Article Thumbnail

The Very Bright Life of Joe Sugarman, the Man Who Gave the World BluBlocker Sunglasses

There wasn’t a product the copywriter-turned-entrepreneur wouldn’t attempt to sell — from laser-beam mousetraps to Watergate-themed card games. But he found his true calling in a pair of shades that made infomercial history

It’s the week of Fourth of July. And while we appreciate you being here, we really hope it’s from some stretch of sand or some body of water relaxing enough that your problems can be put on the same kind of ice as the booze in the cooler next to you. If not, throw on your shades anyway, and join us for our weeklong package, “Life’s a Beach,” a celebration of all things sand, sun and summer. Of course, if you’re already on vacation, you’re welcome, too — just be sure to reapply another layer of sunscreen, as these pieces burn bright. Read all of them here.

In 1979, Chicago was hit with one of the largest snowstorms ever recorded. Meteorologists predicted two to four inches of snow, but in a span of just 36 hours — from January 13th through January 15th — the city was blanketed in 29 inches, or about two and a half feet. Wind gusts reached speeds of 39 miles per hour. Five people died. Approximately 15 others were seriously injured. 

As you might imagine, everything in the city stopped for those two days. All flights out of  O’Hare were grounded. The buses ceased running. And, of course, mail delivery was halted. For Joe Sugarman, a copywriter by trade who sold computer electronics via mail-order, the pause put on the U.S. Postal Service was particularly problematic. The best he could do was notify his customers that there would be shipping delays. “Something he hated since he took such pride in getting his products out to people in a timely manner,” April Sugarman, his daughter, tells me. 

In such cases, the Federal Trade Commision (FTC) provided a stock letter for businesses to send to their customers. But Sugarman — again, a copywriter by trade — didn’t like how it was written. So he tweaked it. When the FTC found out, they hit Sugarman with a $100,000 fine. For six years, Sugarman tried to fight the FTC. He even created an illustrated pamphlet: “The Monster That Eats Business.” But after six years and roughly $500,000 in legal fees, Sugarman conceded and opted to pay the fine over four years. 

The incident, however, left him in a financial hole. For the next six years, he searched far and wide for a new product that could help him dig out. But he mostly landed upon dud after dud after dud — e.g., a horseshoe-shaped radio worn around the neck, a laser-beam mousetrap and a Batman credit card. (He printed 250,000 Caped Crusader cards and didn’t end up selling a single one of them.) Then there was the card game based on Watergate, Hungarian Conspiracy, which was described as “a game of cover-up and deception for the whole family.” Per a 1973 report from Time, the instructions read, “Nobody in the Watergate Scandal wins. There are just losers. Once the cards are dealt, however, the object of the game is to lie and cheat as much as possible.” 

As fate would have it, though, in 1986, a friend of Sugarman’s invited him to California to take a look at a portable fax machine — a potential new product Sugarman could advertise and sell. On the way from the airport, his friend noticed that Sugarman was squinting. “He said, ‘Here, wear this pair of sunglasses,’” Sugarman recalled in an interview with Ryan Miller, the current owner of BluBlockers, a few months before he passed away of natural causes at the age of 83 earlier this year. “I put them on, and I said, ‘These are terrific. Where did you get these?’ He said, ‘They were made for NASA. The guy who made them went bankrupt; he’s out of business.’ I said, ‘What a shame!’” 

The technology initially came from Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists James Stephens and Charles Miller, who in the 1980s were studying the harmful properties of light in space. “To combat this danger, the JPL scientists developed a welding curtain capable of absorbing, filtering and scattering the dangerous light,” reports NASA Spinoff. “The curtain employed a light-filtering/vision-enhancing system based on dyes and tiny particles of zinc oxide — unique methods they discovered by studying birds of prey.”

As you might imagine, the impression the lens technology and its signature orange hue left on Sugarman was considerable. As a former member of Army Intelligence who was often assigned to work with the CIA, Sugarman was always fascinated by gadget-y stuff. “Gadgets were his thing,” April says. “Even the license plate on his car was ‘GADGET.’” 

