Some of my readers urged me to write about another odd job I held once, but at the time I deferred because it was an unusual experience of real evil, the kind that swims in the dark river of sludge beneath all capitalism. I did it because at the time I wanted more income badly. However, no one needs money badly enough to do this. It was the desire for money that seduced me into doing it. It was the desire to have a clean soul that got me back out. For eighteen months, I helped make INFOMERCIALS. (You may scream now.)
When I went to interview, I was still a “human search engine” by profession (see Oddest Jobs Ever Pt 4). The interview was in a nice condominium which should have been a red flag, but my curiosity often wins in these situations. The initial job was billed as “office manager”. There wasn’t an office, and the manager was a nice old lady doing the books. I had done simple bookkeeping, so I thought I could handle it. How much commerce could be taking place in an apartment? I could sense that the old lady and the man who interviewed me didn’t get along, and you would need to in such a close environment. The man who interviewed me was gregarious, charming, enthusiastic and nicely dressed. I didn’t see the horns and tail. They must be removable. (Eerie music cue goes here.)
Evil Man #1 told me an extraordinary story. I’m now sure he has used it many times and polished it over the years. He showed me news clippings about how he had been accosted by young robbers, and how he had talked them out of it by offering them jobs and a way to become legitimately rich. The articles were vague about exactly what the jobs were because they were fake articles. The incident never happened. This was the smoothest liar I had ever met, but at the time I had no idea. Evil #1 told me he (along with a partner) produced INFOMERCIALS, and told me straight away that they make more profit than any other kind of TV, and he asked if I would be interested in learning how from the ground up, and that the “office manager” job was really more of a personal assistant to the producers. Would I consider fifty thousand a year to start? Of course there would be rapid salary increases as I learned the ropes. I said yes, trying not to give the Gomer Pyle “Goll-eee” inflection to it. (Now you may imagine the image of a cartoon lollipop with the word SUCKER on it appearing over my head.)
When I came to work the next Monday, I met Evil Man #2, the other producer. Unlike Evil #1, this man was pensive and nervous, but he smiled nicely and shook my hand with confidence. Evil #2 excused himself and left, and Evil #1, who was still on the phone, motioned me to him. He asked the caller to hold, handed me a check for 70 THOUSAND DOLLARS (!) and asked if I would mind going to pick up his new Jaguar from the dealership nearby. He said “Don’t scratch it”, with an easy smile and went back to his phone call. I walked to the dealership, gave them the check and drove the car back. (Goll-eee)
Evil 2 asked if I would like to go with him to the attorney’s office and learn about contracts. He drove a new Cadillac. On the way, he explained that in this company Evil 1 was the “go” person and he was the “no” person, and that’s why their partnership worked. He also complained that the last showmercial, one of the original powdered diets, was slowing down in sales after $12 MILLION DOLLARS profit on a $10k investment. (gah-aAAh-Leee)
The lawyer was in Beverly Hills in a small private office building. His office was furnished in chrome and dark wood and looked like a movie set from The Firm. The lawyer’s suit looked very expensive. He spread out the pages of the contract and we sat at the long conference table to begin work. This show was the first one ever produced about a teeth-whitening gel you could use at home, with trays that fit over your teeth. There were contracts for the inventors of the product, the Dentist who would be endorsing it and the fulfillment company, the ones who would manufacture, package and ship the orders.
Beginning that day, and over the next year I learned how completely you can screw people using ambiguities in a contract. Each time the lawyer and Evil 2 came up with a new way to phrase something more impenetrably to increase the company’s likely percentage while reducing what had to be paid to the others, the two men would smile with delight. It’s what they lived for. All those things you have heard about “fine print” are true, and much worse than you imagine. It’s a matter of intent. If the contract writers have no conscience, and their moral position is that whatever profit is gained by any means according to a legally-binding contract is automatically deserved BECAUSE BOTH PARTIES AGREED TO IT, then there’s no limit to how much money can be made. Thousands of dollars in profit from pennies of investment, plus you use the contract to (in effect) steal another’s work. This is how the music business typically operates, and it’s what I meant when I used the term “rape me” contracts in previous articles.
Every successful showmercial falls into one of three categories based on the vulnerabilities of consumers: GREED, VANITY or HOUSEWARES. Infomercials that are truthful can not possibly profit to the degree that ones that lie will. To maximize profit, promise more, not less. When you buy, you have entered a contract for purchase. You are bound by the terms in the fine print. Money-back guarantees can easily be written in a way to make it hard for a customer to get their money back. For example, require that the item be returned unopened. Hardly anyone will do that. Or you can provide a number the customer must call to get a code for returns. That number rings an answering machine that will put you on hold (with music) for as many hours as you would like to hold. No, it isn’t fraud. You agreed to call and get the code. We didn’t agree to provide it. We still get to advertise a money-back guarantee. (neener neener)
I worked on shows about the teeth-whitener, a line of cosmetics, an exercise device, a set of self-help CDs (from Mickey Rooney) and the product that finally made me quit – a male potency enhancer supplement. My salary had gone up to 75 thousand a year, because people liked me and the evil producers were trading on that. I was running interference for the bad guys. I knew none of these products worked, but for a while I bought into the lie, that if you agree to a contract you have no right to object unless it doesn’t fulfill the terms of that contract. The contract never guarantees a result of any kind. Customers can’t legally object because the infomercial says one thing and the contract says another. The only thing with any legal weight is the contract. Just try going into court and arguing “But on TV they said…”
The male enhancer program featured Chad Everett, who really DID say “I’m not a Dr. but I played one on TV.” It was half water, with a small amount of a tincture made from (rim shot) WILD OATS. The rest was alcohol. The product and the program were aimed at men aged 40-70. Guess what happens when you give older men alcohol in a situation where they are expecting sex? They tend to get a bit frisky. We had no problem getting unpaid testimonials from real customers who were given the product for free. Viagra works better, but it doesn’t cost four cents a bottle and sell for $49.95. Of course it came with a money-back guarantee, one requiring the men to sign an affidavit that in essence was a declaration of impotence. Few bottles came back.
I’ve never made that kind of money since, but I sleep well.
Have you ever been on the wrong end of a contract?