How Dr. Russell Karmel got his 15 minutes of fame . . . and then some.
IN THE EARLY 1990s, this Saturn car ad starring Dr. Russell Karmel appeared in a number of major magazines, including Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. The photographer was Mark Seliger, who’s famous for having shot everyone from Cindy Crawford to the Dalai Lama. It got so much attention, the New York Times even did a big story about it. Does that make Dr. Karmel the most famous dentist of that decade? Possibly!
Dr. Karmel and his twin brother, Gary, are retired now. They practiced together in New York City, starting off as mobile dentists caring for homebound patients. Back then, Saturn was a huge success, and people loved its fun little cars and friendly dealerships enough to write the company piles of thank-you letters.
One day, Dr. Karmel wrote a letter of his own, saying how much he enjoyed zipping from one appointment to another in his sporty coupe. “I tried to make it entertaining, but I never thought anything would come of it,” he tells me. But something did. It caught the eye of Roger Poirier, a writer at Saturn’s advertising agency, Hal Riney & Partners. (They were behind the Bartles & Jaymes wine-cooler characters, and helped reelect President Ronald Reagan. No small potatoes.) “We interviewed a lot of Saturn customers. Only a few of them became ads,” Poirier recalls. “This was a pretty interesting story which my partner, Woody Lowe, art-directed into a visually striking ad.”
Dr. Karmel remembers the day his photo was taken. “It was a big deal,” he says. “They closed off an entire street in Brooklyn Heights. In New York, that takes a lot of permits.” Poirier, the ad man, remembers why Saturn’s marketing was so unique and successful. “If you notice, we barely show the car,” he says. “We made it about the customers, and telling stories like this one was a lot of fun.” The ad certainly caught my attention at the time. I tore a copy out of a magazine to add to my collection.
Dr. Karmel and his brother ended up buying their equipment from Benco when they opened their first office in 1994, and again in 2000. However, it would be a long time before they fully retired from the road. Until about 10 or 12 years ago, they continued caring for patients who couldn’t leave home—swell guys, for sure.
Besides memories, the Saturn folks left Dr. Karmel one other thing. “I asked for a car, but they said no,” he says, laughing. “However, I did get paid $1,000 for the photo shoot. At the time, I thought, ‘Hey, that’s not bad.’ ”