If it’s Saturday and I have a little time, I like to catch an infomercial. Exercise equipment, food processors, cleaning products, what they are selling doesn’t matter. It’s the promotion that grabs me, the before and after, the ridiculous ease of a product resolving an impossible task. Prime time commercials must show a modicum of restraint, but when it comes to Saturday afternoon, it’s the Wild West of anything goes, especially if that product is Protex D.
I didn’t catch the beginning of the infomercial, but I was immediately drawn in by the night-lit urban background and reporter’s desk where two men sat. The host looked like Larry King’s unemployed nephew. The interviewee looked like he just came from an exercise video. The only props on the desk were an old time studio microphone connected to absolutely nothing and a small white bottle of Protex D.
When it came to Protex D, Greg (exercise guy) was all in. Passionate, sincere, he was the ultimate salesman. In fact, he didn’t even need the white bottle. It could have been a rock. The rock could have been radioactive and Greg would have said it was the best thing for aches and pains. He was so locked in on Protex D he felt completely liberated from the truth. But what made the infomercial fascinating wasn’t Greg’s outlandish claims. Outlandish claims come and go. What made the infomercial fascinating was every claim boasted by Greg was immediately refuted by a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen:
HOST: Protex D.
GREG: Protex D.
HOST: Quite a product.
GREG: I love this product.
HOST: What do you love about it?
GREG: It’s not afraid to ask the question: Can arthritis be cured naturally?
HOST: Can it?
GREG: With Protex D, absolutely!
DISCLAIMER: RESULTS WILL VARY.
HOST: That’s quite a claim.
GREG: I wouldn’t claim it if it wasn’t true.
DISCLAIMER: GREG COMO WAS PAID FOR HIS TESTIMONIAL AND GIVEN A LIFETIME MEMBERSHIP TO PRO-TAN.
HOST: To be clear you are saying Protex D will help manage the debilitating effects of arthritis?
GREG: Again, absolutely!
DISCLAIMER: AGAIN, RESULTS WILL VARY!
HOST: Tell me about it.
GREG: All I can say is Protex D is the real deal.
HOST: More so than prescription medication?
GREG: If you are taking Protex D, there is no reason to be on any other medication.
DISCLAIMER: REMAIN ON YOUR MEDICATION.
HOST: That’s quite a claim. Does it have the backing of the FDA?
GREG: Why wouldn’t the FDA back it?
DISCLAIMER: FRAUDS DOING ACTING, YES! FEDERAL DRUG ADMINISTRATION, NO!
HOST: You really love this product.
GREG: It changed my life.
HOST: How so?
GREG: Like many people I suffer from arthritis. The pain was always with me. There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. Sure, I was taking prescriptions, but you know what? It didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel like me. Then I came across all natural Protex D.
DISCLAIMER: THE NAME IS CORRECT.
GREG: After a couple of weeks taking Protex D, I became a new man. I told my doctor thanks but no thanks to the weekly shots and horse pills for I was on the road with an all natural supplement that would allow me to pursue my dream of becoming a fitness guru.
HOST: I’d have to say you look physically fit.
GREG: People say I look twenty years younger.
DISCLAIMER: HE LOOKS THIRTY YEARS OLDER FROM ALL THE TANNING.
HOST: Sounds like Protex D is a big part of your life.
GREG: It’s not just me. I have a friend who was able to return to semi-professional tennis after taking Protex D.
DISCLAIMER: THIS MAN HAS NO FRIENDS.
HOST: So Protex D provides relief to athletes. What other groups, senior citizens?
GREG: There is no arthritic pain Protex D cannot relieve.
DISCLAIMER: GRANDMA DO NOT PICK UP THE PHONE.
GREG: More than ever children are developing acute tendonitis from playing sports, video games and texting on their phones. Protex D will help them rip through the pain and keep them in the game.
DISCLAIMER: CAN SOMEONE PLEASE SHUT OFF THE FAKE MICROPHONE?
The claims became so outrageous the DISCLAIMER finally gave up, probably thinking there was nobody—no matter how gullible—who thought Protex D would help them speak Mandarin. Still I thought the infomercial brilliant. Even with the conflicting information, I’m sure there are a few people who really wanted to believe and would side with the guy with the fake tan and muscles. After all, how do you explain Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming governors and Donald Trump becoming president? How do explain the plausibility of Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme.
The idea of any Ponzi scheme is astonishingly simple: to bring in more money than to give out. That’s all it is. There is no actual investment. There is no product development. There is only one person. That’s what Madoff did along with a few others like New York attorney, Marc Drier, Minnesota businessman, Tom Petters and Minnesota financial consultant, Trevor Cook. At first, people couldn’t wait to break down Madoff’s door, not to wring his neck, but to give him their money. But how did he do it? There are a few rules to follow. The first is the oldest in the book.
I – ESTABLISH CONFIDENCE
The easiest way to build confidence is to have a credible story. It didn’t hurt that Madoff was at one time the chairman of NASDAQ. There was no better attorney on Park Avenue than Marc Drier. Even Tom Petters had a legitimate business called Petter’s Warehouse.
