It's another Tuesday at Media Corp, so every desk around the office is empty.
Tuesday is show-and-tell day at Media Corp, a boutique marketing company with headquarters buried between medical suppliers and insurance offices in an Overland Park business park. As employees gather in the conference room, they leave toys scattered in their wake, like a pack of unruly children fleeing the scene of recess. Leaned against one desk is a squat plastic apparatus that promises to suck the stains out of your carpet. Sitting on another desk: a skateboarding puppet.
Earl Pardo, the president of the company, gathers in the conference room with eight employees, all of whom are armed with a stack of papers on which they'll rank products on a variety of factors: uniqueness, how well it solves a problem, mass appeal, pricing, demonstrability, believability, how easily it's explained. The ones that score the highest have what Pardo calls the "wow factor" — that feeling you get when you see something you've wanted your whole life.
Pardo, a slender man of 42, is dressed as if he's expected on the tee at noon. He leans back in his chair, still waiting to be wowed. His team has just finished examining a one-size-fits-all bungee cord. Before that, it was earrings with interchangeable beads.
"Put on the professional golf-ball cleaner," Pardo says.
Someone summons the website of a spray developed by a chemist to keep golf balls clean. But Pardo knows the dirt-repellent's secret.
"Spray this on a golf ball, wipe it off, and the golf ball will go an extra 40 yards," Pardo says.
A gleeful awe washes over the room.
"If you could spray something on your golf ball and get 40 extra yards, would you buy it?" Pardo asks. "I would."
The cleanser scores mostly high marks across the board, but it suffers in one category. The most successful inventions can be marketed to everyone. Golf may be among America's most popular recreational activities, but it's still a niche in the world of get-rich-quick inventors.
"There's 28 million golfers," someone says. "So it's weak on mass appeal."
One selling point: Sporting-goods stores are stocked with clubs that promise another 10 yards on your drive. How about selling it as offering "a 20 percent increase," at the fraction of the cost of a brand-new golf club, someone suggests.
Another issue: It would be against golf's tournament rules.
"It will not be USGA-approved," Pardo says. "You can't use it in tournaments, but who cares?"
"This is not legal!" another pitchman offers. "Not USGA-approved! That right there can be a selling point."
"Here's the thing for me," Pardo says. "If I saw this on the shelf in a store, I'd laugh at it. I'd think it was a gag gift. Who's going to believe it?"
Someone floats a 30-day, money-back guarantee. The team imagines commercials where they take the spray out to the driving range and film people hitting colossal drives, complete with testimonials. They agree to bring the inventor in later in the week, to see the spray for themselves.
Eventually they move on to the next product. It's a coaster that promises to keep drinks cool. Some speculate that it's meant to be installed in a boat; that's trouble because there are even fewer boaters than golfers.
"With boat-coaster, you'll be the coolest man on the lake! Call now!" one pitchman riffs.
"Ehh," his colleague says. "It's not quite as good as the golf ball."
In 1998, Gary Clegg was a college freshman in Maine, stuck in a freezing dorm room. He huddled under a sleeping bag, trying to stay warm. But every time he changed the channel, he exposed his arm to the cold. So with a typical freshman's mix of ingenuity and destructiveness, he slashed a hole in the sleeping bag. He found it so comfortable — and useful! — that he convinced a friend's mom to sew sleeves onto a blanket for him. Thus was born the Slanket, ancestor to the Snuggie.
Media Corp hasn't launched a product as far-reaching as the Snuggie (or even the Slanket), but there's a good chance you've seen one of its marketing successes.
The company's business model is like that of an indie-rock label. It searches for small acts with big potential, like a magic spray that makes your ball go farther. If the product performs, Media Corp brings it to a larger company that has the resources for a national campaign. There are a dozen or so outfits like Media Corp scouring America for salable products, and they all want to work with one of two national promoters: TeleBrands and Allstar Marketing, the company that made the Snuggie into a meme.
So far, Media Corp has seen two big successes: the Salad Blaster, a plastic container that keeps the lettuce separate from the dressing until lunchtime, and the Windshield Wonder, which is used to wipe down the inside of a car's windshield. (The Windshield Wonder got an added push from TeleBrands.) There are more success stories on the way.
"Everyone has an invention," Pardo says. Or "everyone thinks they have an idea for one." The key is sifting through the crap until finding the crap that will sell.
For the last several years, Pardo has been the company's lead sifter. A career salesman, he spent most of his 20s pitching medicine as Bayer Pharmaceuticals' employee 428607 — a number he can recite from memory to this day. But when Pardo was 27, with salesman burnout in full effect, a friend invited him to help start a production company to sell products on television.
"I didn't know much about the business at all," Pardo says. "But I liked the idea that there were only 14 or 15 people ... . I wanted something smaller I could make an impact in."
Around the same time, Kansas entrepreneurs Ed Waldberg and Mark Manheim were starting a similar company called Media Corp. When the two companies merged in 2002, Pardo took over as president.
