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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.