A national Italian-American anti-defamation organization is supporting local efforts to get a Crystal River Toyota dealership to stop airing what it believes are offensive ads.
Manny Alfano, founder and chairman of the board for the Italian American One Voice Coalition Inc. said his New Jersey-based group has successfully gotten other companies to remove ads, including a Chicago business that featured notorious gangster Al Capone selling beer.
Alfano said he is stopping short of a boycott of Village Toyota of Crystal River. But if the ads continue, he plans to call Toyota national headquarters and — because the dealership also sells Cadillacs — General Motors headquarters as well.
Several Hernando County Italian-Americans have also banded together to try to get Village Toyota to remove the series of television commercials that feature puppets who are supposed to be Italian-American gangsters who stoop to intimidating customers to either buy cars or fix them at the dealership.
"They keep using these 'wise guys' puppets, and we know that the wise guys are synonymous with Italian-American mobsters," Alfano said. "Other mobs don't use 'wise guys' in their name."
Alfano said the Frito-Lay stopped using its Frito Bandito character to sell corn chips after Mexican-Americans complained they were being stereotyped.
Why is it companies don't show the same respect for Italian-Americans, he asked.
Calls to Village Toyota were not returned.
One Voice President Andre DiMino said he called Village Toyota and was insulted by a company official.
He gave the dealership until June 15 to respond to his concerns and it ignored the deadline, he said.
Now, DiMino said it is time to alert other Italian-American organizations about this situation, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations and the Coalition of Italian American Associations.
"In this difficult economic climate, why would you even think of using an advertising campaign that specifically stereotypes and insults Italian Americans?" DiMino wrote in a letter to the dealership. "It just does not make sense. Italian Americans are the fifth-largest ethnic sector of the U.S. population — why would you want to alienate them?"
DiMino said Tuesday that his group was successful in getting advertisers on the "Jersey Shore" reality show to pull their spots until the producers removed pejorative references to Italian-Americans.
The "mafia puppet" advertisements are being used by 12 car dealers in seven states, and DiMino said his coalition is asking the creator of those ads, Pennsylvania-based Ryno Production Inc., to immediately halt their use and distribution.
In all, there have been 17 ad spots featuring the "tired of wise guys, bad deals" campaign that defames Italian-Americans, DiMino said.
The ads also appear on fliers, YouTube videos and billboards, one of which is off U.S. 19 in Spring Hill.
The coalition said the spots feature mafia puppets named Johnny Car-Lot, Backseat Benny, Frankie the Fixer and Tony Two-Trunks, who speak with accents, use mob-style slang, and are featured vandalizing cars, threatening customers and making "an offer you better not refuse."
Some of the ads the groups find offensive are titled "Bada Bing," "We Both Lose," "Whoa Geeze," "Talking To Me" And "Cannoli."
The local dispute also caught the attention of Hollywood actor, producer and writer Jon Freda, who, in a letter to Village Toyota, called for the removal of the puppet ads.
"This kind of attitude, when left unchecked, leads one to think, what next? Depiction of Jewish greedy merchants, blackface minstrel shows, Indian giver natives?" Freda wrote. "While there may be some humor in stereotypes, it is offset by the negative consequences which they inspire, such as prejudice and aggressive behavior towards perceived minorities," he said.
Freda, who most recently guest-starred in an episode of "Law and Order," lives in New York but told Hernando Today on Wednesday he has visited this area and is familiar with Hernando County.
He said he guessed that the dealership "didn't realize there is a large Italian-American community in Spring Hill."
To view some of the commercials, visit www.cardealercommercials.com/exclusive/wiseguys/teaser.html.