Once a legitimate story can be established it helps to lavish the lifestyle. Exotic pets, priceless jewelry, domestic help wearing your priceless jewelry while polishing your silverware are a good start. Ostentation must rule the day. Drier owned a yacht the size of a warship. Petters bought Sun Country Airlines. Not only did Cook own a submarine and a Canadian island, he also purchased the historic Van Dusen Mansion, not to only live in but to show as an asset to help purchase an even far greater prize: interest in the Minnesota Wild hockey team.
“You don’t succeed quietly,” Drier told the news magazine, 60 Minutes.
Some chutzpah can go a long way. If you act rich, you will be rich. No scam would be successful if the actors didn’t play their role. But still, they needed help.
II – HAVE MIDDLEMEN
Madoff rarely involved himself directly with his clientele. He wasn’t even registered as a financial advisor. Instead, he had a cadre of brokers, agents, managers, so called feeders that had connections to the country clubs, the synagogues and the corporate community. What made it brilliant was the soft sell, the whispers in the lounges, pews and locker rooms. The feeders didn’t have to pound the pavement or knock on any doors. Selling Madoff sold itself for people were starting to hear others were reaping healthy returns.
Cook had an even easier time for his middle man was Pat Kiley, a talk show host on the Christian Radio Network. And after listening to a fitness guru talk for a half hour about the divine properties of Protex D, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Kiley could convince more than a few people that Cook was the second coming when it came to having a sound financial future.
Middlemen insulate. Middlemen create a mystique. In the end middlemen limit access to the source. Everybody knows the hottest night club is the one you can’t get into and the person to invest your money with is the one with discriminating clientele. In 2008 one-third of all Geneva fund managers had money invested with Bernie Madoff. Had! What did they know? What did anyone know, which is the reason for the next rule.
III – MUDDLE THE PROCESS
Ponzi schemes come in all shapes and sizes, but there is one thing they all have in common: they are all pretty quiet on the details. Details? Specifics are a buzz kill. It’s best to leave an impression how the money is made. Petters told investors he was making money by selling electronics to warehouse stores. Cook told investors he developed a complicated financial formula that involved making money from Islamic banks through the currency market. Drier simply lied and told people he was working with billionaire, Sheldon Solo. Madoff dispensed with the awkwardness and told people how he made money was a trade secret. In fact, his annual statements read: “GUESS WHAT? YOU MADE MONEY!”
Madoff revealed nothing and his silence was an opportunity for others to fill in the blanks. Intellectual secrets? Front running? Inside trading? Split conversion strike? What do any of these words mean? What did the average investor know? What did they need to know? Their middlemen were telling them Madoff was golden and it was hard to argue with the returns. As long as there were returns, which brings us to…
IV – FORGET ABOUT THE FUTURE
On December 11, 2008, Bernie Madoff was arrested for perpetuating the largest investment fraud in U.S. history. It is believed over $65 billion was fleeced from investors from simple retirees in Boca Raton, Florida to old money royalty in Europe. That’s $65 billion more than I have in the bank. The figure eclipses any amount spirited by Drier, Cook and Petters combined. But what made the fraud astonishing was not only the amount but the longevity. In the end what made it successful wasn’t the background, the lavish lifestyle, the middlemen whispering unheard returns. It was the investor’s ability to fund the endeavor. For most of the 90’s and 00’s, cheap money floated the economy and it didn’t take much to make investors believe they could earn even more. You cannot build a pyramid scheme without money but none can last for it is never rests on a solid foundation. It may be a pyramid, but it is actually inverted with all hopes and pressure coming down on one single man, the man with all the money, the outlandish promises and borrowed time.
Madoff wasn’t arrested because he was running a Ponzi scheme. People knew his investments were dodgy. (His returns were the baseball equivalent of a player hitting 925% for 10 straight years.) No, the government only moved in when his financial house collapsed.
I wonder if Madoff, Drier, Petters and Cook knew they were eventually going to jail. It’s the least they could do for the financial ruin they sowed, leaving investors all over the world collectively holding an empty bag. And, man, I do hate empty bags.
I don’t know how many times I have stood in front of a vending machine to admire the bounty. Candy bars, beef jerky, powdered donuts, but the snacks to grab my attention are the ones on the top row. Puffed out, barely resting in their slots, the potato chips bags look like they could hold an endless supply. But as quickly as I rip open the bag, the fantasy escapes as I’m left with three chips.
Three chips? How can a legitimate business charge a dollar for three chips? More importantly, why do I keep falling for it?
Half measures aren’t just in vending machines. They can appear in the unlikeliest of places. I’ve even found them creeping into my pens.
I like to jot things down when brainstorming and there was a time when I was burning through a collection of pens like cigarettes. At first I thought it was on the account of being voluminous, but then I remembered I’m not a big fan of being voluminous. So, I took apart a new pen and discovered the reason. The plastic syringe that ran the full length of the pen was barley filled a quarter of the way. This wasn’t a half measure. This was a raw deal.
It’s bad enough to get suckered into buying something not fully disclosed. I find it even worse when a product brags about something that doesn’t even make sense. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t understand why quietness would be a needed quality in a dishwasher. And yet, I came across a commercial with two women enjoying a cup of herbal tea in an immaculately clean kitchen.
