Little Sweatshop of Horrors

Staring intently at a stopwatch, the tiny silver-haired woman repeats the instructional mantra that's our signal to fly into action.

"Right armpits! Ready . . . set . . . wash!"
Flipping up the bath-towel ponchos we're wearing over our chests, the four of us who are leaning over a portable wash trough filled with soapy gray water furiously scour our pits for the next ten seconds.

". . . and stop!" The woman resets the watch and signals for us to move on.
Ditching our soggy pads, the three strangers and I mechanically stuff dry pads under freshly washed arms and proceed to the next stage of the operation. Almost immediately, we're replaced at the trough by another four men.

Elsewhere in the room, another woman uses a hand-held blue light to scrutinize the underarm regions of several dozen men waiting to wash. Another group of men, meanwhile, queues up to a work station where a woman massages precisely measured dollops of gel into their armpits.

As I absorb the weird scenario unfolding around me, I notice a bulletin board covered with cartoons clipped from newspapers and magazines.

Not surprisingly, all of the gags revolve around the same topic. In one representative cartoon, a one-armed housewife holds a can labeled EXTRA-STRENGTH DEODORANT. Lying on the floor is her other arm.

Since Hill Top Research opened in 1976, thousands of human guinea pigs--both male and female--have participated in the Scottsdale lab's offbeat product-testing studies. And if a few of those paid volunteers initially suspected they might be victims of a Candid Camera stunt, well, who's to blame them? After all, not many places pay part-timers to soak their hands in tuna oil, pace around in presoaked adult diapers or broil in a saunalike atmosphere with cotton pads shoved under their armpits.

Like me, product-testing veteran Jan Vollmer originally turned up her nose at the idea of exploiting her pits for profits.

"At first I thought, 'This is gross! This is absolutely gross!'" the 68-year-old Vollmer tells me. "'Nobody's going to sniff my armpits!' But once I realized what I was doing--that I was helping to test a product for the market--it turned out to be a delightful experience." (See related story.)

That was 20 years ago. Since then, Vollmer has participated in several hundred studies at Scottsdale's Hill Top Research product-testing lab--first as a paid panelist, and later as a staff recruiter responsible for rounding up same.

Founded in 1947, the Cincinnati-based company now operates seven product-testing labs across North America, each specializing in tests that take advantage of regional climates. The Scottsdale branch handles skin studies related to dry heat; meanwhile, the Winnipeg lab focuses on dry-skin problems resulting from cold weather. To thwart industrial espionage and protect the confidentiality of its clients, Hill Top never reveals brand names to panelists. Today, the firm has a database of nearly 7,000 active testers, a freelance work force that is paid anywhere from $15 to $150 per study, depending on the time and restrictions involved.

Explaining that Hill Top recruits through newspaper ads, fliers, community bulletin boards and church newsletters, Vollmer says, "We get people from all walks of life. Husbands, wives, retirees, single moms with kids, we have 'em all. If you can work these tests into your schedule, they're a terrific way to pick up extra money."

Vollmer's daughter, a social director at a nearby nursing home, supplements her income by dropping in on Hill Top's frequently scheduled "patch" studies--tests which determine if a particular product causes skin irritation. (One recent patch involving 11 ten-minute visits paid $65.) A real saleswoman, Vollmer even convinced her husband, Jim, to participate in one of the tests studying adult-diaper leakage (moisture was simulated). Says Vollmer, "He really got a kick out of that."

Though semiretired, Vollmer remains Hill Top's unofficial cheerleader. For the past 15 years, she and a dozen friends she's met at the testing lab get together for monthly "Pit Club" luncheons. And whenever she's in town (she and her husband have another home elsewhere), Vollmer still tries to work at least one study into her schedule.

"Skin creams, baby products, vapor products, hospital bandages, shaving creams," she says. "Believe me, at Hill Top, we've tested everything."

