Lucinda Bassett was among top performers on the advertising sales force of Toledo radio station WCWA-AM, but she hid a secret.
She was experiencing near debilitating anxiety attacks.
I made all kinds of excuses for my lack of social activity and my inability to travel with friends, she recalled in one of many talks about the ordeal.
Riding in the back seat of cars and flying on planes was extremely difficult. My world became smaller and smaller, she said.
From the seeds of her eventual recovery, a business sprouted.
And 30 years later, Ms. Bassett, now 51, is chief executive of a metro Toledo company that is among the nation s oldest and most unusual telemarketing empires.
The Midwest Center for Stress & Anxiety Inc., based in the tiny Ottawa County village of Oak Harbor, has applied marketing techniques perfected by purveyors of Veg-O-Matics and exercise equipment to sell a self-help program for people with anxiety and depression.
From radio spots that run daily around the nation, Ms. Bassett zeroes in on feelings of anxiety-sufferers and how they sometimes cope: Or maybe a glass of wine. And that second drink. Who s counting?
The Midwest Center which operates no actual counseling treatment facility is among the nation s top 20 radio advertisers, according to her husband, David Bassett, the firm s president.
Those ads, along with half-hour infomercials aired on cable television in the wee hours of the morning, plus more traditional TV commercials, generate 26,000 inquiries a week to call centers employed by the firm in Arizona and New York.
The firm s basic 14-week program, which uses well-established techniques for altering thoughts and behavior, costs $400. It is self-administered and includes a series of booklets, exercises, and DVDs.
Mr. Bassett is reluctant to discuss sales but acknowledges they exceed $50 million annually. Some people say the number approaches $100 million.
It s not $100 million, he said.
Ms. Bassett has told her story to Oprah Winfrey and other TV talk-show hosts and has written two books, From Panic to Power and Life Without Limits, which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Success has allowed the couple and their two children to move from the Oak Harbor area, 25 miles east of Toledo, to a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, where they live among celebrities. A deal for Ms. Bassett to host a TV show of her own didn t pan out, but she continues to consider offers.
Five years ago, according to Midwest Center officials, Forbes.com ranked Ms. Bassett the fourth most recognized TV pitch person behind such people as personal dynamics guru Tony Robbins and real estate investment promoter Carlton Sheets. She has been less visible in recent years as marketing has shifted to more radio.
Ms. Bassett said she feels divinely driven.
Although her program is not religiously based, she said: I believe I was supposed to do this. It was my mission on Earth.
The road to recovery for her began after she heard a guest on the Today Show discussing the anxiety disorder agoraphobia, characterized by panic attacks and a fear of losing emotional control in public places.
Through reading and study, she learned behavioral changes that helped her overcome the problem. She learned that anxiety disorders tend to run in families and afflict perfectionists who overanalyze events, she said.
Her personal experiences were the basis of her program, Attacking Anxiety & Depression. She began thinking about making an infomercial after seeing those of Tony Robbins.
Keys to success
She knows some people are critical of the firm s telemarketing. But its marketing methods are no different, she said, from those of pharmaceutical companies that spend billions of dollars a year promoting treatments for depression and anxiety that don t always help.
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Midwest Center has been around since 1984, but sales took off in the late 1990s with a marketing shift. Infomercials stopped mentioning the price of the program and instead invited viewers to call for a free introductory tape or to order the program for a 30-day trial period. Radio spots and two-minute commercials were added.
But the key to the firm s success remains its pitch person.
They rely heavily on Lucinda Bassett and her own credibility as well as stories and testimonials of other people, said Clare Koglar, president of the infomercial-tracking firm Jordan Whitney Inc. They are very believable and convincing.
The California-based firm began tracking the Oak Harbor company s advertisements in 1993, making them among the oldest and longest-running such campaigns on the air, Ms. Koglar said.
Success has allowed Mr. Bassett to give up his job helping run the family grocery business, Bassett Markets.
Brother Mike Bassett, who has since expanded the supermarkets into Toledo, is not surprised by the couple s success.
Lucinda relates so well to their clients, he said. David has a bright marketing mind. He and his brother are not involved in each other s businesses now, however, Mike Bassett said.
In Oak Harbor, whose name comes from its origins as a Lake Erie port that specialized in export of sturdy oak logs felled locally, the Midwest Center occupies a growing swath of the downtown.
Its 60 employees including film editors, a creative team, and customer service representatives who handle questions from customers once they purchase the workbooks and DVDs now occupy a series of buildings.
Orders are packed and shipped nearby at a local workshop, Riverview Industries of Ottawa County.
Education director Carolyn Dickman, a former anxiety sufferer who was an early client, was its first employee.
