As Seen on TV!

By Davis S. Bernstein
Boston Magazine February 2004

On a quiet hillside road of industrial buildings, in a plain little Framingham office suite he shares with his five full-time employees, Michael Antino Jr. surveys a motley assortment of hokey little doodads for the kitchen, the garden , the car, the lawn, even for pets. His short, black hair slicked with gel, his peach shirt hanging untucked over his black jeans, the 35-year-old Milford townie looks like a teacher judging a fifth-grade science fair. He picks up a dog that plays the master's recorded voice. "I don't know about this one," he says.

If you were here with him, you might think he's a little mad. Because Antino honestly believes that, although they don't know it yet, there is some product here that the people of the world cannot live without. He believes that people everywhere will want that gadget so badly they will send their money to this sparse suburban office and make him very rich.

Antino isn't crazy. He's absolutely right. He wasn't crazy when he told people they needed two griddles hinged together to make pancakes without using a spatula. He was right when he told people they needed a pot with holes punched in the lid to make spaghetti without a colander.

For anyone who has never watched television, those two items became Perfect Pancake and the Pasta Pro, just two of the products Antino sells through his company, Merchant Media. People do indeed apparently believe they can't live without these products. And, in fact, they send him money-roughly $50 million a year.

The direct-marketing world, the as-seen-on-TV industry, has its share of shysters and con men. But it also had entrepreneurs like Michael Antino Jr., carrying out smart business plans based on carefully tracked marketing, outsourcing of actual production, constant innovation, and a bizarre but earnest belief in the fine line between genius and stupidity. On almost every street in every town in this country there's a Merchant Media product in a drawer or on a shelf. It's been barely a year since the world first heard about the Pasta Pro and the product has already pretty much run its course from obscurity to what the Wall Street Journal called "perhaps the biggest as-seen-on-TV phenomenon since the George Foreman grill." And now Antino, in his Framingham office, is back to looking for the next gadget America can't live without.

Perfect Pancake makes a pretty good pancake. Nothing amazing, mind you, but it does exactly what it claims to do. You pour your batter into the pan, let it cook, and when it's ready to turn over you close the lid, lift and flip in a steady motion, and set it back down on the stove.

Frankly, I never minded using a spatula, so I would never have seen in this device the potential for making zillions of dollars. Neither, in fact, did the inventor. This is what separates us from Antino.

Antino often finds his products form outside sources. In the case of Perfect Pancake, the inventor, by a strange coincidence, also turns out to be from Milford. A pancake lover and retired engineer, he worked for years on a device to make shaped pancakes. He called it the Range Rider. He fashioned preshaped, Teflon-coated metal plates that spelled out such things as "Good Morning" and "Happy Birthday: and snapped into place between two griddles. Pour in the batter and the pancake takes this shape and keeps it, even when you flip the pan.

The engineer from Milford tried for years to sell his product, and eventually made a deal with one of those other companies that advertise on TV-to inventors. That company, based in Florida, never promoted the product successfully, Antino says. It so happens that the Florida concern that produces Antino's commercials also works with the invention company that picked up the Range Rider. Someone there told Antino about it, and Antino contacted the inventor.

Antino didn't care about the "Good Morning" messages in the pancakes, but he did like the idea of making pancakes without a spatula. "I was concerned people would have reservations because it only makes one pancake at a time," he admits. "But it's a large pancake."

He bought out the contract, repackaged the hinged pan, threw in a heart shaped plate and a batter dispenser, and renamed it Perfect Pancake. He contracted with a factory in China to make the things, with a couple of places to take the phone orders, and with a couple of other places to warehouse and ship the products. He had the folks in Florida make him a commercial, and he saturated the airwaves with it. And then he waited nervously to see whether anybody besides himself wanted to make pancakes without a spatula.

It was on back order almost from the moment the commercial first aired. To date, Antino has sold more than 4.5 million Perfect Pancake pans. The retired engineer from Milford? He moved to Florida years ago and is enjoying the royalties.

Michael Antino Sr. is a pleasant, unpretentious man who handles Merchant Media's importing and fulfillment operations from the company's Framingham office. Antino Sr. for years supplied goods to retail outlets like Target. In the early 1990's he stumbled across a supplier trying to unload a big stash of DD7, a miraculous stain-removing product touted in infomercials. The infomercials were no longer running, and since the only way the product sold was through the toll-free number advertised on TV, sales were nonexistent. Antino Sr. figured maybe he could convince his retail partners to try stocking it. He bought the remaining DD7 on a closeout, got it into stores, and , lo and behold, the infomercials had so much sticking power that people recognized the stuff and bought, and bought, and bought, until there was no more to buy.

Antino Jr. saw his calling. In 1996, he founded Merchant Media with his father. His plan: Find the next miracle product, saturate cable TV with commercials for it, and at the some time put it on shelves with that familiar "As Seen on TV" logo.

Perfect Pancake was far from his first success. First there was the Gator Grip universal socket wrench ("Instantly grips any shape!"). There was the Singer Smart Scissors, the Chef Wizard, and the DividePro. There was the Squeeze Wrench ("Works in any space; fits in any place!"). Even Secretary of State Colin Powell bought a Squeeze Wrench. Antino kept the general's signed check.

He's had failures too. There was the Glove Vac, which is exactly what you'd imagine-a glove-shaped attachment for you home vacuum cleaner that you wear on your hand. You can walk around your house with it and just reach up, around, under, wherever, to suck up dust. "I though that was a unique idea," Antino says, still clearly heartbroken not just over the financial loss, but also about being so very wrong. Describing it, he gets excited all over again and looks at me eagerly, apparently hoping that I'll agree how great this product is. Then he comes back to reality. "It was a dud right out of the gate."

