In a squat brown office park in Fairfield, New Jersey—the headquarters of the Telebrands infomercial empire—five men and one woman are gathered around a long conference table, trying to figure out what’s wrong in your life.
On any given morning, they might ponder how bad cat litter smells, consider how hard it is to cut wrapping paper in a straight line, or wonder why fruit rots so quickly in a refrigerator. In the silver-wallpapered reception area, a flat-screen TV shows their ads in a continuous loop—an infinite sequence of encrusted grime vanishing from dirty pots, a little white dog trying to jump up onto a bed. Lining the walls are floor-to-ceiling foam-core displays of the company’s latest hit products, including a pacifier-style light that promises whiter teeth (over a million sold!), and a peel-and-stick adhesive lightbulb (installs in seconds!).
Today, vice-president of finance Bob Barnett has an idea for reducing household dirt. “We know we like products with tape,” he begins. “So what happens if you take a doormat that has ten sheets of tape on it, each sheet is good for three days? You walk in, you step on it, and it cleans off your shoes. After a few days, you just rip off one sheet and then get another sheet,” he continues, growing more excited as he goes. The idea draws murmurs of assent from the group, both for its can’t-miss “keep your house cleaner!” promise and the potential for arresting TV visuals (garbage cans full of the debris the mat collects in a year’s time).
Next up is CEO Ajit “A.J.” Khubani. “Dust mites,” he booms, as a monstrous image of a beetlelike insect flashes onto the projection screen.
“They eat dead skin,” he continues. “Their droppings cause allergic reactions in humans. The average mattress doubles weight over ten years as a result of being filled with dust mites and their debris. Each dust mite produces twenty droppings a day. The average bed has about 2 million dust mites, and it ranges from a new bed, which has 100,000 dust mites, to a ten-year-old bed, which has 10 million dust mites. Imagine! Ten million times twenty droppings a day. How much is that, Bala?”
“Two hundred million, A.J.”
“So what’s the idea?” Khubani continues. “We’ll do a spray solution, which is now available only in very limited markets. People typically change their sheets on a weekly basis. So we’ll present the problem, repeat the horrible facts, gross people out, get their attention, and then say here’s a simple solution. Everybody sleeps in a bed, so every viewer is a potential customer.”
Bob Barnett looks concerned. “I wouldn’t want to lay down on a bed I sprayed with a chemical,” he says.
“It would have to be nontoxic,” says Khubani. “But people spray Febreze all over their sofas and sit on their sofas every day, so I think we can overcome that hurdle in the creative.”
Raj Shahani, vice-president of new-product development, chimes in. “You know what would be a scary shot?” he asks. “Show a beautiful bedroom and then go close and you’ll see all these mites and then see your child is sleeping with them.”
Khubani continues, arguing with himself. “We show people this commercial and they’re going to start itching all over. They will be lying in bed watching TV and they’re going to say, ‘I can’t sleep anymore.’ But the other side is this, everyone is sleeping fine, they don’t really have a problem, do they? Bob, do you have a problem?”
“When you told me the story yesterday, it made me itchy. I think we could get across the idea and that people will go out and buy it,” he says.
“People will think, If I’m not spraying my bed at night, I’m not doing a good job,” says Khubani. “If they don’t spray down once a week, they’ll start to feel itchy, start to feel gross. Should we pursue the research?” Heads nod. “Okay. Thanks.”
Someday, an anthropologist who wants to understand the neuroses and embarrassments of current American life will need look no further than the devices sold via infomercial by Khubani, 47, who has built an empire on guarantees of perfect vegetable slices and freedom from dust. The company’s hits include mini-stairs that allow old or obese pets to climb onto the sofa ($30 million in sales to date), a credit-card-size magnifier-flashlight for aging eyes ($30 million), a bright-lights-and-goo tooth-whitening system ($40 million), a seamless torso girdle ($20 million), and a whirring implement that promises salon-style manicures at home ($30 million).
Khubani’s particular talent lies in identifying a certain sweet spot of angst: the unsolved everyday inconveniences that buzz away at a volume that’s just barely audible—recognizable when shown on television, yet not so incapacitating that people have already figured out how to solve them. Telebrands products, as silly as they can be, are a form of therapy, and Khubani a kind of healer—the kind who doesn’t mind padding the bill by treating ailments you didn’t even know you had.