"There's nothing--nothing--put on the market without being tested," answers Vollmer. "You'd be amazed at some of the things we've studied out here." Discreetly lowering her voice, she talks about a test for feminine-protection products that required panelists to store used sanitary pads in their refrigerator before bringing them in for analysis the next morning.

"Finding recruits for that one was a little touchy," she confesses.
Another tough sell? The comparison test involving different types of condoms. Chuckling, Vollmer reports participants in that study were only required to discuss their reactions to the product, not bring back physical proof that they'd actually used it.

Mercifully, the only body fluid of mine that Hill Top is interested in is sweat. Or, more precisely, the lack of it.

So I discover when I arrive for a panelist cattle call at Hill Top headquarters near Miller Road and Earll Drive. After I successfully pass a cursory physical, a technician tells me there's an opening in an upcoming "AP" hot-room study--industry jargon for antiperspirant tests conducted in sweltering temperatures.

Although the specifics may vary from test to test, I'm told the structure of this particular study is fairly standard. For a week prior to the test--known as a "wash-out" period--panelists can't use any underarm products except for the can of spray deodorant provided by the lab.

During the actual test, preweighed cotton pads are placed under a panelist's armpits both before and after the antiperspirant being studied is applied. After a stint in the saunalike "hot room," the pads are removed and reweighed to determine the effectiveness of the antiperspirant.

The study--which runs 11 hours over five nights, including two hot-room sessions--pays $80.

Fringe benefits? You bet.
An employee tells me that in the future, if I can convince a friend to enroll in the same study, we'll qualify for a "Cool Deal"--translation: We'll split $5 worth of free coupons for Dairy Queen.

And upon completion of the study, I'll be eligible for Hill Top's monthly drawing. This month's prize? A $50 gift certificate from Wal-Mart.

Arriving at the Hill Top complex for my antiperspirant trial by fire early one Monday evening, I have no trouble finding the room where my study is taking place. Cardboard signs suggestive of a product-testing version of Let's Make a Deal--"Men's AP Study, Door 8," "Facial Cleansing, Door 4"--have been thoughtfully tacked to trunks of trees lining the sidewalks of the complex.

If I need any further guidance, I don't have to look far. The complex is virtually deserted except for a handful of smokers standing outside the testing room. Many of them are tattooed. Several sport pierced nipples. All of them wear the proud uniform of the AP product tester--a frayed bath towel with a head slit cut across it.

As I pass by, they're laughing over a flier offering $150 to volunteers who qualify for a study involving panelists who haven't experienced a menstrual cycle in more than a year.

"Hell, I've never had one," roars a heavily tattooed guy with a ponytail. "Where do I sign up?"

Inside, several dozen men--a Central Casting potpourri of types ranging from slackers to bikers to retirees--roam around in various stages of above-the-waist dishabille. Rife with folksy chaos, the scene suggests an all-ages draft induction center as staffed by a team of kindly school nurses.

I'm greeted by one of the technicians, a friendly older woman who looks like someone you might have seen on a grade-school cafeteria line. She hands me an ID tag and a number and tells me to grab a towel.

After slipping a peach-colored poncho over my head, I strike up a conversation with a motorcycle enthusiast who lives across the street from the lab.

A veteran of numerous Hill Top studies, he lays out the AP routine. During this night's session, we'll sit in the hot room for 80 minutes with preweighed cotton pads under our arms. Then we'll sit around for an hour while the staff reweighs the pads and determines who the top 40-odd sweaters are.

Assuming we make the cut, all we do during the next three consecutive nights is have antiperspirant applied under our arms. Although this doesn't require much time, the pit crew is still expected to hang out at the lab for an hour so everyone has a chance to absorb the antiperspirant under similar conditions.

Then on Friday, the final night, we go through the pads/hot-room routine one last time. By comparing the weights of these pads to those we did five days earlier (i.e., tonight), the lab can determine the effectiveness of the antiperspirant.

Because of all the paperwork, last-minute medical checks and so forth, tonight's session will last a grueling five hours.

