was and is their flagship afternoon news program, which in those days, also featured voices from around the country talking about … whatever. I sent my collection of whatevers down with no great expectations and was delighted when they aired them all and asked for more.”
Bodett’s work for National Public Radio has made him a household among NPR’s listenership and if you listen regularly, you may recognize his voice on NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, one of America’s most popular panel shows.
Bodett says there are only a few requirements for making an appearance on the show—show up sober, rested and ready to play. Basic knowledge of that week’s news is helpful, but not strictly necessary, and it’s all about being funny, whether you know the answers or not. He leaves us with some sage advice:
“As I try to teach my own children, it’s better to be funny, than right.”
“Writing is hard and easy to quit. Sometimes I do.”
— Bodett, discussing his creative process and his next possible book project. He doesn’t like to jinx himself by making bold declarations about upcoming works—just in case they don’t go as planned.
Before becoming the spokesperson for Motel 6, Tom Bodett wrote a series of hilarious books. The fiorst of these, The End of the Road, follows the lives of some of Homer, Alaska’s most colorful characters and is worth its weight in humor and whimsy. He would go on to write several more books about his former hometown and his wry, humorous observations of everyday life.
Never content to rest on his Motel 6 laurels, Bodett even tried his hand at stand up comedy in 2011. He’s been a regular contributor to the online version of NPR’s Car Talk since 2012.
Not only that, but he is very much a family man—he once said “no” to appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show to promote one of his books, preferring to spend some quality time with his son instead.
Bodett relocated to Vermont several years ago. Ever the carpenter, he has a fully functioning wood shop at home, where he tends to spend as much time as possible, between gigs and spending time with his sons—something he holds in high regard.
He isn’t just a family man, cartoon narrator, Motel 6 spokesperson, author and NPR panelist—he’s a lifelong woodworker, something that’s been ever present in his life.
“I love making furniture out of the native hardwoods of Vermont,” Bodett says, “This stuff will outlast anything I’ve ever said or written and that makes me happy.”