By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009
"Our main goal," says Zoni Stein -- businessman, inventor, visionary -- "is to put the towel of today into the Metropolitan Museum. Because we just made that towel history." History, as in: Antique. Vestigial. Obsolete. "Eventually, you'll go into someone's house and say, 'You have a towel?' "
Instead of what Stein thinks they should have, which is a Wearable Towel: The Towel With Arm Openings.
In the product's video, viewable at www.WearableTowel.com and going viral online, a svelte woman struggles to wrap herself in a towel. "You want to stay covered after being wet," a chipper voice off-camera explains, "but your towel just won't let." Finally, the woman gives up on the complex piece of terrycloth and wanders out of the frame. But after a few seconds, she's back, this time wrapping herself in a towel that miraculously becomes a tunic, due to technology best described as "three holes cut on each side of an otherwise ordinary towel." The male wrapping method, which we later see modeled on a grown man cavorting in his yard and at a barbecue, results in a giant floppy toga. Both versions are designed in response to that common problem: Maneuvering this towel is so difficult, guess I'll have to call in sick and drip dry. Again.
"I've always had this inventive kind of streak," says Stein, 30, who lives in Miami and works for an investment firm when he's not pushing towels. "I always see what bothers me. I write down lists of what bothers me." Like the fact that red wine should be served warm and white wine should be served cold and there's no way to store them both in the same bottle -- that bothers him.
And the towel? "The towel bothered me." It left him, he said, so frequently naked, the victim of slippage or snaggage. So one day he grabbed a pair of scissors and began snipping and wrapping, re-snipping and re-wrapping, until he'd fashioned something he thought he could work with. "I tried it and I was amazed at how it covered my entire body," Stein says. "I was amazed at how it felt like it was meant to be."
"You can be," he adds, "totally undressed under this Towel." For just $19.95, plus shipping and handling.
Now the Wearable, which Stein says is produced in a Turkish factory, has become a family affair:
"My brother Ari -- " also a star of Bravo's reality series "Miami Social." Heard of him? No? " -- he does the Wearable Towel fashion shows," Stein says. "My sister, she was just in a Budweiser commercial," and that's her in the Wearable Towel commercial, gently drying her baby by dabbing it against the Wearable Towel she is draped in.
True, some people are going to get all nitpicky, comparing the Wearable to the Slanket or the Snuggie, the winter product based on the concept that people are too incompetent for blankets, and which made all of its wearers look like wizards. (So effective was the Snuggie's promise of cozy mobility that a New Jersey man tried to rob a convenience store earlier this year while wearing one.) But these people have no imagination, no sense of what the public will buy.
"It's a complementing product," Stein says. Two varieties of cloth with arm holes that should be able to coexist peacefully. "It's like a bathing suit product and a sweater product. It's like a husband-and-wife thing." He has a patent pending with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Is the Wearable Towel making us stupid?
"You must remember that . . . half of the population is dumber than average," says Bob Garfield, ad critic for Advertising Age. "Included in that are people who may have been flummoxed by existing towel technology."
The people of the Wearable Towel advertisement, imprisoned by their absorbent ineptitude, are surely related to the people of the Comfort Wipe commercial -- Comfort Wipe being a plastic wand that holds that complicated toilet paper for you as complete your toilette. One must ask: If the main selling point of the Comfort Wipe is that it "extends your reach a full 18 inches," what exactly are these people trying to wipe? The crease of their knees?
They are also surely related to the users featured in the Egg Genie ad, in which a woman nearly bursts into tears after she fails the rocket-science-like task of boiling water. Or the users of the JumpSnap, the ropeless jump rope, who try using a regular jump rope (you know, with a rope) only to became so confused they are forced to stop exercising altogether. Or like the people in the Ab Rocker ad, who have no business sitting, much less doing sit-ups, and should just be swaddled in a bunch of protective Wearable Towels.
"It's a classic technique," says Remy Stern, author of the snake-oil history "But Wait . . . There's More!" These products are "a problem-solution business. They create a problem, then they instantly give you a solution to that problem." Just look, Stern says, at that gem of the 1980s, the Electric Egg Scrambler, which helpfully scrambled the eggs inside the shell so you would never have to crack them open, at least not until . . . oh wait. Or the Flowbee, which assumed people wanted to cut their hair with their vacuum cleaners.
The terrifying thing, Stern says, is that "some of them are really clever."
The remote control probably seemed like an idiot's invention at one point. Just YouTube the 1961 commercial for the Wireless Wizard Remote Control: "You can tune it from your easy chair!" the voiceover says, and you can practically hear the 1961 viewer rolling his eyes.
Watch the Egg Genie ad enough times, and the concept of being unable to boil water starts to seem oddly, reassuringly normal. So what if I can't do a sit-up? you think. I'll just buy the Ab Rocker, and nap in it, perhaps occasionally scratching myself with a Comfort Wipe. What if we are becoming a nation of stupid, lazy people who think it's okay not to be able to dry their own bodies?
"Let's not get all Andy Rooney," Garfield says, after a pause. But then again he hadn't watched the Wearable Towel video eight times in a row. He hadn't faced the horror of actually kind of wanting one.
Stein, who is also in the process of developing a "four-dimensional picture frame," will not say how many Wearable Towels he has sold so far. His ultimate goal is to swathe 5 percent of the population, which he says would result in a modest $300 million profit.
The Snuggie, for comparison's sake, has sold some 4 million units, which Stein says should not be difficult to match or beat: "Our product is really multifunctional, but the wearable blanket is just a blanket."