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Torn-Down Tuesday: Cellino & Barnes' media empire

This year marks the 25th year that attorneys Ross Cellino and Steve Barnes have been aggressively marketing their law firm’s personal injury expertise.

The Buffalo-based firm started with radio ads in 1994, then billboards. Eventually, it became difficult to pick up a phone book or watch a local TV newscast without seeing those faces or hearing that melody, which are all familiar in Buffalo, and over the last decade or so, are increasingly familiar in big media markets New York and Los Angeles.

The original jingle was written by Buffalo’s Ken Kaufman, who has famously written many of the radio advertising jingles Western New Yorkers can’t seem to get out of their heads.

That original mid-'90s version of the Cellino & Barnes jingle featured the firm’s original Buffalo telephone number, 854-2020. The now indelible lyrics were first sung by longtime Buffalo musician Ron Lombardo and Sharon Jones, who was also known as a regular national anthem singer at Rich Stadium during the Bills’ Super Bowl years. She’s the wife of the former Bills strength and conditioning coach Rusty Jones.

The radio jingle was only a few years old when Cellino & Barnes billboards had begun creeping up everywhere. In 1997, the lawyers and their ad campaign achieved a level of recognition and notoriety that raised it to a whole new level: grand-scale parody.

Ted Shredd and Tom Ragan, morning hosts on 103.3 The Edge, donned bald masks, changed “Injured?” to “Injured!”, and with the help of Buffalo ad genius James Gillan, created a series of billboards clearly mocking the law firm (and Steve Barnes’ hair.)

There was some concern that the lawyers wouldn’t see the humor in the work of the disc jockeys alongside Route 33 and later the I-190, but those fears were squashed when Steve Barnes told an interviewer that he “got a good chuckle” out of it. Ross Cellino said his kids asked that he drive them past the billboards to get a good look.

The Barnes Firm, 2005.

The next bump in the road came in 2005 when an appellate court censured Barnes and suspended Cellino for six months, meaning that Cellino’s name would have to be removed from advertising.

In 2007, the firm once again reclaimed its original name as it was expanding rapidly outside of Buffalo. Offices in New York City and Los Angeles were growing, as were advertising purchases all around the country. Even though the 854-2020 phone number wasn’t the same in every market, the melody remained the same for whatever phone number would be plugged in.

Even in Buffalo, the jingle had been updated through the years. It had a faster, happier sound. More often than not, it was just the phone number sung, if anything at all in radio and TV ads.

It was 2010 when, despite millions in dollars of advertising over 18 years, Cellino & Barnes stopped advertising their number at 854-2020, and switched to 888-8888—still sung to the same tune, but with the admonition, “Don’t wait, call 8.”

A protracted court battle, now ongoing since 2017, could mean that 2019 is the last year you’ll see both men together in ads. But part of the legal wrangling is about after the dust settles, who gets to use the jingle that’s the most recognizable since “Talking Proud,” and the phone number that’s Buffalo’s most recognizable set of digits since 998 Broadway.

(Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

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