Bob Garfield, in his new book, "Waking Up Screaming From the American Dream," explores in a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant way, the various fine lines that cut through all of our lives. "The fact that most of the people I've encountered never achieved what they sought to achieve, I've finally discovered, is hardly the point. The point is that it occurred to none of them that it was hopeless or foolish or unusual to try. Quite the contrary. In America, come what may, it is second nature to try. And if at first we don't succeed, we try, try again. Ever seeking. Ever questing. Ever in the pursuit of that elusive happiness," Bob writes in his book's introduction.
Bob over the last decade has scoured the nation for offbeat examples of people who bet their lives on big ideas that somehow never went anywhere. I came away with the impression that under different circumstances some of the ideas might have prevailed; they weren't any wackier than other people's ideas that made it in the marketplace. Some might have been before their time.
Take the guy who thought up a product that protected you from getting germs from talking on the phone. It was called Speakeasies and looked like the surgical slippers that doctors and nurses wear in operating rooms, as Bob described it. Speakeasies slip over the entire phone handset, "providing a protective layer of fabric between the user and the unseen bacteria-with no audio distortion." The brochure for the product positioned it thusly: "Save on unnecessary medical expenses. Yes, never wipe off a public phone again!!! Only $4.98 for a package of 10."
What's wrong with that idea? People are getting increasingly aware that the danger of germs lurks everywhere, and more and more household products are playing up their germ-fighting ingredients. I read in The New York Times the other day that a recent CBS poll showed that three-quarters of Americans were aware of germs in their daily lives, and that more than half said they clean or cover public surfaces to avoid the scourge of germs. The Times reported that "people are buying all manner of anti-germ products, including antibacterial dog beds, underwear, cutting boards, sponges and infant toys." The market for antibacterial soaps alone went over $500 million last year.
The Japanese are real anti-germ fanatics. They buy cars treated with antibacterial sprays and demand that money from cash machines be sterilized and pressed. There is even a product-which costs $336 for a solid silver model-that scrapes bacteria off the tongue, according to the Times. Speakeasies would have been a major success in Japan.
Like I said, there's a fine line between success and failure. The guy who invented Speakeasies, a Bronx bus driver, had a perfectly acceptable marketing plan. He rented 10,000 names from Prevention. But he's run out of money.
Bob's new book documents lots of other ideas that were destined to fail, like the guy who started Bathroom Journal, the town fathers who put an exclamation point after the name of their town to attract business or the man who will freeze-dry your pet. They all had high hopes, indefatigable spirits. They never threw in the towel.
And neither does Bob in his Ad Reviews for our family publication, although I think he should have in his critique last week. Can you imagine anyone actually liking those crazy promos for the ABC Television network? Well, Bob did.
Bob admits that the self-deprecating advertising is generic in nature. "The medium it so archly celebrates is for sale on the com- petition's networks, as well," he notes. "But consider, for example, Nike. It has become a juggernaut talking about the transcendence of sport."
Yeah, but it's difficult to become the juggernaut of TV networks when you can only air your hip new spots on your own (poorly watched) network. That's like preaching to the converted. I loved Bob's book. I laughed, I cried. But I'm