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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Shark Tank

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By the standards of reality television, ABC’s Shark Tank (Fridays, 9 p.m. EST) plays it pretty straight. Entrepreneurs with promising business ideas are shuttled to a sound stage in Los Angeles where they pitch a panel of investors—including Mark Cuban, “Queen of QVC” Lori Greiner, and the occasional Guest Shark—hoping to convince them their product is worth their time and venture capital.

Even if the Sharks decline, getting a chance to display a product in front of the show’s estimated six million viewers is invaluable. We asked some former contestants and one Shark deals curator about the pressure to perform, the merchandise with the best chance of succeeding, and why every segment taping begins with a very awkward moment of silence.

1. YOU WILL PROBABLY NEVER APPEAR ON THIS SHOW.

Owing to the allure of getting 10 minutes to advertise your product on network television for free, Shark Tank can receive more than 100,000 applications every season. Some are submitted via the show's website, while other entrepreneurs appear during open casting calls to “audition” for casting agents looking to fill the 100-odd slots for the show’s 31-episode cycles. “Watching people on television gives everyone a sense of, ‘I could do that,’” says TJ Hale, the host of Shark Tank Podcast, which follows up on contestants and keeps a log of show statistics. “But the odds are against you.”

2. CONTESTANTS CAN SPEND OVER AN HOUR IN FRONT OF THE SHARKS.

While product pitches are typically aired in 10-minute segments, business owners are often hashing out details with the Sharks for an hour or more. “The first time, I was in there 45 minutes,” says Aaron Marino, who appeared in a season four episode with his Alpha M image consultation business and will appear a second time in this season’s finale on May 20. “The second time was an hour, hour-and-a-half. When you get into the minutiae of business numbers, they cut a lot of that stuff out.”

3. ONCE YOU’RE ON SET, YOU CAN’T SPEAK FOR 30 SECONDS.

Business owners who walk through the twin doors and onto the area rug in front of the Sharks don’t get to begin talking immediately: they have to stand in silence for 30 seconds while the production crew adjusts their cameras for establishing shots. “You’re just standing there,” says Eric Bandholz, whose Beardbrand line of facial hair products vied for a deal in season six. “The Sharks are smiling awkwardly. The whole thing is pretty intense.”

4. THERE’S NO ONE YELLING “CUT.”

Once a pitch starts, it’s rarely (if ever) interrupted for anything, with the Sharks firing off questions and talking over one another to create a perfect storm of faux-boardroom anxiety for the contestant. “There’s no stopping,” Marino says. “If you mess up, you have to keep going. You have all these very dominant personalities going after you, talking over themselves. It’s sensory overload.”

5. HAVING A KICKSTARTER HELPS A LOT.

According to Hale, approximately one in four contestants wind up being “scouted” by producers, meaning they’ll be contacted by the show with a cold call. That interest often stems from having a Kickstarter that helps spread word of your product. “It’s kind of like validation,” Hale says of raising capital through crowdfunding. “You might be looked upon more favorably.”

6. THERE’S NO GUARANTEE YOUR SEGMENT WILL AIR.

Even though Shark Tank films over 100 pitches per season, the show offers no promises when it comes to airing taped segments: a handful will wind up unused. That means contestants who sink money into advertising or inventory expecting a “Shark Tank bump” could put themselves at risk if they don’t make the final cut, which they might not find out for up to a year after taping. “You get notice you’re going to be on air about two weeks before the episode,” says Bandholz. “You don’t want to invest too much into your business because you could wind up sabotaging yourself if you don’t make it on.”

7. THERE’S NO FRATERNIZING WITH THE SHARKS.

Entrepreneurs are taken from their hotel to a waiting area, and then to the set. No Sharks are introduced to them prior to their segment. “There’s no access to them whatsoever,” Marino says. “They just film one right after another. I did get to pee next to Robert Herjavec one time, though. All I said was, ‘Hey, see you soon!’”

8. EVERYONE HAS TO SEE A PSYCHIATRIST.

Once entrepreneurs are done filming, they’re immediately whisked off-set and into a meeting with a show-appointed psychiatrist for an off-air evaluation. “They just want to work through how you’re feeling,” says Bandholz. “I’ve heard from other contestants that they can be devastated by their performance, or by what the appearance might mean for their business. It’s a very intense emotional roller coaster.”