Another flop was a device meant to be put in a stovepot that automatically stirs sauce or gravy to prevent clumping and burning. Antino was so sure of it that he ignored some warning signs. "I thought it was a slam dunk, but it tested terribly," he recalls. The stirrer is still in production but has never earned back its investment.

Still, Antino says, "The batting average in this industry is about one success in ten attempts," Antino says. "We're probably two or three out of ten." Merchant Media rolls out ten to twelve new products a year.

There's no science, no formula-just Antino's gut feeling for America's impulse buy desires. He and his small staff sit around a table looking at products, discussing them, debating them. If they like an idea, Antino works out the numbers-he needs a 400 to 500 percent markup, so for the typical $19.95 item he needs to keep his cost down to $4 per unit for everything from marketing to advertising to shipping. One of the big challenges is figuring out what little bonuses to throw in. The Pasta Pro, for example, came in well under the $4 limit, so Antino and his employees sat around thinking of extras to add. They ended up with a recipe booklet and a cheese grater. Sometimes they throw in another product already lying around, like the Chef Wizard wire tongs.

Next, the producers in Florida get to work putting together those cheesy but incredibly effective commercials that show families enjoying the product while an excited announcer exclaims: "But wait-there's more!"

Antino test-markets the ad for a week on a couple of national cable channels and gauges the response. He knows exactly how many orders per spot he needs to make a profit. "You learn in that one week whether it's a slam dunk, a dud, or a gray area," Antino says.

If it's a go, it's a go. Everything has to get out there at once-the television ads, magazine insert cards, catalog insertions, up to 500 different online store placements, and those product-offer slips that come with your credit card bill, not to mention the product itself and the store displays to plug it. "We hit you from all angles," Antino says. Women are the primary targets, since they buy about 60 percent of directly marketed products. "Men are generally more pessimistic buyers," Antino says. "Women say, 'I'll try anything and return it.'"

Depending on the product, Antino gets from 1.5 to 3.5 percent of his products returned, he says. He makes refunds without question. The most trouble he has had was when the Vermont attorney general threatened to prosecute him on behalf of Perfect Pancake buyers for misleading advertising. Merchant Media paid the state $20,000 and sent refunds to 1,200 Vermont purchasers of the product to settle the suit.

On the other hand, as many as 30 percent of the people who call to place an order for an item buy more than one. And 1,200 refunds is a drop in the bucket; one of the things that caused the problems in Vermont, in fact, was that demand was so unexpectedly high; Antino couldn't fill orders fast enough. "I underestimated how often and how many people eat pancakes," he says now.

One of the callers was a company that wanted to distribute Perfect Pancake in Eastern Europe. Sure, Antino said: Give it a shot. He has sold close to 100,000 units in Slovenia and Hungary. "I don't even think they eat pancakes there," Antino says.

It may amaze you to know that pasta pots with holes in their lids for straining, which you may think of as a thoroughly modern, 21st-century invention, have been around for 80 years. The original patent was given in 1920; a version was actually on the shelves of Wal-Mart and Target stores before Merchant Media ever got involved. It's just that before Antino told the world about it, nobody realized how much they needed it.

Like the Perfect Pancake, the Pasta Pro works just fine, except that it's a little small to make spaghetti in. Again, I never really minded the colander experience, but who am I to question genius?

One of Antino's Perfect Pancake subcontractors tipped him off to the pasta pot the July before last. After three months working on the product, Antino ran a test commercial and contracted with a Chinese factory to start producing the pots. Normally, he would have had a two-to-three month lease time at that point to get everything in place. This time, things went a little faster.

Someone at the factory, Antino says, leaked information about the Pasta Pot to a Merchant Media competitor-a constant threat, he says, in the dog-eat-dog, high-stakes world of direct marketing. Since the patent had expired, the pot/colander concept was open to anyone. He had to beat the other guy to market.

He rolled out Pasta Pro three weeks later, spending on average between $350,000 and $750,000 a week on ads. Things went berserk. At the height of Pasta Pro mania, Antino had seven factories churning out 45,000 pots per day. The commercial was on as many as 100 networks, using 150 different toll-free numbers to help Antino determine by the minute which shows did the best, and which did poorly.

Competitors were right behind him with the Better Pasta Pot and the Perfect Pasta Pot, capitalizing on Antino's advertising. Antino laughs at one of them. "They made theirs white. People in a store know that the one they saw on TV was red. If they had made it red, they could have stolen way more of our business." To be honest, Antino's product really is better. The others don't have the lid-locking mechanism that makes the Pasta Pro easy to use.

Even with the competition, to date, Antino has sold more than 5.5 million Pasta Pros.

On the other hand, once five million people own a Pasta Pro, that's about all you're going to sell. A year after Antino first laid eyes on the product it had run its course. You can still find the pots on store shelves and you might have caught a few final commercials before Christmas, but for the most part, this item is done.

So Antino is looking for the next big hit. Commercials are now running for the Pack Max and the Original Chocolate Factory, a chocolate-dipping double boiler that seems to greatly entertain the mother and children in the commercial Antino showed me before it tested.

You can get two medium, two large, and one jumbo-sized bag for $19.95, plus shipping and handling. I'm buying a set. One more household succumbs to Michael Antino Jr.