Both companies had long adhered to a simple game plan: Find products that solve problems consumers don't realize they have. The products almost always came from independent inventors with great ideas but no ideas about how to sell them. But in recent years, with the rise of social media and YouTube, Pardo has watched the Internet turn almost everyone into a mini-pitchman.
In the days of Ron Popeil, master marketer of the Ronco Rotisserie Oven and other kitchen wonders, a certain showmanship was required to convince people that they needed a product. A commercial needed three basic elements: (1) a horrible problem facing consumers, (2) a device that would finally make that problem disappear, and (3) a hard-to-resist offer for those who ordered immediately.
That classic model still works, but social media make it easier for budget inventors to push their products into the marketplace. And an invention with virtually no practical uses — why buy a Snuggie when you can put on a bathrobe? — can go from the Internet to shelves with just a little help from Facebook and YouTube.
For the Snuggie, the commercial itself had the wow factor — campy, with a complete lack of self-awareness. People couldn't help but post it on their friends' Facebook walls, thus offering a level of brand awareness a late-night infomercial could never buy. By the time the Snuggie hit actual retail outlets, it was already an Internet star. It even inspired Media Corp to hire social-media strategists to pimp their products on Facebook and Twitter.
Selling a cultural movement, it turns out, can be easier than selling a product on its merits. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports tested 15 as-seen-on-TV products. The Snuggie was a cheaply made, ill-fitting rag that fell apart in the wash, the magazine found, and other high-selling products were just as lousy.
Consumer Reports also investigated the boilerplate infomercial script that convinces viewers of a simple solution to some problem, and slashes the price of that solution on the condition that consumers buy it immediately. Such commercials, Consumer Reports found, are the equivalent of a psychological roller coaster, causing the brain to flood itself with dopamine — the same chemical that flows after snorting a line of cocaine. Because dopamine levels drop back to normal after about five minutes, most commercials offer discounts only if you order within the first three.
Fifteen years ago, Frank Bibbo, a high school science teacher, had an idea about how to become a better hunter.
"I was thinking about how to keep the deer from smelling me," Bibbo says from his home in eastern New York. "I'd done some experiments in my science class using carbon chemical suits to absorb the gases, and I thought, Why couldn't I use something like that to absorb the gases that come out of a person?"
Bibbo scoured military surplus stores until he found what he was looking for: an activated-carbon chemical suit used by the Navy. But after climbing into the suit, he discovered an alternative use. "I noticed you could pass wind inside the suit and you wouldn't notice a thing," he says. "So I got a bunch of suits and sewed them together, and that was my prototype for the Better Marriage Blanket."
As it turned out, the same properties that could keep a deer from smelling Bibbo could also keep his wife from smelling the embarrassing odors he emitted at night. For the next several years, he kept that first prototype in open view, draped over the mattress like any other comforter. Eventually, after 15 years of showing it off to friends, he decided to do something with it.
"I just thought, I'm 50. Now's the time, or it'll never happen for me," Bibbo says. "I thought about how people live with regrets. I saw this motivational speaker once, and he was talking about senior citizens. When they ask them what they would've done differently, they talk about taking risks to live the life they wish they'd had.
"I know there are times I should've taken more risks. ... I don't know. We grow too soon old and too late wise."
Bibbo asked his 14-year-old son if he knew anything about building websites. Then he asked his wife if he could mortgage their house and use the proceeds to mass-produce the fart-absorbing blanket.
"We spent tens of thousands of dollars getting this ready," Bibbo says. "You have to get a lawyer. You have to pay for a patent. You have to find someplace to manufacture the thing. You have to pay for packaging and art for the packaging. We ended up with a Chinese manufacturer, but even then we had to get an agent who knew someone in China."
They managed to get 1,000 blankets made and began trying to sell them for $120 apiece online. Soon Bibbo started getting e-mails about how great his product was. Even people who joked about it gave him hope. Jokes are interest, the best pitchmen say, and getting a laugh is a good way to sell. When customers laugh, they let their guard down.
After a while, someone at Media Corp came across Bibbo's blanket and sent a link to Pardo.
"When I first saw it, I thought it was a unique product, which is one of the most important things," Pardo says. "Like most people, you get a chuckle out of it. I didn't think too much of it to begin with, to be honest, but once we put it out there and the data came back, at that point you take emotion out of it and go by results."
After Media Corp signed on to market the blanket, Pardo quickly dropped the price. (Adjusting price points is common once Media Corp gets hold of a product.) Then he found a manufacturer that could produce a cheaper version of the blanket more efficiently.
The next step was the commercial. Airtime isn't terribly expensive, as long as you don't specify a time slot and stick with smaller basic-cable networks, like SOAPnet and the Game Show Network. Media Corp shot the spot in its Overland Park offices, using the company's receptionist as a wife who can't make it through another night next to her gaseous husband. The Better Marriage Blanket saves the day, of course; the last shot is of her sleeping soundly, a smile on her face.