9. MOST OF THE ON-AIR DEALS DON’T GO THROUGH.

While contestants who accept an offer from one or more of the Sharks seem to have it made, it’s little more than a handshake deal. Owing to the due diligence process, Hale estimates that more than two-thirds of deals that are agreed upon in the show fall through. “It’s more like a first date,” he says. “You go back and find things you don’t like. Sometimes the deal terms change.”

10. REPEATS CAN NET BUSINESSES A BUMP IN SALES.

While most of the business boost from appearing on Shark Tank comes during the first run of the episode, the show’s presence on CNBC in repeats doesn’t hurt. “It’s never the same as the initial airing, but we do see a bump,” says Bandholz. “Sometimes they’ll show it overseas. We’ve seen orders from when the show is airing in Spain and Portugal.”

11. WANT A DEAL? THINK FOOD AND FASHION.

While contestants have demonstrated everything from construction site amusement parks to bed warmers, Hale’s numbers point to the food and beverage industry as being prime Shark bait. Out of the 107 deals Hale has logged, nearly half have been in either the food or fashion and beauty categories. But, Hale cautions, each Shark has his or her own preferences that might not align with the numbers. “Daymond John isn’t so interested in apparel anymore,” he says. “And Mark Cuban is probably not going to do pet food.”

12. THEIR COMPETITORS CAN BENEFIT, TOO.

When he received notice that Beardbrand would be featured on the show, Bandholz discovered a surprising—and unwelcome—side effect of the publicity. “Competitors will see that and start advertising more,” he says. “They’ll buy ads on the show for competing products.”

13. PEOPLE MATTER MORE THAN PRODUCT.

Hale recently interviewed the inventors of the Slyde Handboard, a swimming apparatus that can surf waves using only the wearer’s hand. “They applied for the show three times, and they told me that both times they focused on the product, they didn’t make it,” he says. “The third time, they made themselves the narrative, part of the product. You need to have suspense, intrigue, humor, tension. You can have the cure for cancer and if you’re boring, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s reality TV.”

All images courtesy of ABC unless otherwise credited.

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10 Dangerous Toys from Decades Past (and the Commercials That Sold Them)
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Baby Boomers are a hardy bunch. They rode in cars that weren’t equipped with special toddler seats, walked to and from school without being electronically tethered to their parents, ate lunches filled with allergens and preservatives, played with toys that would be quickly pulled from shelves today, and still persevered to become the largest living generation of the U.S. population. Whether you owned a Johnny Seven One Man Army or just want to know more about the ultra-violent, bestselling toy of 1964, let's take a look back at some of the dangerous toys of yesteryear and the commercials that sold them.

1. SIXFINGER

My younger brother had one of these, and I’m here to tell you that as tiny as it was, this gun had some serious firepower—those little plastic bullets hurt like heck! (You think your average seven-year-old boy is going to pay attention to the package disclaimer that warned against aiming the Sixfinger at human targets?) Just in case the possibility of losing an eye to a sharp projectile wasn’t edgy enough, one of the “bullets” came equipped with a cap—the shock-sensitive exploding variety. All this mayhem was available for the bargain price of two dollars.

2. SWING WING

The Transogram Company had been producing mainstream toys such as Tiddlywinks and doctor's kits since 1959. Then one day in 1965 the vice president of product development, whose brother-in-law was apparently an out-of-work chiropractor, came up with the idea for the Swing Wing. Nothing says “fun” like a cerebral hemorrhage, so Swing Wing was eventually pulled from the market, leaving kids searching for a new fun way to get their spinal injuries on.

3. SLIP 'N SLIDE

Wham-O introduced the Slip ‘N Slide in 1961, a time when neighborhood swimming pools were few and far between and water slide theme parks were nonexistent. The idea was to cool off and have fun at the same time by running up to and then belly-flopping down on a water-slicked strip of vinyl. Wham-O sold millions of Slip 'N Slides over the years, and if a kid broke a toe on one of the stakes that secured the mat to the ground or left most of their epidermis on the driveway because they slid too far, well, as Mom always said, “It’s your own fault, don’t come crying to me.” It wasn’t until the more litigious 1990s that words like “spinal cord injury” and “death” started appearing in the lengthy list of warnings included on the Slip ‘N Slide instruction sheet.

4. WATER WIGGLE

It looked innocent enough, but if your neighborhood had good water pressure and some joker turned the hose on full blast, Wham-O’s Water Wiggle turned into a semi-lethal weapon. It danced and bobbed erratically, and could wrap around you like a boa constrictor. And that plastic head was heavy! But bloody noses and chipped teeth were a small price to pay for some summertime fun.

