Giving ’Em the Business

Anecdotes from the wild world of direct response


Every business and profession has its own “in-house” jokes—the kind that other people in the same industry (and perhaps only those people) can read, laugh at, and appreciate. Everyone has had “one of those” days, and we contacted a number of people in direct response to ask them to relate a few funny stories about the ridiculous things that have happened to them on the job. Here’s what they had to say.

I was directing “The Big Green Clean Machine” with producer Bill Flohr for USA Direct. We were shooting a hidden-camera segment for this Bissell home machine that could do the job of a professional carpet cleaner. We wanted to see what companies would charge to clean a few specific items in a home. We planted several “lipstick” cams and microphones throughout the house, as well as a wireless mic on our actress housewife. Several low-cost, coupon-special carpet cleaners had been contacted, and we had appointments set at half-hour intervals, back-to-back.

The garage was our video village, with seven tape decks, monitors, miles of wire, and all of us in headphones, watching and recording the “estimates.” After a few hours of recording amazing hard-sell tactics and upsell pricing, the crew got hungry. We ordered pizza. We had to peek through the cracks in the garage door to see the delivery guy approaching the house. Just before he rang the bell, we opened a side door next to him and pulled him into the garage. This guy was startled and then scared when he saw all the gear and crew. I’m sure he assumed this was an FBI sting, and the “bad guys” were just inside and dangerous.

We cautioned him not to speak and were whispering as we paid the bill. This terrified kid refused a tip, and as he backed out of the door, he swore he would never talk—never tell another soul about this. Then, he turned and ran to his car. We realized what must have been racing through this kid’s head, and had to stifle laughter the rest of the day. He never realized it was just another wacky day in the DRTV industry!

—Packy McFarland
Real to Reel Productions

I had a dinner meeting with Muhammad Ali and his business partners about 18 years ago regarding an infomercial project. His Parkinson’s disease was already pretty advanced, and it took him a few minutes to speak a sentence when he wanted to express himself.

After an hour of lengthy business discussions, Ali wanted to share his point of view. Struggling to find his voice, he started speaking: “Peter … you know … you’re not as dumb as you look!”

I felt very flattered that the great Muhammad Ali used his precious energy to take the effort to both flatter and insult me. It was a memorable dinner with a great humanitarian.

—Peter Spiegel
Founder and CEO
Ideal Living

There have been a few surprising and funny experiences as a result of my 30-year history in DRTV: The car in the Auri car polish commercial really caught fire; Robert Blake (from Baretta) really used our toothpaste, called Natural White; 20,000 bottles of fertilizer ready to be shipped out to new customers (to grow the nation’s largest tomatoes) exploded in the warehouse; [and] our first infomercial client, who made millions, spent all of his money.

—Nancy Marcum
Marcum Media

On one of my first trips to Japan, I was traveling with my friend, Jeff Knowles, from Venable LLP. We had spent a very long day meeting with Fujisankei Living Service, which was a major DRTV company in Japan and later joined the board of ERA. They invited us to overnight at their corporate retreat near Mount Fuji to continue our discussions.

After a long trip from Tokyo by bullet train and car, we arrived in the dark at about 7 p.m., were escorted to our own private chalets, and were told we were late for dinner and that a dozen senior executives were waiting.

I got to my room, dropped off my luggage, and—still wearing my suit and tie—made a quick bathroom stop before rushing out to meet with the others. As I finished, I could not find the flush handle. There was just a complex panel of about 20 buttons with Japanese characters on them. I bent over the toilet to study them, and, being in a hurry, finally pushed the one that looked most like a toilet flushing.

There was the sound of a motor and a fan, a squishing sound, and then suddenly, the toilet opened fire and sprayed water all over the front of me. I slammed the seat down, but water was still flooding out everywhere and on the floor until it finally stopped. It was a real mess. I wrapped my suit coat closed and ran to meet the group.

As I arrived at the meeting point, Jeff arrived at the same time, and we followed the procession up a large grand staircase to the dining area. I leaned over to Jeff and asked him if he had used the toilet in his room. “I’ll tell you about it later,” he said. As I looked down, I realized that he was soaking wet, the same as I was! We had both pushed the same button.

