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Ad's Island-Owning Driver Is . . . an Actor

In real life, he's been a blacksmith and a bouncer--and he owns no stock. Still, viewers find character in Discover Brokerage's spot very believable.

May 13, 1999|LISA MEYER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a commercial for Discover Brokerage Direct, Travis McKenna portrays a truck driver so wealthy from online trading that he owns a tropical island.

In the real world, McKenna, 38, is a part-time construction worker who owns neither a stock portfolio nor a home.

"I know less about the stock market than I do about nuclear physics," said the 400-pound actor, who rents a three-bedroom home in Canoga Park. "And I know nothing about nuclear physics."

The ad has drawn criticism from security regulators who say it doesn't inform consumers about the potential risk of losing their money. But it has been a career boost for McKenna, leading to a recent guest appearance on television's "Chicago Hope."

Steve Stone, creative director of San Francisco-based Black Rocket, Discover Brokerage's agency, said McKenna was selected for the part over 30 other actors because of his "aw-shucks charm."

"He was so embarrassed by wealth that we incorporated that into the commercial," said Stone.

Audiences find McKenna memorable. During the three months after the commercial debuted, 76% of the viewers polled by Diagnostic Research International, a market research firm, recalled the spot, says Bob Ellis, a Black Rocket account director. In the first quarter of this year, said Ellis, the figure rose to 80%.

Bob Garfield, media critic at Advertising Age, called McKenna's character "ingenuous, cheerful and optimistic without being a Pollyanna."

A former blacksmith, McKenna has worked as a bodyguard and bouncer. In the last 20 years, he's had bit parts in 35 movies and 16 television shows. He said he earned $25,000 in 1998.

"I do whatever it takes," said the father of three boys, ages 12, 8 and 2 months.

McKenna's success in the ad has a down side.

"Nobody else wants me in their commercials because I'm so identified with that character," he said.

In fact, on the set of "Chicago Hope," a number of people asked McKenna if he had named his island. And strangers who recognize him from the ad ask him for investing advice.

His reply: "I haven't the foggiest notion."

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