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Austin commercial classic: Oh, you do know Betty Blackwell?

Andrea Ball, Here and There

Staff Writer
Austin American-Statesman

Doritos, Pepsi and Chrysler have nothing on Austin criminal lawyer Betty Blackwell.

Granted, their big-money Super Bowl commercials reach millions of people and attract big-name celebrities like Clint Eastwood and Elton John. But how long do they run? A month? Six months? A year?

Betty Blackwell's ad — a 30-second bit oozing with drama, desperation and, ultimately, hope — has been running on local television for more than 20 years. The vintage commercial and its odd tagline (Oh, you do know Betty Blackwell?) is a late-night TV staple that has made the criminal attorney a household name.

"People sometimes say, ‘I know that name, but I'm not sure why,'" Blackwell said. "I don't usually tell them unless they ask."

Every big city comes with no-budget, no-frills TV commercials. Most fade away before we even notice them. But there are some that make such an impact that they become a part of our collective consciousness, a running joke that only a local would get. Who could forget Earl the Yodeling Camel peddling cars for Chapman Motor Sales? How about "ABC Pest and Lawnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn?" And God knows we'll never be able to forget 777-7777, even if we don't need Paul Dunham and his legion of lawyers to bail us out of jail.

"Sometimes it's just luck what really works," said Tom Gilmore, group creative director at GSD&M advertising agency. "It needs to be different and stand out."

Blackwell kicked off her iconic commercial around 1990. The ad opens with a tight shot of woman's carefully manicured hand, her peach-colored nails nervously tapping glasses the size of a pie plate as she talks on a push-button phone with a white spiral cord. The woman, who appears to be wearing a puffy pirate shirt, tells a friend she's dealing with "Brian's problem" and that he's been released from jail.

"We've been looking for a good criminal lawyer who might be able to help." she says.

A short pause follows, and then, nearly crumbling in relief, the woman says, "Oh you do know Betty Blackwell?"

The ad quickly wraps up with a word from the real Blackwell and a phone number. But it's that awkward line — OYDKBB? — that got the most attention. And it still does.

An Austin pub trivia team is named after the line, as are several pieces of art (including a neon-pink deer head) by local artists. There's even a Facebook page devoted to the phrase.

"That's the tagline that this little ad company in Temple wrote," Blackwell said. "I would have never have thought people would catch on to that. It's so bizarre how that happens."

It's because of the "do." It's just odd.

As one Facebook commenter posted, "What the hell did the person on the other end of the phone say to elicit that exact response, anyway?"

From a Yelper: "If she already knew about her, why is she asking?"

The commercial, which was shot in Blackwell's old office in Central Austin and runs between midnight and 2 a.m. on weekends, was reshot several years ago to give the actress more modern clothing and smaller glasses. Both the old and new versions air on television.

After all these years, the commercial inspires mixed emotions for Blackwell. The lawyer has spent years building a career that has included serving as president of the Criminal Justice Section of the State Bar of Texas, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and co-author of a criminal law manual. So to be known in some circles for her commercials is a little weird, she said.

On the other hand, it's nice to have her name out there. And for now, people seem happy to enjoy the ad in all its kitschy, campy, horrible glory.

"It will be a sad day I think when they stop running that one," a fan wrote on Yelp. "It's historic Austin!"

aball@statesman.com; 912-2506