Thursday, February 12, 2009

Efficient appliance or just aesthetics or fraud

Hard and soft fraud schemes are everywhere and take a kernel of truth and via clever marketing people embellish a product with fantastic claims...OR THEY JUST LIE. The truth is twisted and even product flaws are ignored or glossed over. And the worst of all is the employment of "testimonials". So, do research before making a purchase.

"Amish Space Heater: Is That an Oxymoron?"


Steven Kurutz

February 12th, 2009

The New York Times

FOR a people who make up less than a tenth of a percent of the country's population, the Amish loom large in the American imagination as simple-living, God-fearing country folk who keep the pre-industrial past alive. We know them as farmers and skilled craftspeople, with high standards and an unfussy sensibility that they bring to the barns they raise, the baked goods they sell at greenmarkets and the quilts and furniture they produce.

But the Amish have not traditionally been celebrated for their space heaters. Which likely explains the bewildered reactions provoked by advertisements for a product called the Heat Surge Roll-n-Glow Fireplace, which seem to have been turning up everywhere in the last few months. Under a headline proclaiming the heater's power to "help home heat bills hit rock bottom" — and depicting it, in one version of the ad, as an "Amish man's new miracle idea" — a photograph shows what appear to be Amish men and women in a rustic workshop, making fireplace-style electric heaters with artificial flames flickering inside. The ad copy describes "soft-spoken Amish craftsmen" who are "working their fingers to the bone" to create the wood mantels framing the fake fire, as their "entire communities" strain to "keep up with demands."

And demand does not appear to be slowing, at least according to Josette Holland, described in some of the ads as a "home makeover expert to the rich and famous." Not only are the heaters "the best way to dress up every room," Ms. Holland is quoted as saying, they are also "the latest home decorating sensation."

The ads, which have been around for more than a year but have been running with increasing frequency this winter, have become something of a sensation themselves, turning the Roll-n-Glow into a next-wave Clapper. Appearing in publications as varied as National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, Parade and The New York Times, and on local TV stations across the country in the form of an infomercial, they have given rise to much word-of-mouth speculation and online commentary.

Web sites and blogs have debated the merits of the product and parsed the curious and sometimes byzantine wording of the ad copy, which describes the heater as being given away for free, though to get one customers must buy a $298 oak mantel (cherry is $338; sold alone, the heater is $249). The infomercial, meanwhile, has given rise to a number of spoofs on YouTube.

The aspect of the ads that seems to have stirred the most interest is the claims they make about the involvement of the Amish.

In December 2007, soon after the ads first appeared, a reader of the product review site suggested that there was something absurd about the idea of an Amish man inventing a "miracle" space heater, considering that the Amish have traditionally been wary of modern technology.

The reader's post (under the heading "Heat Surge fireplace — what’s up with that?") also pointed out that close reading of the ads reveals that the craftsmen make only the wood mantels; the heater itself is actually "a work of engineering genius from the China coast."

In more than 540 responses to that post that have gone up in the months since, other readers have argued about subjects like the willingness of the Amish to use electric power (they "do not use electricity in any form," one wrote; they typically avoid the grid but "will and do generate their own electric," another corrected) and whether the people in the ads were really Amish (they don't "allow themselves to be photographed"; many do "allow their picture to be taken," depending on their sect).

Some objected to what they saw as the manufacturer’s exploitation of the Amish; others, like a reader who posted last month, believe "the Amish are the ones doing the exploiting" and "are getting a good laugh out of this one."

Opinion about other elements of the Roll-n-Glow's marketing strategy has also been divided. "I just purchased one of these electric fireplaces and I love it!!" a woman named Cindy wrote, adding that she likes "the way the flame relaxes me." Another woman, Darlene Swick, was less satisfied and disputed claims that the Roll-n-Glow heater could lower home energy costs: "My husband and I purchased two of these Heat Surge fireplaces and we have seen NO savings on our electric bill. We turned our thermostat down to 68 degrees for the month, and our electric bill went up."