The translator eventually noticed this and somehow explained to the entire group that these two DRTV guys had both managed to spray toilet water all over themselves. You can imagine the laughter after that. From that humbling start, we went on to build a very successful DRTV business together in Japan.

—Richard Stacey
President and CEO
Northern Response (International)

One of the funniest moments took place on a shoot with a well-known PGA golfer at the Grand Canyon. This golfer was attempting to hit a golf ball across the canyon. We had a helicopter there to help capture the shot. As the helicopter flew over, the golfer dropped trou and mooned them in the middle of the day. And, yes, we still have the video!

—Barbara Kerry
Script to Screen

An employee and I flew to Reno to meet with a client. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and we were just running up there for the day. We land and head over to the rental company to pick up our car. The employee hops on the phone and says, “We’re here in Reno. How do we get to your office?” (This was before the internet.) The client said, “That could be pretty tough, as I’m down in Las Vegas!” We hopped back on a plane and flew home—and rescheduled the meeting for a later date.

—Dan Danielson
Mercury Media

I was asked to revise a flatlining campaign for a men’s hair growth product, Avacor. I asked the owners if I could get some samples—a three-month supply. After they gave it to me, I started to use it on myself. I took weekly pictures of the front and back of my head for three months. Lo and behold, there was a massive amount of hair growth that truly filled in my balding spots.

I called the client and told them that I had a terrific idea for a new campaign and that they should feature a middle-
aged father of two whose kids made fun of their dad because his hair was receding. They loved the idea and asked who I had in mind. “Me!” I replied.

I pulled out the photos and showed them and their doctors the results. They were astounded. Thus, I may have become the first writer, producer, director, spokesperson, and testimonial to star in his own infomercial! To this day, I am still an endorser of the product, and the commercial is still running on the web.

—Jeff Meltzer
Owner and President
Meltzer Media Productions

More than a decade ago, I was working with a client that had an FDA-cleared medical device—a penis pump to help with erectile dysfunction. He marketed it through an infomercial. So that the people at our agency could become familiar with his product, he shipped a sample to me. After we became familiar with the product, I didn’t want to keep it at the office, because I didn’t want to have to explain why I was in possession of this device. So I took it home and hid it. A year or two later, my son found the product hidden in a closet. It was embarrassing to explain to him what the product was and why I had one, but we all got a good laugh out of it.

—Peter Koeppel
Founder and President
Koeppel Direct

When we were asked to do fulfillment for a new product called Simple Green, the inventor wanted to stress the fact that this new cleaning agent was safe to keep around the house even if you had children or pets. He unscrewed the bottle and drank half of it, then started foaming at the mouth. While he was foaming at the mouth, he never stopped talking and never paused in his sales pitch. Needless to say, he kept our attention, and his product became one of the most successful products on the retail market. But that’s a sight I’ll never forget!

—Hal Altman
President and CEO
Motivational Fulfillment & Logistics Services

In 2009, I suffered a terrible injury the evening before the ERA conference. I didn’t know what had happened, only that I couldn’t walk one step. I rented a scooter for the show, thinking that my leg would get better each day. I was in excruciating pain, but I was a speaker on a panel and also won an ERA award, which I whisked up to the podium in the scooter at a quick clip to receive.

When I got back home, I immediately went to the doctor. He was incredulous and told me that I had suffered a hip dislocation and needed to go to the emergency room immediately. He seemed amazed that a human being could spend three days at a conference with a hip dislocation.

The surgeon looked me right in the eye and asked if I was a compulsive gambler, because he could not imagine how someone with that type of injury could possibly travel to Las Vegas and stay for three days without going to the hospital. I looked right back at him and said, “I’m in the direct response industry. That’s why I went.”

He thought I was crazy. I guess you need to be a little bit crazy to be in this business—in a good way. To this day, people who see me at trade shows still ask how my leg is, all these years later.

—Ava Seavey
Founder and President
Avalanche Creative Services, Inc.

Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski is an award-winning journalist and author of the book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box. Reach her at www.wojosworld.com