More serendipitously yet (in hindsight at least), when Sugarman got back to his office in Chicago, he received an urgent message that a full-page ad for a product he had slotted for the United Airlines catalog had gone out of business. He had only a few hours to fill the space. So he called his friend and asked him to send him the sunglasses. Sugarman came up with the name BluBlocker because the shades blocked all of the UV and blue light — something that the average sunglass wearer wasn’t aware of at the time.  

“Let me explain his advertising because that’s a really big, important piece of this thing,” explains April. “He was very well-known for long copy advertisements.” As such, in the original ad copy for BluBlockers, Sugarman began with, “I am about to tell you a true story. If you believe me, you will be well rewarded. If you don’t believe me, I will make it worth your while to change your mind. Let me explain.” From there, Sugarman recounted how BluBlocker lenses filtered out the aforementioned UV and blue light from the sun. He also suggested, “Astronomers from many famous universities wear BluBlockers to improve their night vision. Pilots, golfers, skiers, athletes, anyone who spends a great deal of time in the sun finds BluBlockers indispensable.”

He priced the glasses at $59.95, and when the United Airlines catalog was published, orders started flying in. Within a month, Sugarman knew he had a hit on his hands. “I scored the product from friends of mine in Taiwan and sales skyrocketed to the tune of 100,000 from that single ad in the United catalog,” Sugarman wrote in a 2019 blog post.

Next came the BluBlocker infomercials. In 1988, April remembers Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, clad in a blue tank top and a gold chain, arriving at their house so her dad could record him talking about BluBlockers in their living room. Around the same time, Sugarman had made a deal with the producers of Back to the Future Part II, to feature BluBlockers in a scene. “He created different styles and different colors for the frames,” says April. Additionally, Sugarman had done a promotion with Pizza Hut teasing the sunglasses that were slated to be featured in the movie. Pizza Hut ordered 10 million units with plans to ship them out with pizza orders. 

Ultimately, though, the scene, which featured Marty McFly wearing a pair of VR BluBlockers while eating pizza, was cut out of the movie. Not that it slowed the company’s growth. In fact, by 1990, it had grown big enough that Sugarman moved BluBlocker HQ to Las Vegas. “The Vegas location had a small storefront where people could stop by and purchase sunglasses in person,” says April. Two years later, Sugarman would release what is now considered his most famous infomercial. The shoot was on the Venice Boardwalk in L.A.. According to April, her dad, in the course of approaching strangers and asking them to try on BluBlockers, walked up to Dr. Geek, a local street performer known for improvising freestyle raps based on whatever he was looking at. 

“There was never a plan,” April tells me. “My dad never had a plan. It was literally a guy with a camera, a sound guy and my dad. That was it. And so, my dad walked up to Dr. Geek and handed him a pair of Blublockers. He had his boombox, and he just started rapping. Dr. Geek was that good.”

Sales peaked in the early 1990s with, per April, roughly 300,000 BluBlockers being sold monthly. But the brand received what she refers to as “another tall wave” in 2009, when the first Hangover movie came out. “That refreshed the whole BluBlocker thing,” she tells me. The story goes that Zach Galifianakis walked into the BluBlockers store in Vegas and just bought a pair. “There was never an agreement,” April explains. “I don’t know if there was a release that my dad needed to sign. I don’t think that he cared. It was free advertising.”

It was also in 2009 when Ryan Miller, the current BluBlocker CEO, entered the picture. “I was first introduced to BluBlocker as a kid by my dad, who was a loyal BluBlocker wearer,” he tells me. “I reached out to Joe Sugarman to see if he was interested in selling the company. We met at his office in Las Vegas, but he wasn’t ready to sell.” Miller, however, stayed in touch and would reach out to Sugarman every few years. “Finally, in 2019, he was ready to have the conversation, and we closed the deal in 2021,” Miller continues. (Today, BluBlocker has expanded beyond their classic aviator sunglasses, though every new style still features the iconic orange lens.)

For all of the success Sugarman had with BluBlocker, though, April says the thing she learned the most from her father was the value of failure. “My dad talked about himself as having failed more times than anyone else,” she explains. “But he only needed that one. That’s all people remember. Nobody remembers the fact that he didn’t sell a laser-beam mousetrap for a thousand dollars. Or that he didn’t sell hundreds of thousands of Batman credit cards. They only remember the BluBlocker sunglasses.”