Lee Devlin, an engineering consultant in Greeley, Colo., who maintains a blog that often covers energy matters, said he was skeptical about some of what the ads said, for example that the Roll-n-Glow takes about the same amount energy to operate as a coffee maker. Mr. Devlin said that while the statement was accurate, it was an apples-to-oranges comparison because a coffee maker runs for a brief period while a space heater is often kept on for hours.

Jim Nanni, the manager of the appliance and home improvement group of Consumer Reports, said the first thing to remember when considering a space heater is that regardless of the brand, electric heat costs up to two and a half times more than natural gas or heating oil. The Roll-n-Glow, which earned a Good Housekeeping seal of approval in November, is "essentially a portable electric heater," Mr. Nanni said. "What you’re looking at in terms of the difference is aesthetics."

As it turns out, this argument is basically the one made by the people at Heat Surge. "If someone would come to me and say, 'I need a heater and I want to spend as little as possible,'" said David Baker, vice president of the company, which is based in Canton, Ohio, "I would say go to a local big-box store and buy one for $29.99. Our heater represents a fireplace rather than just some space heater."

Mr. Baker said the "miracle" that Heat Surge advertisements so often refer to is the realism of the fake flame. "It's important the flame doesn't come off as cheesy," he said. "Our fireplace has the most realistic flame on the market."

Seen in person, the Roll-n-Glow’s flame does have a mesmerizing realism, if not quite a campfire crackle, and the wood mantel feels substantial.

Still, Mr. Baker credits the Roll-n-Glow’s success in large part to the association with the Amish — a partnership that he said began in 2007 soon after an executive at Arthur Middleton, Heat Surge’s parent company, befriended an Amish builder.

The company was looking to sell electric fireplaces and decided it would be advantageous if Amish workers made the mantels instead of foreign ones. Or, as Mr. Baker put it: "It became clear through test marketing the American population is infatuated with — and understands the quality of — an Amish product."

Holmes County, southwest of Canton, is home to a large Amish community and known as a furniture-making hub. Several local workshops soon began churning out the mantels, Mr. Baker said, in an operation that — contrary to the image cultivated by the Heat Surge ads, which show a horse-drawn buggy hauling space heaters — is modern. "People always ask, 'How can an Amish guy build an electric heater?'" Mr. Baker said. "Well, we do have electricity in our shops."

He was also quick to rebut the rumor, circulating on several Web sites, that the Amish don't really make the mantels, but are simply used as a marketing gimmick: "They are made by the Amish, every one of them."

Bob Gibbs, an Ohio state senator who toured a Heat Surge workshop last year, said that he had seen Amish craftspeople at work on the mantels, though he had also seen non-Amish workers in other areas of the factory.

But there have been more serious concerns. Since 2007, the Better Business Bureau of Canton has received 237 complaints against Heat Surge, many of them related to misleading advertising and customer service issues; the company currently has an F rating from the bureau.

Mr. Baker said Heat Surge has since changed the wording in its ads (the headline no longer boasts of the Amish man's miracle idea, for example, and the bit about the coffee maker has been modified). He also explained that many of the complaints were because the company didn’t initially have enough workers to meet the demand.

Amanda Pietze, a spokeswoman for the bureau, confirmed this. "They had a lot more response to their product than they were anticipating," she said, adding that the number of complaints has decreased in recent months.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of the Roll-n-Glow's success is that it has spawned an imitation: "Amish-style" space heaters are now available on the Web site, starting at $399. Mr. Baker said even he was somewhat surprised at the way the heater had captured the public's attention.

"I think a lot of it goes back to the irony of the Amish and an electric fireplace," he said. "How can that be? It's like skintight baggy pants."

Does its success portend a flood of Amish-related home products? "The future of Heat Surge will be dependent on new products and propositions," Mr. Baker said. "The Amish are bringing us new ideas every day."

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