Sy Sperling swivels around in his barber's chair to face the television audience and holds up a photograph of a man with a completely bald head. It is Sperling's head -- at least as it was before his hair was replaced -- and he is not ashamed to admit it. In fact, he admits it dozens of times a week on television in seven cities across the country.
Sperling, the founder of Hair Club for Men Ltd., a grooming center based in New York City with outlets in six other cities, has willingly flashed his bald head on all the major TV channels in those seven markets for more than a year. He claims his broadcast testimonials have been more successful than any ad he has ever run in his 16-year career.
"We use a direct-response method," explains Sperling, whose 60-second, prime-time commercials offer a toll-free number to viewers interested in a free brochure describing Hair Club's services. "We can measure the success of an ad just by counting the number of people who respond to each spot." Sperling says that commercials featuring him as company spokesman generate three times the number of calls as those that use actors.
Pitching one's product or service on the air is hardly new: The faces of Frank Borman, Lee Iacocca, and Frank Perdue are probably more familiar to television viewers than the faces of their own congresspeople. But now, founders and chief executive officers of smaller companies as well as large ones are recognizing that simply by virtue of two they are, they may have a unique advantage in getting the attention of potential consumers. And it is clear from the variety of CEOs on the airwaves these days that there is no right or wrong way to make your pitch.
Sperling's ads, for example, are the products of professional production houses and Berton Miller Associates, an advertising agency in New York City. Although he won't reveal how much each spot costs to produce, he admits that 25% of the company's $10-million revenues goes to television advertising.
Sperling, it should be noted, is an exception in the relatively new universe of small-business media stars. His experience with TV advertising spans several years, and it includes occasional appearances on local talk shows to promote his business. While his productions are not as slick as Victor Kiam's pitches for the Remington shaver, they fairly shine with professionalism when compared with the hundreds of other legendary productions by local merchants whose wooden deliveries and cheesy backdrops spell a clearly amateurish bent.
In New England, for example, brothers Barry and Eliot Jordan, of Jordan's Furniture Co., headquartered in Newton, Mass., have been producing funky media spots since 1972. First starting out on radio, they brought their message to television a few years later. One viewing of a 30-second TV commercial leaves a singular impression: The Jordan's ads are undoubtedly the product of small budgets and simple ideas. They are also incredibly successful.
A typical Jordan's Furniture spot is characterized by a crazy quilt of reclining armchairs and butcher-block tables decorating the screen. The two brothers are set adrift in this backdrop, their small forms superimposed over the slides as they extol the virtues of their enterprise. The scripts are written by the Jordans themselves, but the production is frequently done by the TV station's in-house crew, an extremely cost-efficient service provided by most local channels.
According to Derek Dalton, sales manager for WLVI-TV in Boston, a station in his area charges $500 to $800 to produce a 30-second ad like the Jordans' or a spot that simply features a founder pitching products or services in front of a static background. For $250 to $300, a station can produce an ad that features still photographs with a voice-over. Meanwhile, says Roger Rice, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising, the purchase price of a 30-second commercial on one of the 870 local TV stations in the United States can run anywhere from $10 to $10,000, depending on the market, the station, the time of day the ad is run, and the program it runs with.
For the CEO, of course, the best way to judge the impact of TV commercials is to look at their effect on company sales. The Jordans' ads were so successful that last year the brothers decided temporarily to cut back on them: They felt that their company, whose revenues have grown from $500,000 in 1972 to more than $25 million in 1984, simply couldn't handle many more new customers.
The secret behind successful TV spots, marketing experts repeatedly say, is credibility. It is a truth that no one recognizes more clearly than the Jordans. "Our narration is more than just pitching," says Barry Jordan. "We believe what we're saying. If we used an actor, it wouldn't work. An actor doesn't know the store. He could care less, and customers would pick up on that."
The ring of truth is precisely what has made the commercial reputations of more celebrated entrepreneurs than the Jordans. "In the case of someone like Frank Perdue, his ads work because he's believable," says Lee Anne Morgan, a senior vice-president for marketing for New York City-based Ketchum Advertising. "That quality is missing when you hire an actor who is removed from the product. With Perdue, or even Tom Carvel [president and CEO of Carvel Corp. ice cream stores], people are aware that they have put their entire lives and fortunes into a company."
Morgan's observations are echoed by Bob Bloom, chairman and CEO of The Bloom Cos.' advertising agency, based in Dallas. "To work, advertising must be credible," he says. "If the proprietor who is advertising doesn't have credibility, then what you have is incredible advertising. If an ad is simply an irrelevant story, an ego trip, then it's a bad idea for a proprietor to do his own pitching.
To create believability, many entrepreneurs accentuate idiosyncracies that make them more human. Frank Perdue, for example, happily emphasizes his resemblance to his most famous and lucrative product, the chicken. Tom Carvel has a raspy speaking voice, which makes his narrations all the more memorable. In Sperling's case, his ad agency discouraged him from taking voice lessons to obliterate his Bronx accent. The accent, the agency felt, made Sperling sound like the guy next door.
But there can come a point when memorable personal characteristics are a hindrance. "There is a danger with a voice like Carvel's or a look like Perdue's," says Morgan. "These things can add to the person's appeal, or they can subtract from it. Perdue works because he makes you laugh along with him."
For some people, keeping a sense of humor in the face of public scrutiny can be difficult. Certainly that was Norton Frickey's problem when he decided to pitch his legal services on local TV in Denver five years ago. Frickey had decided to do his own commercials because he felt actors and ad agencies didn't know enough about law to accurately represent his law firm, which specializes in personal injury and worker's compensation cases.But Frickey's looks are less than Hollywood quality. So when he went on the air and gave out his office phone number, many called in to respond -- but not always to pursue his professional services.
"People didn't like my face," Frickey recalls. "TV is a love-hate relationship. The people who like you will call and tell you. So will the people who don't like you. I took all the calls that came in, and I couldn't handle the feedback. I'm just not thick-skinned." So Frickey pulled his ads off the air and hired professional actors.
Which leads to an important point: If a proprietor goes on the air, he or she must be prepared to admit to a bomb. Says Morgan, "You have to be honest enough to say, 'This is not a terrific execution,' and get someone else to do the ad. A healthy ego is important."