Origins of the business
The firm originated in group-therapy sessions in Toledo launched by Ms. Bassett and local family practitioner Phillip Fisher, according to company histories. The doctor did not return a call seeking comment, but he is listed as co-founder and medical director of the Midwest Center. He is not a full-time center employee.
With the success of the group sessions, Ms. Bassett, influenced by Dr. Fisher, wrote an early version of the program known as Attacking Anxiety & Depression. She began traveling to community centers and school gyms in northwest Ohio to talk about a then-stigmatized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and to promote her self-help program.
Ms. Dickman kept a recipe file with the names of customers, who received a lesson a week. She also took to the stage, telling the story of her recovery at 42 from a condition that had broken her will to live.
Polishing the pitch
Early efforts to promote the program on the electronic media were crude, all agree. To help field calls, Mr. Bassett enlisted bag boys from his family s nearby grocery store.
Ms. Dickman recalled traveling to a castle-like pink hotel in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., to appear in one of the firm s early and more sophisticated infomercials.
Then, as today, Ms. Bassett told her story and then interviewed others who have recovered with the help of the Attacking Anxiety program.
Today, filming is once a year at homes rented for the day in upscale Toledo suburbs such as Maumee and Perrysburg.
Clients who volunteer to tell their stories are flown in for the shoots. Their expenses are covered but they are not paid for the appearances, according to Midwest officials and two participants.
The program was just totally life-changing for me, Daryl Kemp, a 38-year-old chiropractor in Santa Barbara, Calif., said in a telephone interview.
He bought the firm s program in desperation three years ago. He had struggled with anxiety even in childhood. When his wife became pregnant with their second child, he was overwhelmed by fears about what could go wrong. Panic attacks made it dif-ficult for him to work.
He called Midwest after his wife saw a late-night advertisement for the program.
I was ready to do anything ... to get rid of it, he recalled of his anxiety. The program, along with anti-anxiety medication he has since stopped, helped him recover.
It s very structured and makes you feel you re back in control of yourself again, Mr. Kemp recalled. He later agreed to appear in a commercial.
Anxiety sufferer Virginia Carlin, a 66-year-old Parsippany, N.J., resident, experienced her first panic attack three decades ago. It occurred after she dropped off her young daughter at a hospital, where the girl was volunteering as a patient aide.
I waved good-bye, Ms. Carlin recalled. All of a sudden a miserable feeling came over me. I was frozen. It took everything I could to drive home.
Years of prescription drugs and visits to a psychiatrist didn t end the problem. But she found relief with the Attacking Anxiety program and told her story in a commercial for Midwest Center.
Rates of success
A study of 176 program users published seven years ago in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that Attacking Anxiety provided relief to 58 percent.
A study author, Michael Lambert, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Utah, said the results are comparable to those achieved by psychologists using a similar approach.
Either professional treatment or media treatment, such as the Midwest Center s, will work, he said. The key, he added, is whether participants follow through, completing assignments and exercises in the case of the Midwest program and taking prescribed medications as part of professional treatment.
Psychologist David Carbonell, who has written a book on anxiety disorders and treats patients in the Chicago area, agreed with the center s use of a behavior-altering technique known as cognitive therapy.
But he has reservations about Midwest Center.
I m troubled sometimes about how commercial the effort is, he said. It s a relatively expensive program. People can probably do just as well with a relatively inexpensive self-help book.
Because the firm is in the Toledo area, Better Business bureaus nationwide funnel complaints here, said Richard Eppstein, president.
Over the past three years, the organization has processed 160 complaints, most involving the firm s 30-day return policy. Often, complainants are seeking to return the program after the deadline, a local bureau representative said.
Midwest Center has a satisfactory record with the bureau, meaning that it has properly addressed matters referred.
The American Psychological Association has taken no position on the local firm s program, a spokesman said.
A national outreach
The president of Midwest Center said he doesn t believe the firm or its Web site misleads customers into believing there is an actual treatment center that sees patients.
We never tell people there is a place to go to, Mr. Bassett said.
Depression and anxiety are widespread problems that often go untreated, he said. The repetitiveness of the firm s commercials encourage people who have gone untreated for years to take action, he added.
It s no different than Coca-Cola or Chevrolet, he said The more you hear the brand, the more it enforces that is a valid thing and people are more likely to call. People say, I ve thought about calling for years.
The firm s telemarketing representatives are instructed to refer people with more severe symptoms for professional help.
It s not altruistic, Mr. Bassett said. But we are in Oak Harbor, Ohio, and we have a national outreach that reaches millions of people almost every day.
Contact Gary T. Pakulski at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6082.