DENISE: Oh, Diane.
DIANE: Yes, Denise.
DENISE: This tea is exquisite.
DIANE: Isn’t it? My husband picked it up while on business in Taipei.
DENISE: And you know what makes this whole experience even better.
DIANE: Do tell.
DENISE: The luxurious quiet we are afforded in this domestic Eden you call a kitchen.
DIANE: I hope the boiling water wasn’t too much.
DENISE: Not at all.
DIANE: And the dishwasher?
DENISE: Is it running?
No it’s not. A dishwasher should concentrate on cleaning. Maybe it doesn’t have to be as loud as a 30 year-old lawn mower, but shouldn’t work equal noise? Would I really be shoveling snow if I wasn’t complaining? Would you want a cleaning lady as quiet as a jungle cat? Would you look over her resume and say, “I see you were trained in the ways of the ninja.” Would you want her sneaking from room to room, cleaning and scaring your house guests?
DENISE: I met your cleaning lady this morning.
DIANE: Isn’t she quiet?
DENISE: I had no idea she was in the bathroom until she handed me a towel.
DIANE: We just love her stealth.
I think a machine remaining idle and a machine in a full wash cycle shouldn’t register the same level of noise. I would find nothing more irritating than to think the dishwasher was running only to discover I forgot to hit the start button.
Hyping products has gotten so bad lately it’s been creeping into arenas that don’t even need it like the weather. In fact, most forecasts could afford to be deflated. I don’t know how many times I had the forecast tell me Armageddon was to come only to step outside and hardly see rain. Weather forecasters are so bad at telling me what the weather is at the moment I don’t understand how they can create a seven day forecast. If it’s summer, as long as they don’t use the words “snow” and “chill”, they can make anything up:
TODAY: 75/85. Partly Cloudy. Humid. Chance of rain 20%
TUESDAY: Same as above. Chance of rain maybe 21%.
WEDNESDAY: Possibly cooler. Maybe less humid. Chance of rain… How does 15% sound?
THURSDAY: 77/80. Partly cloudy and low humidity. Hopefully no rain. We have a company picnic.
FRIDAY: 55/58. Violent thunderstorms, hail and possible tornado. Just kidding! We don’t know.
SATURDAY: Locust and pestilence. Does anybody read this far out? Oh, shoot! It’s the weekend.
SUNDAY: 75/80. Low humidity and no wind. A perfect day if the forecast holds to be true.
There is so much pomp and bloat in our day-to-day it’s almost news when a company doesn’t even try to sell its product. I heard the best burgers are the ones at In-N-Out Burger. I hear lines can form at dawn. I know people who have taken a cab to grab the burger between connecting flights. Going to In-N-Out Burger was the only part of Walter’s plan that didn’t fall apart when he set out to retrieve The Dude’s stolen briefcase in The Big Lebowski. In-N-Out Burgers are legendary. But did you know they have achieved this status without the benefit of an advertising campaign? The whole enterprise rests solely on word of mouth.
It’s nice to know there are companies who are willing to let their products stand by themselves. In fact, I can think of a whole industry that could adopt this approach.
Pharmaceutical companies hold enormous sway for unlike In-N-Out Burgers they can help provide a healthy lifestyle. You’d think that’d be enough. You’d think pharmaceutical companies could make their drugs without splattering their names on everything from ping pong paddles to beach towels. You’d think doctors could get through the day without “accidentally” running into five drug reps in the elevator. You’d think you could watch a half hour of television without having to be exposed to people with weak bones, leaky bladders and hardened stools.
Most drug commercials can be shrugged off, but it’s hard to watch the ones that deal with heart medication. I always flinched at the commercial where a lady on a golf course talks about her heart condition while a hospital gurney slowly follows from behind. A hospital gurney? On a golf course? Isn’t that overkill? If the gurney is going to follow, the least it can do is carry her clubs.
I also think the viewing public would be better off if it no longer had to watch erectile dysfunction commercials, especially the ones that have grandpa and grandma lounging naked in outdoor bathtubs. Do seniors even do this? Do twenty year-olds? Does a suburban kitchen really disappear into the blue lagoon when someone gets into the mood? I know sex sells, but can’t there be a little reality? I understand silver hair seniors having sex is important to silver hair seniors, but I think pharmaceutical companies are also missing a different almost patriotic angle.
Did you know at one time the CIA passed out the little blue pills to bribe Afghani warlords? In a part of the world where trust is not an option and outsiders are regarded with hostile disdain, Afghanis could not afford the appearance of working with U.S. Forces. Nobody was going to openly support an outside influence by accepting cash or a new truck if it means their eventual death. But a pill to resolve erectile dysfunction could easily be exchanged with no one the wiser.
FAZEL: This tea, where did you get it?
HAKIM: I picked up while on business in Kandahar. You like?
FAZEL: I do.
FAZEL: I have to say, I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something different about you.
HAKIM: How so?
FAZEL: Have you lost weight?
HAKIM: Only work.
FAZEL: Why the whistling?
HAKIM: It helps with the work.
FAZEL: Still, there is something, yes?