Television does not just blur the line between what is art and what is not: it takes that line and wipes it all over its buttocks. Throw the crudest, most tasteless things you can find onto the airwaves, from wife-swappers and plastic-surgery-produced Frankensteins to poorly dubbed versions of Japanese “extreme challenges,” and they take the nation’s eyes and ears hostage, only until the next fad rolls around. But like it or not, that system, which makes the bland and talentless an instant crowd favorite, works well for many people, especially businessmen like Bob Kaufman, the now-infamous founder of Bob’s Discount Furniture.
Though it takes some time for those Yalies living in Connecticut for the first time to figure it out, Bob, as everyone knows him, is a Constitution State legend. His campy call-the-toll-free-number-at-the-bottom-of-the-screen commercials have inundated Connecticut television channels for years, putting his ads among the ranks of such timeless classics as 1-800-MATTRES.
Though the commercials number many, the basic components are the same: Bob and his nameless but ever-loyal female companion enthusiastically pine for viewers to come and check out their attractively inexpensive (or is it inexpensively attractive?) living room sets, bedroom packages, and other discount furniture.
In a phone interview, Kaufman said his advertising is vital to his business operations.
“The whole store is driven by the advertisements,” Kaufman said. “Saturation is number one — obviously, we’re everywhere — You want to reach as many people as you can. The Bible in advertising –I was a marketing major — has always been, ‘Get your message out.'”
Kaufman boasted that Bob’s Discount Furniture has an in-house, fully digital studio, where he and his staff produce the commercials themselves.
“On a good day, we can film six or eight,” he said. “So there’s a lot of instantaneous decisions: squeezing it in the time allotted, if I don’t like the words, I’ll modify it. We work together as a team.”
Kaufman admitted, though, that the quality of his commercials is not exactly Emmy-worthy.
“No, [I have not had acting lessons]. I think that’s self-evident,” he said.
Instead of a background in drama, Kaufman learned to float in the waterbed industry, which in the 1980s, he said, was hot stuff.
“I just grew up on a waterbed — From 1981 until 1988, [waterbed] sales were up double digits, and it was an exciting business — ,” he said. “I rode that wave, so to speak, no pun intended.”
But when the industry collapsed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Kaufman had no choice but to abandon the business in which he had been raised. He reinvented himself and eventually started Bob’s Discount Furniture as we know it.
Today, Kaufman runs his business while shuttling himself from one place to another, managing the furniture empire, which now stretches all the way to Maine, primarily from his cell phone. Still, Kaufman insists his perspective on business has changed very little.
“I think of myself as an average guy,” he said. “Part of me still thinks of me as a waterbed guy.”
And though one might imagine he would feel threatened, he holds no hard feelings at all toward Bob of Bob’s Store, the men’s clothing store also common in New England. In fact, his father did advertising for that “other Bob,” and their families remain close friends.
Whether or not he owns the title of undisputed “Bob” of the retail world, Kaufman is now a household name among many New Englanders, including Yalies. His scruffy, slightly pot-bellied but father-like figure and his wholesome voice are familiar to many students. In particular, those who grew up in Connecticut, watching television channels that broadcast Kaufman’s commercials day in and day out, speak of the ads as part of their childhood, either beloved or despised.
“I’ve seen his commercials since I was 7,” said West Hartford native Ali Frazzini ’07. “[My friends and I] all know who he is.”
“I used to be incredibly annoyed by Bob, but then I took a step back, reanalyzed the situation, and realized that Bob is probably more successful than I’ll ever be and so even though his commercials make me want to change the channel, he’s an extremely successful entrepreneur,” said Maya Shankar ’07, a resident of Cheshire, Conn.
Puyao Li ’07, of Orange, Conn., said Kaufman’s influence even extended into her middle school classroom.
“We learned about him in home economics class, and his method of advertising is very effective,” she said. “You think that he’s this guy that doesn’t know what he’s doing, so you go and buy his furniture because you think, ‘Hey, he’s just like me, and he’s not a crafty businessman.’ It turns out to be a sort of a ploy.”
Speaking of his female companion, who he insists is nothing more than “an old friend,” Kaufman revealed his commercials are not arbitrarily thrown together.
“Research shows that female customers are the dominant decision makers in the home furnishing business, so she can say things to females that I cannot say,” he said. “It’s to attract female customers more than male.”
He also added that pairing himself up with a spokeswoman for his company ensures that should anything happen to him, there is another familiar persona to carry on the Bob’s Discount Furniture tradition.
Still, some insist Kaufman had other motives for bringing in his female friend.
“When it was just Bob, the quality of the commercials was just okay, it was decent, but once the woman got added to it, it seriously made them the shattiest commercials in the world,” Shankar said. “Like seriously, was he trying to make the commercials hot with that woman?”
Regardless of Kaufman’s mysterious sidekick, the verdict is still out on the furniture itself.
“No, I would not buy from Bob’s Discount Furniture,” Ari Romney ’06 said. “It looks like they’re selling it out of a garage.”
“Would you buy medications from someone who was selling them out of their basement?” she said. “But wait — if Bob reads this, I might never be allowed in his furniture store!”