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Philly-area marketer rides the $350B As Seen on TV gravy train

America’s love affair with gadgets is going global.
Several of the As Seen on TV products sold by Top Dog Direct. (Provided)

Laugh all you want at those crazy TV commercials touting the latest and greatest gadgets, but the As Seen on TV industry is a $350+ billion market.

For more than 30 years, Trevose, Pennsylvania, marketer Bill McAlister, CEO of Top Dog Direct, has been laughing all the way to the bank with some of the most popular As Seen on TV creations, including Mighty Putty, BeActive Brace, Spray Perfect, Futzuki, Stream Clean, Urine Gone and Sobokawa Cloud Pillow. Top Dog Direct even went to the Mojave Desert to pull a plane using a Mighty Putty product.

The key to a successful As Seen on TV (ASOT) product is that it solves a common problem, reaches mass audiences and retails for less than $20, with enthralling televised demonstrations. But Americans want to know: Are all these magical inventions made in China?

“The manufacturing is done here [in the U.S.] to use only FDA-approved facilities and shorten the supply chain,” McAlister said. “For more labor-intensive products, they are made overseas. Health and beauty items are primarily made in the United States.”

ASOT stores, like the one at King of Prussia Mall, are a very small part of the retail channel for TV items, with 500 or so stores. The mass retailers – Walmart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and Walgreens – are where 95 percent of TV items are sold.

America’s greatest assets are its entrepreneurial spirit and economic freedom, making it an inventors' paradise, according to McAlister. What about all the naysayers who claim it’s a bunch of cheaply made plastic crap?

“Top Dog Direct has a very low return rate of less than 5 percent. We sell quality goods," McAlister said. "Because of the high cost of media and product, any company that does sell inferior goods is quickly out of business. We have extensive QA [quality assurance] procedures and monitor customer returns closely. … The cost versus the retail price of individual products is strictly confidential. Depending on the item, it can vary approximately 25 percent.”

Just like every industry has its renegades that sometimes go rogue, so does this one. For instance, the Slap Chop/Shamwow products used to be hawked on popular TV ads by a guy who wound up in jail for beating a person. But others have more inspirational stories, like the Hot Buns mom.

Taylor Baldwin is a single mother of four daughters living her dream in San Diego, thanks in part to Top Dog Direct. Her invention, beauty product Hot Buns, was a hit.

“I knew hair buns were making a comeback and knew women had a hard time making them. There was also a trend to cut up and roll men’s socks to help make a perfect bun. So, I came up with a device that would help make a perfect bun in seconds, and any girl could do it,” Baldwin said. “I was blessed to have much success with my first invention – but I have also failed with others, and there are many more products in the pipeline.”

Products are made anywhere from China to America, she said.

“Sure, there’s crap out there, but for the most part, the products are not crap," Baldwin said. "They solve some sort of challenge for the masses."

Richard Davidson, founder and president of RK Response Inc., found his claim to fame with foot reflexology mat Futzuki, also with help from Top Dog Direct, after meeting McAlister at a Vegas trade show.

“I was introduced to reflexology and realized there could be a better and easy way to get pain relief to my feet," he said. "I designed and patented the ZUKI technology of multiple points used to penetrate the surface of the body for reflexology purposes."

For those who think they have the next great invention, take some words of advice from the master marketer himself.

“For those special problem solvers, research to see if it has already been invented. Often it has. If not," he said, "create a prototype and test it thoroughly to make sure that it works quickly and easily, then bring it to Top Dog Direct, and we can create the next TV hit."