5. JOHNNY SEVEN ONE MAN ARMY

No wonder kids today get into so much trouble—it’s those consarned video games they’re always playing. Nothing but shooting and street fighting and an overall culture of violence. Not like the toys of the 1960s. Back then we had wholesome products like the Johnny Seven One Man Army, which was the biggest-selling toy for boys in 1964. Johnny Seven came equipped with a cap pistol, rocket launcher, and “armor piercing” bullets, along with a few other features necessary for stopping Communism dead in its tracks.

Johnny Seven weighed about four pounds fully assembled, so a kid got a good aerobic workout when he ran around toting one outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Topper Toys used a unique tactic to give Johnny Seven maximum exposure: instead of only stocking it in toy and department stores, they also made it available in grocery stores, a place mom usually dragged her kids to at least once per week.

6. CREEPY CRAWLERS

An exposed hot plate combined with potentially toxic fumes equaled fun in 1964. The Thing Maker was a gadget you plugged in and then waited until it heated up to 300°F. Then you poured “Plasti-Goop” into the creepy insect-shaped metal molds and waited for them to heat-set. Ideally, you were supposed to wait until after you’d unplugged the Thing Maker and it had cooled off before removing your Creepy Crawlers, but who has time for that when you want to put a fake spider in your sister’s bed before she turns in? Burns and blisters were a fact of life in the plastic bug business, and you simply sprayed the injury with some Bactine and hid it from Mom so she wouldn’t take your Thing Maker away. Plasti-Goop was marketed as “non-toxic,” but that was in 1964 before the dangers of little things like melted PVC and lead paint were generally known.

7. WHAM-O AIR BLASTER

Wham-O introduced the Air Blaster gun in 1965 ... then pulled it from shelves not too long afterward. It turned out that some kids weren’t content to just blow out birthday candles long-distance; they were pointing their Air Blaster right against their friends’ ears to “see what happened.” (Permanent damage was the answer.) Those same pranksters also discovered that any object that could fit into the muzzle could also be shot with missile-like force. You know what they say, it’s all fun and games until someone figures out how to use their Air Blaster as a flamethrower.

8. WHAM-O WHEELIE BAR

The lack of protective helmets in this commercial is understandable, since they weren’t readily available at the time. But barefoot kids popping wheelies, riding no-handed, and performing daredevil stunts like standing on the seat? One has to wonder whether Wham-O held stock in some urgent care clinic chain.

9. SUPER ELASTIC BUBBLE PLASTIC

Surprise! We have yet another entry from those folks at Wham-O. This time the fun was contained inside a metal toothpaste-like tube filled with a colorful liquid-y plastic-y substance. You squeezed out a tiny glob of the stuff, rolled it into a tiny ball, and then plopped it onto the end of a plastic straw, which was included. Then you blew into the straw to create a multi-colored sphere that was more durable than a soap bubble, but a bit more fragile than a traditional balloon. The drawback was that one of the main ingredients in Super Elastic Bubble Plastic was ethyl acetate, a solvent used in nail polish remover. Combine that with polyvinyl acetate, the other primary component, and kids were exposed to some serious health risks if they happened to inhale too much while inflating their plastic bubbles.

10. WITCH DOCTOR HEAD SHRINKER KIT

Who knows exactly what chemicals made up the “plastic flesh” that progressively shrunk over the span of 24 hours. Given the time period (the late 1960s) we’re guessing that either the flesh or the paint had some level of toxicity. But what about the other inherent danger involved? Say you, as a kid, taking advantage of the assurance in the commercial that homemade shrunken heads were appropriate for “all occasions”? Would Mom smack the heck out of you after Grandma nearly collapsed when she unwrapped the shrunken head birthday present you’d made for her?

BONUS: GILBERT U-238 ATOMIC ENERGY LAB

By Webms (online) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m sort of sneaking this one in, as I don’t know if it was ever advertised on television, but it’s too good to pass up. In 1951 A.C. Gilbert, the man who invented the Erector Set, introduced a brand new educational toy: the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. Gilbert worked closely with physicists at M.I.T. while developing the kit, and also had the unofficial approval of the U.S. government, which thought that such a toy would help the average American understand the benefits of nuclear energy.

The Lab came equipped with a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson cloud chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity. It also included a comic book featuring Dagwood Bumstead (the man who couldn’t leave his own house without knocking the mailman down) describing how to split an atom. The Atomic Energy Lab’s main drawback, other than possible radiation poisoning, was its price tag: a whopping $49.50, which would be over $300 in today’s dollars.

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The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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