By Jack Neff
Larry King is getting back in the endorsement business nationally less than a year after his CNN talk show ended, appearing in an infomercial for BreathGemz breath fresheners alongside his wife, Shawn Southwick, and a recent ad shoot for Walmart.
With BreathGemz, Mr. King takes on a product that seeks to improve on a once-popular predecessor with a troubled past. BreathAsure, launched in the early 1990s by the same entrepreneur behind BreathGemz, reached a reported $30 million in annual sales and claimed to be "America’s No. 1 breath freshener" before litigation from the former Warner-Lambert forced an end to its breath-fighting claims and led to a Chapter 11 filing.
Mr. King said in an interview he was limited for most of his 25-year career as a CNN talk-show host by restrictions on pitching products by the news network’s hosts. Until the early 1990s, he continued to do radio ads under contracts linked to his radio show, launched in 1978 and syndicated through the Mutual Broadcasting System. CNN ultimately became concerned enough to reach a "suit to suit" deal with Mutual ending his radio ads, he said.
So during his quarter century with CNN, Mr. King said he turned down offers to do ads for Bayer aspirin and a Super Bowl ad for American Express.
His new deal with BreathGemz pairs him with InterMedia, an Encino, Calif., direct-response agency, and its InterQuantum unit, which specializes in helping position and find retail distribution for direct-response products. Among InterMedia’s clients in recent years has been "male enhancement" supplement ExTenze, for which the agency landed former Dallas Cowboys coach and current "Fox NFL Sunday" analyst Jimmy Johnson as pitchman.
Mr. King’s only other post-CNN ads to date have been regional radio, TV and internet ads for an Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. franchise in Beverly Hills, Calif. But he said he also recently taped a segment for an upcoming Walmart TV ad in which he interviews a 6-year-old girl who caught a fish "twice her size" with the help of her dad. He’s not sure exactly what the ad is for, though it appears likely to tie into Father’s Day and the giant retailer’s recent efforts to restock its fishing tackle selection. Walmart spokespeople didn’t return e-mail queries for comment by deadline.
Mr. King said he discovered BreathGemz through a longtime friend, former baseball agent Dennis Gilbert, who discovered it through InterMedia CEO Bob Yallen.
Asked what made him a good choice to pitch a breath freshener, Mr. King laughed, later saying he’d been a fan of the old BreathAsure product, which had been hawked by actor George Kennedy in direct-response ads in the 1990s. "I used that product," Mr. King said. "I never knew why they stopped making it."
That, in fact, is a long story.
BreathAsure, a capsule filled with parsley-seed oil as an active ingredient, claimed to stop bad breath for hours, even that from eating onion and garlic. But Warner-Lambert, whose oral-care business later was sold to Pfizer and then to Johnson & Johnson, challenged those claims successfully before the National Advertising Division and in federal court.
BreathAsure in 1999 stipulated in court proceedings that its product didn’t actually fight bad breath, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000 ruled the company could no longer use the brand name because the product didn’t really provide assurance regarding bad breath. A year later, BreathAsure filed for Chapter 11.
Now, Anthony Raissen, who headed BreathAsure, is a principal in InterQuantum and, along with his wife, is taking another stab at breath fresheners with the newly formed Gemz Brands. His new product, BreathGemz, adds a 75-layer mint encapsulation to that old parsley-seed-oil softgel capsule.
He called the BreathAsure litigation a "classic David vs. Goliath story where every six months we’d be back in court dealing with something that we thought had already been settled."
Ultimately, he said, his smaller company was forced by a deep-pocketed rival to give up rather than keep fighting. He said he also discovered in the lengthy litigation process that adding mint to his product and modifying claims would help his new breath freshener steer clear of the old one’s problems. BreathGemz "Instamint" coating took "years and years to develop," Mr. Raissen said, and provides hours of protection against bad breath, even that caused by eating onion and garlic.
Mr. King, while a fan of BreathGemz, as part of his endorsement deal has a small percentage of the company, and so, he said, "I feel part of it." He said Gemz Brands made him aware of the background of the BreathAsure litigation and he believes BreathGemz "is clear of that" issue, while reiterating that he also found BreathAsure to be a good product.
Mr. Raissen said he expects BreathGemz to be merchandised in the oral-care aisle rather than with candies. He said breath-freshener business — as opposed to mints — have had little innovation in the past decade, leading it to shrink to around $25 to $30 million, about half what it was a decade ago.
As for Mr. King, beyond bagels, breath fresheners and fish tales for Walmart, he’s embarking on an ambitious schedule for a 77-year-old semi-retiree. As a contractor, he’s producing a series of special reports for CNN, including one on Alzheimer’s disease set to air next month.
Later this year he’s beginning a comedy tour, where in some cases he will appear alongside his wife, who will sing during casino appearances. The comedy part, he said, will be a lot more like Billy Crystal’s "700 Sundays" than Charlie Sheen’s recent effort. "I’ve always tried to be funny over the years, working at sales meetings and conventions," he said, so the routine is already road-tested in a sense.
All of that, he said, he schedules around his two sons’ Little League baseball schedule so he can be home in California to coach their games on Thursdays and Sundays. "The main purpose I have in my life," he said, "is to be with my boys."