April 30, 2009

Thoughts on "Pitchmen," Episode Three

The third episode of Pitchmen aired last night on Discovery. Overall, I liked this episode a lot. It was well constructed, entertaining and exciting, and it never felt slow or boring. While the last episode focused more on the inventors, this episode focused more on Billy and Sully -- their relationship on and off the set, and the drama that surrounds the testing of new products and the commercial production process.

The items for this show were the Sharkstopper and the Black/Freedom/Juno/Jupiter Jack.

My first reaction to the Sharkstopper, a device that uses sound to repel sharks, was "prevention doesn't sell." I can't count the number of products I've reviewed that were trying to sell prevention to impuIse DRTV buyers. It just doesn't work. This falls under my third criteria for DRTV products: It must solve a problem. And not just any problem: an immediate, pressing problem. DRTV buyers are impulse buyers. People don't buy products on impulse for a problem they might have in the future. Billy and Sully got more hung up on the "does it work?" question, which was certainly important from a liability standpoint, but I would have passed before that phase because of the prevention issue.

The Sharkstopper also violates my second criteria for DRTV products: It must be "mass market." Most people don't surf, so the problem of shark attacks is far from their minds on most days.

Of course, without the Sharkstopper, we wouldn't have had some of the best moments of the episode. I know several people in the industry who would consider Sully's bold stunt their worst nightmare (A.D., I thought of you in particular). I have no fear of sharks, but even I thought Sully was "bloody nuts" for swimming about while Billy was chucking chum into shark-invested waters. That's going too far for a DRTV product! The equivalent for me would be performing the parachute stunt in Mighty Mendit. I love to skydive as much as Sully loves to surf, but I would never put that much faith in an unproven item. At least Mighty Mendit had passed the wind tunnel test!

Moving on, and by contrast, I loved the Jupiter Jack (a hands-free cell phone device) at first site. It meets all seven of my criteria for a DRTV product. The only weakness I see is that it isn't visually exciting, or what Billy calls "demonstrable." That visual "wow" factor is so important in DRTV today. Think Billy hitting his hand with a hammer or the Frenchman cutting himself out of a metal box. The jack just kind of sits there. But I still expect it to continue doing well, especially with all the cell phone laws being passed, as Sully mentioned.

As for the show itself, I think viewers will be figuring it all out by now -- why Billy is coming off the way he does, etc. After an episode of fighting between Billy and Sully, Billy summed it up nicely for us: "When it's all over, we hug, we kiss, we make up. Not that we [ever really] had anything going. It's just how we work, how we get things done." I misread this early on and was genuinely concerned that Billy was being made to look like a bad guy, but it was clear to me after this episode that isn't the case. It's more along the lines of what I wrote last week about Billy and Sully behaving "like brothers, complete with the occassional 'family feud.' "

Last but not least, and as promised, here is my insider perspective for the week. During the editing process for the Jupiter Jack, Sully, Arwen and Carla realize the driving scenes just aren't credible and decide to do a re-shoot to get more realistic footage. I'm sure a lot of people were wondering if this really happens. A whole new day of shooting just for that? Well, it's true. Things like that do happen quite a bit. Some things you just don't see until the edit, no matter how much time you spend trying to get it right on the initial shoot. Most "pickup shots," as they are called, are much less elaborate than what the Sullivan team had to endure, but sometimes that's just the way it goes.

Some people might also wonder what the numbers at the end of the show mean. For example, the Jupiter Jack guy could make $3 in sales for every $1 spent on advertising. Is that normal or great? This number, what insiders call the "media efficiency ratio" (MER) or just the "ratio," is one of the key metrics in the industry. And a 3 to 1, if it holds up on national rollout, would be exactly what Billy called it: a hit as big as Jupiter!

Most campaigns struggle to get to a 2 to 1. In a study I did in 2007, I found the success rate for DRTV items was one in eight. However, most of the hits from the study were in the 2 to 1 MER range. When I narrowed the criteria to what would be the 3 to 1 range, I found the rate to be 1 in 50.


  1. I appreciate the insight. I like the show and am inventor. Product is (www.theplanket.com) I have sold about 200,000 units and have wondered if it would be a worthwhile product for DRTV. It DOES work, very well actually. But, as you suggested, doesn't really have the wow factor.

    Anyway, thanks again, I've been enjoying the show but thought the exact thoughts on the Shark Stopper. Silly product for them to spend 1/2 show to review.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, and great insight. I joined your group on LinkedIn as well.