An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

The “idea promoters” hit Dallas in late ’72, saturating the peak-time radio-ways with commercials urging listeners with a clever idea to get cracking on the road to fame and fortune. For hefty fees ranging from $750 to $1,200, the promoters stood ready to assist – leaving their clients with the impression that they could get their ideas or inventions patented, produced and marketed with the greatest of ease. Apparently hundreds of area residents, hoping their idea was another hoola-hoop or aerosol spray valve, stepped right up and signed on the dotted line.

One of the ideas put forth by a Dallas inventor was a throwaway sweat band. It was nothing more than a paper towel with a rubber band attached – but a promotional company jumped at the idea, or at least at the fee available for “promoting” it. Yet another local genius cut a large hole in an aluminum pie pan and offered the device as an effective means of keeping the suds out of its wearer’s eyes during a shampoo. The idea promoters took this one on, too.

Paul W. Turley, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission in Dallas, has traced the idea promotional industry back to World War II, although its traditional MO was much different then. Mostly, the early promoters sought to interest gad-geteers and inventors who read Popular Science and Mechanics Illustrated in paying $10 to $20 for a “patent search.” If the idea had merit, and the inventor had the money, then an additional fee of up to $400 led to a patent application.

But in 1971, according to Turley, a Salt Lake City company called Development Corporation of America – better known as DEVCO – struck upon the idea of appealing to the general population through radio spots and newspaper ads. At the same time, the promoters escalated their fees and switched their emphasis from patent searches to marketing assistance. The response from starry-eyed tinkerers and dinner-table doodlers was astonishing, and DEVCO was soon franchising its outlets around the U.S. for fees up to $40,000, plus a cut of each client’s payment. How Dallas quickly came to be the center for “idea promoters” is a sociological phenomenon, Turley muses, perhaps bound up in the city’s penchant for individualism.

By eariy 1974, complaints were avalanching on the Dallas regional office of the FTC from clients of the promotional companies who said they were not receiving the kind of results they had been led to expect. Turley and his boss, Carl L. Swanson, regional FTC director, decline to say that no patron of a Dallas-based idea promoter has made enough out of his invention even to pay for the promotional fee – but clearly, this is their impression.

Swanson and Turley, with the FTC’s blessing, cracked down on the idea promoters starting in April of last year, announcing an “industrywide” investigation. Then on June 9 of this year, they filed their first specific complaint against a Mesquite firm, Idea Research and Development, Inc. An “administrative trial” is scheduled on that complaint in Dallas on Sept. 23. The FTC, among a long list of desires, wants the company to inform its prospective clients of how many prior clients earned nothing on their investment.

Since the FTC movedagainst the industry, Turley says the number of ideapromoters in Dallas hasdropped markedly. Hisadvice for people who thinkthey have a better idea: seea patent attorney or writeDr. Gerald Udell at the University of Oregon, Eugene,who will evaluate an ideafor $25.

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