Ginsu-knife man remains optimistic despite losses from promotion gone sour

February 05, 1995|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Newspaper and television ads for the Ninzu -- also known as the Auricle Clip and B-Trim -- proclaimed: "No Diet! No Exercise! Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!"

But just as marketer Michael B. Metzger thought the earring-like device, which allegedly suppresses appetite through acupressure, would take off, the Federal Trade Commission filed a cease-and-desist order prohibiting further sales.

Instead of pinching ears of overweight clients, the Ninzu is now clipping Mr. Metzger's wallet, costing him nearly $100,000 in advertising, publication and promotional expenses he cannot recoup.

The incident has forced him to lay off seven workers and drop what he thinks would have been his most lucrative product ever. But the 44-year-old promoter says he'll rebound. After all, he's been pushing products for 20 years -- long enough to know that when one bombs, another comes along to pick you back up.

In his 4,000-square-foot office suite on the second floor of the Belvedere Hotel, Mr. Metzger sits at a gray granite conference table scattered with gadgets and laments the demise of the Ninzu.

"I told the FTC, 'You're killing me on this,' " he said. " 'But you're hurting the American public more than you're hurting me.' "

He stands by his Ninzu, insisting it does suppress appetite if used properly. He has the letters from satisfied customers to prove it.

"I've never gotten so many letters about a product before," he said, adding that he expected the Ninzu to outsell the popular Ginsu knife, which he and a partner brought to mass markets in 1972.

In six months of test marketing, he sold more than 5,000 Ninzus, he says. With mass marketing, "I would have sold a million a year. This is a great product."

The FTC remains unconvinced. After investigating claims made by Mr. Metzger's Creative Response Group Inc. and other companies he created to promote the Ninzu, the FTC told Mr. Metzger last summer to stop filling orders. A proposed settlement with the regulatory agency announced Jan. 18 banned future advertising until the company could support all its claims with scientific evidence.

Rather than fight, Mr. Metzger dropped the Ninzu. Other products beckoned -- the hair-remover modeled after the Epilady that doesn't hurt as it yanks out hair; the "Kabloon" greeting cards that inflate into hearts and birthday cakes with a push of a button; the herbal pillow that promotes a sense of well-being; the popcorn fork.

"I don't like fighting with law yers," he said of his scrape with the FTC. "I love developing product."

Spoken like a born salesman.

Mr. Metzger grew up in the Woodmoor section of Baltimore County, the son of a pub owner. After attending Woodmoor Elementary School and Milford Mill Senior High School, he went to the University of Maryland where he signed on as a pre-dental major.

By his junior year, his academic adviser pulled him aside.

"He said, 'You're a bright guy but you're terrible at pre-dent. Find something else,' " recalled Mr. Metzger. He ended up with a degree in sociology but discovered his real knack was pushing products.

At 25, he had his first hit -- the Ginsu knife, which he and partner Stephen Ziskind peddled under the corporate name Foxy Products. Since then, he's promoted contraptions under dozens company names with a half-dozen different partners. He's had hits -- the Mop-A-Matic was a big seller. And misses. A set of substitute tapes for Teddy Ruxpin, a talking Teddy Bear manufactured by Worlds of Wonder, landed him in court for copyright infringement, he said. The tapes were yanked from Toys 'R' Us stores and he lost more than $100,000.

Michael E. Russell, owner of Major Educational Resources Corp., which sells computer hardware and software to schools, worked with Mr. Metzger three years ago on "Pop Quiz," a computer testing game.

He calls Mr. Metzger ". . . Perhaps the most energetic and creative person I've ever met."

When choosing products to develop, test market and promote, Mr. Metzger has only a few rules.

First, it shouldn't be too practical. "If the product is beneficial to mankind, it's harder to sell."

Second, he won't handle anything that must be ingested, which can run you afoul of the Food and Drug Administration in a heartbeat. (Problems with the Ninzu caught him by surprise because it's worn on the outside of the ear. "If it gives you any problem at all, you take it off. Who could have known?")

And finally, he doesn't like products that are "finished." The fun of it, he says, is in taking an idea or prototype and developing it into something else.

Take the glow-in-the-dark pictures made with new polymers that glow longer than competitors'. Now there's potential.

"I had them made into chess pieces. I thought, a glow-in-the-dark chess game," he said. Then the focus changed, as he suspected playing chess in the dark might have been too challenging. "I thought, what about dripping the stuff into a clear plastic cube? Make it a necklace. We'll call it 'Fire and Ice.' "

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