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Kansas City's Media Corp goes looking for the next Snuggie, and discovers vintage American weirdness along the way



It's another Tuesday at Media Corp, so every desk around the office is empty.

Tuesday is show-and-tell day at Media Corp, a boutique marketing company with headquarters buried between medical suppliers and insurance offices in an Overland Park business park. As employees gather in the conference room, they leave toys scattered in their wake, like a pack of unruly children fleeing the scene of recess. Leaned against one desk is a squat plastic apparatus that promises to suck the stains out of your carpet. Sitting on another desk: a skateboarding puppet.

Earl Pardo, the president of the company, gathers in the conference room with eight employees, all of whom are armed with a stack of papers on which they'll rank products on a variety of factors: uniqueness, how well it solves a problem, mass appeal, pricing, demonstrability, believability, how easily it's explained. The ones that score the highest have what Pardo calls the "wow factor" — that feeling you get when you see something you've wanted your whole life.

Pardo, a slender man of 42, is dressed as if he's expected on the tee at noon. He leans back in his chair, still waiting to be wowed. His team has just finished examining a one-size-fits-all bungee cord. Before that, it was earrings with interchangeable beads.

"Put on the professional golf-ball cleaner," Pardo says.

Someone summons the website of a spray developed by a chemist to keep golf balls clean. But Pardo knows the dirt-repellent's secret.

"Spray this on a golf ball, wipe it off, and the golf ball will go an extra 40 yards," Pardo says.

A gleeful awe washes over the room.

"If you could spray something on your golf ball and get 40 extra yards, would you buy it?" Pardo asks. "I would."

The cleanser scores mostly high marks across the board, but it suffers in one category. The most successful inventions can be marketed to everyone. Golf may be among America's most popular recreational activities, but it's still a niche in the world of get-rich-quick inventors.

"There's 28 million golfers," someone says. "So it's weak on mass appeal."

One selling point: Sporting-goods stores are stocked with clubs that promise another 10 yards on your drive. How about selling it as offering "a 20 percent increase," at the fraction of the cost of a brand-new golf club, someone suggests.

Another issue: It would be against golf's tournament rules.

"It will not be USGA-approved," Pardo says. "You can't use it in tournaments, but who cares?"

"This is not legal!" another pitchman offers. "Not USGA-approved! That right there can be a selling point."

"Here's the thing for me," Pardo says. "If I saw this on the shelf in a store, I'd laugh at it. I'd think it was a gag gift. Who's going to believe it?"

Someone floats a 30-day, money-back guarantee. The team imagines commercials where they take the spray out to the driving range and film people hitting colossal drives, complete with testimonials. They agree to bring the inventor in later in the week, to see the spray for themselves.

Eventually they move on to the next product. It's a coaster that promises to keep drinks cool. Some speculate that it's meant to be installed in a boat; that's trouble because there are even fewer boaters than golfers.

"With boat-coaster, you'll be the coolest man on the lake! Call now!" one pitchman riffs.

"Ehh," his colleague says. "It's not quite as good as the golf ball."

In 1998, Gary Clegg was a college freshman in Maine, stuck in a freezing dorm room. He huddled under a sleeping bag, trying to stay warm. But every time he changed the channel, he exposed his arm to the cold. So with a typical freshman's mix of ingenuity and destructiveness, he slashed a hole in the sleeping bag. He found it so comfortable — and useful! — that he convinced a friend's mom to sew sleeves onto a blanket for him. Thus was born the Slanket, ancestor to the Snuggie.

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