Think back to the 1990s. Chances are good that, like me, you took part in fads like dancing the Macarena, collecting Beanie Babies and working out with the ThighMaster. The television image of Suzanne Somers “squeeeezing her way into shapely hips and thighs” is forever burned into our memories, a marketing campaign that inspired millions to buy and catapulted the ThighMaster into a cultural sensation.
The product was invented by Joshua Reynolds, heir to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, who labeled it the "V-Toner" and called it a full-body toning tool, but he struggled bringing it to market. It wasn’t until marketing guru Peter Bieler got his hands on it that the world came to know the ThighMaster.
I sat down with Bieler to hear his story of popularizing one of the most recognizable fat blasting products in American history.
Tell me a little about your background.
I’m originally from Canada and came down to the States to study film. I spent a lot of my early professional life working in marketing at companies like Proctor & Gamble and then moved on to production roles in film studios.
How did you get hooked up with Joshua Reynolds?
Back in the early 90s, I was a television development executive and was ready for a change. The Reagan Administration had recently deregulated the length of television commercials, so the idea of infomercials was just coming on the scene, and I was really interested. In 1990, I launched Ovation, an infomercial company, and started looking for products to market.
I was having a hard time finding the right product when one day my accountant told me about a client that was trying to transform a product idea. That client was Joshua. I called him up, we met and he explained that he was promoting it as an all-purpose portable gym, but it wasn’t selling.
I looked at it and immediately thought it’d be perfect as a thigh shaper. I ended up licensing the product, which meant I then had the exclusive rights to sell it and pay him royalties.
How did you think of involving Suzanne Somers?
Knowing the product helped shape one’s thighs, I knew I’d need a good-looking celebrity and thought of Suzanne right away. I’d shot another video with her in the past and had her number. At that point, she’d left Three’s Company and her career had taken a little downturn.
What was her reaction to the idea?
She was really excited. I sent her the product and then traveled out to her house in Palm Springs. After agreeing on a contract, we were leaving her house when she turned to me and whispered in my ear, 'This is going to be big. I’m going to make you so much money.' And she was right. We launched the product in summer 1991 and within 18 months we’d sold six million Thighmasters.
What was your secret to success?
It really came down to Suzanne. She is a master at public relations. Around the same time, she’d written her book Keeping Secrets, which was about her experience growing up in an alcoholic family, so she was booked on a lot of talk shows to discuss her book. During each of those interviews, she would segue into chatting about the ThighMaster. She treated it as a joke, but it ended up helping sales tremendously.
Our television-to-retail strategy also helped. I put the product into stores just six weeks after first showing it on television. We put together a team of sales reps across the country and got it into every store from Walmart to Target. Store sales and direct response to our 800-number on the infomercial helped a lot.
Why did sales go through the roof for only 18 months?
I think all television products go through popularity curves. It was a faddy product, and it just ran its course.
What was that period like for you?
It was very stressful. We were manufacturing the product at a small factory in Arizona. I had walked in to that factory off the street less than a year before and plopped the ThighMaster on the manager’s desk. I asked him if he could make it, he said yes, and I ordered a few hundred. Within eight months, there were lines of Walmart trucks circling his factory, fighting for space. It got to the point where individual stores and chains were calling us to deliver the product directly because the demand was so high. It was a crazy time.
What happened after the craze broke?
I sold Ovation in 1993 to one of my partners. I understand that Suzanne ended up subsequently buying the rights to the product. I’m pretty sure she owns them now.
In 1996, I launched Media Funding Corporation, which is where I am still currently president. We specialize in the direct response industry and help fund media buys.
What marketing advice can you give to budding entrepreneurs?
If your plan isn’t working, try something drastically different. Don’t just change your pricing, for example. Try to change your product name, the way you present it, your distribution channels…change everything. And if you want to make a product that will become a cultural phenomenon, I recommend signing on a celebrity or making sure your product is wonky enough to get attention. Remember the pet rock? That was all marketing.
Photo credit: Courtesy Media Funding Corporation