Portland’s Iconic Pitchman and Beloved Showman

Tom Peterson’s trademark flat-top image was everywhere in Portland – on alarm clocks, wristwatches and coffee mugs. And Tom Peterson was a constant presence on TV, inviting people to come to his “happy place to buy."

Tom Peterson’s trademark flat-top image was everywhere in Portland – on alarm clocks, wristwatches and coffee mugs. And Tom Peterson was a constant presence on TV, inviting people to come to his “happy place to buy."

Tom Peterson is easily the most recognizable pitchman for his own Portland brand of retail appliance, furniture and electronics stores. While his branding style may have seemed corny, it worked.

Peterson, who died last month at 86, was instantly recognizable because of his trademark flat-top haircut, his homemade TV ads and his favorite, highly inflected catch phrase, "FREE is a very good price.”

Peterson was more than just a pitchman, though. You could call him a true showman. He lived his brand, often greeting customers on his showroom floor with a friendly handshake as well as talking to them via his TV ads. He didn’t high-hat people. He knew his customers were typical working class Oregonians who wanted a value from someone they trusted.

Peterson was very engaging in person. Taller than he seemed on television, Peterson was anything but a self-absorbed celebrity. He was down to earth, even when he was TOM Peterson, the TV personality beckoning you to come to “the happy place to buy.”

Peterson’s legacy is that brands need to be personal. In today’s world, that means finding a way to engage customers. In Peterson’s heyday, it meant being the face of a brand that was as familiar to customers as cloudy days in Portland. People woke up to alarm clocks with Tom Peterson’s face, they wore his wristwatches and they drank morning coffee from mugs with his and his wife Gloria’s picture that marked the couple’s 50th anniversary.

You never were at a loss to know what Peterson was saying, but he didn’t shout. He used schtick to get and stay noticed. One of his gimmicks was “Wake up” ads that touted his stores staying open from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. to serve insomniacs and the curious.

Peterson was best man at a wedding officiated by beloved local professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. He gave away Halloween masks in his image, which he printed in black and white in case anyone would try to use one while robbing a bank. He offered free flat-top haircuts in his stores. His iconic face appeared in comic books and stencil art. There was even a song written about him called “I Woke Up with a Tom Peterson Haircut."

Anyone around Portland in the 1970s  and 1980s knew the sound of “It’s TOM Peterson.” He was known more broadly, too. Northwest native Kurt Cobain wore his kitschy wristwatch. Director Gus Van Sant, who lives in Portland, cast Peterson in three cameo roles in his films Drugstore Cowboy, My Private Idaho and To Die For. Peterson also appeared in Mr. Holland’s Opus, which was filmed in Portland.

It’s a bit surprising that Peterson was never asked to play a starring role in Portlandia. The truth is, Peterson wasn’t viewed as a peculiarity. He was a Portland icon.

A victim of overreach and overwhelming debt, Peterson filed for bankruptcy in 1991. At his wife’s suggestion, Peterson talked candidly about his financial pickle on his TV ads as he was reduced to working on the sales floor to clear inventory.

Ever the optimist, Peterson became a motivational speaker and he and his wife emerged from bankruptcy to start a similar business in 1992 on a smaller scale, but with the same personality-forward brand – Tom Peterson's and Gloria's, Too! Tellingly, the sale of Tom Peterson memorabilia helped raise funds for their new venture.

Les Schwab, Orville Roth and Fred Meyer were the faces and often the voices of their brands. They were also the personification of their brands, the person customers trusted – Schwab with his tire guarantee, Roth with his signature green tie walking the aisles of his grocery stores and Meyer promoting one-stop shopping.

No one, however, has quite reached the iconic status of Peterson in Portland. Perhaps because no one thought about branding the way he did. When asked why he put his image on and his voice in an alarm clock that he gave away, Peterson said, “If you can put your face in 5,000 Portland homes, it certainly can’t hurt.”

Apparently not. Even the attorney for Peterson’s creditors in his bankruptcy case wore a Tom Peterson wristwatch.