The commercial aired in some smaller markets, but its real impact was online: It racked up 800,000 views in four days on YouTube. Over the next week, the blanket was being discussed by experts on CNN and joked about on Howard Stern. Bibbo even went on Today.
When an infomercial says to act now (supplies are limited!), it's not always a gimmick. Media Corp produced only a few thousand blankets to sell because sales for new products are usually modest. The company quickly found itself turning away credit-card orders.
Still, Bibbo has yet to make his money back. He's $70,000 in debt from production of his fart-absorbing linens. "Everyone assumes I'm rich. ... That's not the case at the moment," he says. "You'll know I've made money if you see me in a new truck."
He could be shopping for one soon. Because of the explosion in interest — almost entirely thanks to social media — Pardo expects retail outlets to start carrying the Better Marriage Blanket before the holiday shopping season.
"I don't want to sound too vulnerable," Bibbo says, suddenly sounding like a guest on CNBC. "But, yes, we are hoping for a good fourth quarter."
There's a stockroom in the basement of Media Corp's offices, where products that didn't sell go to collect dust — exercise machines; inventive range finders for bowhunters; even an "80-Hour Energy Spray," in a small bottle, that groggy users apply just below the tongue and wait for liftoff. The products spill over the edges of cardboard boxes that are stacked on shelf after shelf.
It's possible that versions of the Better Marriage Blanket, now retailing for $29.95 for the smallest mattress size, could end up here. But Media Corp has found success with inventors with far less exposure than Bibbo.
Todd Wikstrom is one. At 50, Wikstrom half-jokingly tells friends that he's working on a book called "50 Failures," with a chapter for every invention that bombed before he and Media Corp struck gold with the Microwave Caddy.
"I had a window fire escape seat for one," he says, recounting one of his favorite failures. "That was a portable seat you could attach to the bedroom window, and it had a little tool to smash the glass out, and a flashlight and a ladder so you could get to the ground safely."
He finally found a market for his madness with invention No. 51: the Microwave Caddy, a microwavable dish whose handle doesn't get hot when nuked. Before Media Corp found him at a trade show in Chicago, Wikstrom, who lives in Las Vegas, hustled it himself, carrying it from restaurant to restaurant and asking servers to try it out when he ordered a meal.
"They absolutely loved it," says Wikstrom, a high school dropout. "I never really sold them to restaurants, though. There's all this stuff you have to do to get products licensed for restaurant use, and I just didn't think it was a big enough market to be worth it."
Inventors send their ideas to Media Corp every day, and the company still scours the Internet for possible winners. But trade shows are the best hunting grounds. With everything on full display, there's no confusion about whether a product actually works.
"You can tell quickly," Pardo says. "I remember he put that Microwave Caddy in my hands ... and right away I knew, from personal experience, that that was perfect for us. I'll microwave a coffee mug and try not to burn myself. It's products like that, that everyone has some use for, that you want."
Jim White had one of those products. After being diagnosed with both brain and lung cancer, White was living on workers' compensation in a trailer park when he invented the GPS Pal. It's a GPS mount designed to fit in a cup holder — a handy-sounding alternative to the standard windshield mount.
White had been pushing his product for years, but nothing happened until Media Corp stumbled onto his website. He has since made about $80,000 off the GPS Pal, he says.
"I financed that through a couple of credit cards," says White, who also never graduated from high school. "Made the money back and paid it off."
If the Snuggie had been available only in powder-blue and crimson, America might be over it by now. But the marketing minds behind Snuggie know that the secret to real success is establishing a brand-name family. That's why the sleeved blanket now comes with sports logos and personalized designs. And it's why Media Corp is looking for ways to expand the Better Marriage Blanket.
"I'm big on nanotechnology right now," Pardo says, back in his office after the show-and-tell session. "I think that's where the future of these products is."
He holds out a blanket that he says is covered in a sheen of invisible nanotechnology particles. Then he pours a glass of water over it. The water beads atop the fabric. Pardo wipes it off, laughing. The blanket is dry to the touch.
"We mix that one with the Better Marriage Blanket, and you've got the Better Pet Blanket, and you're expanding the name," he says. "Imagine a blanket that keeps your dog from smelling and that won't absorb an accident. That'll sell."
He's also working on ways to get people to believe that the Better Marriage Blanket is more than just a gag to e-mail to a friend and forget. He's thinking about a show called The Doctors, on which attractive, young medical professionals test "breakthroughs," such as the e-cigarette. He imagines giving the blanket to couples with flatulence problems and coming away with convincing testimonials. The Better Marriage Blanket saved my marriage! Call today!
"It's like the night before Christmas," Pardo says. "We know we have something. We just don't know what it is yet. There can be a fleece line, a cotton line, a cotton with nanotechnology in it. We're just like the Bibbos. We're very excited, but we're waiting."