If you've never heard of the Snuggie, then you haven't been watching cable TV. The two-minute commercial for the "blanket with sleeves," which began airing last September, has been playing endlessly and not just on struggling channels during the wee hours of the morning. Images of Snuggie-clad family members high-fiving one another at an outdoor sporting event and looking like, as one blogger put it, a "laid-back Satanic cult" have appeared during prime time on such cable stalwarts as ESPN, Comedy Central and CNN, becoming so ubiquitous that everyone from Jay Leno to a gazillion people on YouTube is taking note. Witness this "Cult of the Snuggie" parody, for example.
Or take Cameron Cosgrove, an 18-year-old Connecticut native who posted a seven-minute, profanity-laden rant on YouTube about the cuddly merchandise. "This is the best way to explain it," he tells the camera between long drags on a cigarette. "It's a bathrobe. That is really long. That you wear backwards."
Scott Boilen, CEO and president of Allstar Products Group, the company that makes the sleeved fleece, is familiar with Snuggie haters; he's seen Cosgrove's rant: "Publicity is publicity. At least people are talking about it," he says. And people are evidently buying it, with more than 3 million Snuggies sold and counting. This is perhaps not surprising in a country that turned the inventor of the Pet Rock a pebble with googly eyes glued on into a millionaire in three months.
Like Ginsu knives or the George Foreman grill, the Snuggie has become synonymous with "direct-response advertising" the preferred industry parlance for commercials that feature a toll-free 800 number for placing orders. And thanks to the recession, such "as-seen-on-TV" companies are purchasing more air time for chump change.
"I like to say that we're getting beachfront property at trailer-park prices," says A.J. Khubani, founder and CEO of Telebrands, another popular purveyor of infomercialesque merchandise. His company is buying better TV slots at prices averaging 25% less than last year's. Commercials for Telebrands products, which include an egg-shaped callus remover (the PedEgg) and nail clippers for pets (PediPaws), now appear during The O'Reilly Factor, one of the most popular shows on Fox News.
"Marketers are clearly demanding more measurability and accountability from their advertising spend," says Tom Dellner, editor of Electronic Retailer and Online Strategies magazines. "In a way, [direct-response advertising] makes the big branding ad agencies look a little wasteful and indiscriminate pouring millions into creative media buys with a hope and a prayer that it works."
While sales are down at most nationwide retailers, Khubani says the number of Telebrands products purchased in Walgreens, Target and Wal-Mart are "way up," with overall sales nearly doubling since last year. "They're typically inexpensive, solve a common problem, and they're fun," Khubani says, explaining the success of his products. Of course, when it comes to pricing, it helps that many of these companies, including Allstar, outsource nearly all aspects of production, shipping and ordering. The Snuggie, for example, is manufactured in China.
And though the blogosphere is buzzing with accusations that the Snuggie ripped off a similar product dubbed the "Slanket," Boilen says the concept has been around for nearly 50 years. The long and colorful evolution of the blanket with arms has included the patriotically named Freedom Blanket, the Book Blanket, the Cuddle Wrap and the Toasty Wrap, a product Montel Williams hawks on his talk show turned infomercial, Living Well with Montel.
But if Boilen has his way, the Snuggie and its aggressive marketing campaign aren't going away. His company plans to introduce new versions later this year, from the Outdoor Snuggie to the Snuggie for Kids. "We're hoping this is going to be a brand in the U.S. for a long time to come," he says. Someone get Cameron Cosgrove another cigarette.