"The first night's pretty tough," the guy concludes. "If you can get through that, though, it's not too bad."

On those reassuring words, one of the technicians appears. Making like a drill sergeant, she instructs us to line up in numerical order, then marches us over to another room where a nurse checks our pulse, blood pressure and temperature.

Already, a barracks esprit de corps has emerged; as our ragtag battalion heads down the sidewalk toward the hot room, someone hollers, "Hey, what is this? Schindler's List?"

"Yeah, man," someone else chimes in. "Where are you Nazis taking us now?"
"We're not Nazis--we're the good guys," counters one of the technicians. "C'mon, guys--if you behave, you'll get Coke and pizza after you get outta the hot room."

"Pizza?" asks a wary voice. "From where?"

I have a sneaking suspicion I know the answer to that one as soon as we enter the hot room: It feels like an oven.

Unfortunately, it's not a dry heat that permeates the room, a large, neutral-colored space filled with rows of chairs. The thermostat has been jacked up to 100 degrees, with humidity at a swampy 35 percent.

The moist heat is stifling. In no time, everyone has broken a sweat. The simple act of breathing suddenly seems like a major chore.

As we queue up to have thin, napkinlike cotton pads inserted under our armpits, word travels down the line: Lean against door sills as you progress to the front of the room and you can feel cool air seeping in from the adjoining room. One joker presses his nose to the crack and does an impersonation of a guy in a gas chamber.

"Listen, guys, I know it's hot, but it's not that bad," lies one of the technicians as she and her partner tuck pads under our pits with a dowel rod. "Just think--80 minutes in here, an hour in the cool-down room, and you're done for the night."

"We'll be done, all right," grouses one middle-aged fellow who's already expressed fears of claustrophobia. "Does OSHA know about this place?"

When all 40-some panelists are padded and seated, a technician lays down the ground rules: Our feet must remain flat on the floor. We're forbidden to write or perform any other activity that would cause us to sweat "unevenly." And while we're free to read magazines or books, newspapers are taboo--while turning pages, a panelist runs the risk of dropping his pad. And there's to be no profanity, nor any discussion of politics or religion--all sweat generated in the hot room should be a function of heat, not heat of anger.

For the next 80 minutes, we literally stew in our juices.
As it turns out, that's probably one of the very few activities that can be successfully accomplished in this hellish atmosphere.

Because of the constant necessity of blotting my face with the towel, reading doesn't seem to be much of an option. Nor does sleeping; the noise level in the room has risen to a low din and keeps escalating.

Judging from a few snatches of dialogue I'm privy to, even conducting an intelligent discussion is something of a challenge: Down the row from me, someone is ranting about why all sports and soap operas should be banned from television. From behind me, another voice explains a get-rich-quick scheme that involves hoarding Disney's Lady and the Tramp videocassettes because the company has supposedly announced it's pulling the film from the market and will never release it again. Someone else announces that he grew up with the kid whose dad helped handle the dead space aliens that crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, back in '47.

I zone out for a couple of minutes, only to be rocked back to reality when one panelist accidentally drops a pad, triggering a minor uproar.

The technician who's been summoned to the room is understanding but stern. Explaining that since this is only a "warm-up" sweat (the first 40 minutes in the hot room are a dry run to get our perspiration glands going), she'll allow the panelist to replace his pad. But she warns that had this happened during the final stage of the sweat, when we're using preweighed pads, he'd have been disqualified from the study.

Thoroughly chastened, I clench my arms tightly to my sides, then close my eyes and mentally will myself to another place. The best I can do is imagine that I'm being suffocated in a giant armpit.

When I reopen my eyes, I see one of the technicians peeking at us through a window. Suddenly feeling like a barbecued chicken on a supermarket rotisserie, I can't help wondering whether my brain is parboiling.

By the time we hit the home stretch--by now, our precious preweighed pads are in place--I master the art of the heat-induced trance. With my eyes closed, I flash on Katie Winters, the '60s TV pitchwoman who was always whipping a jar of Ice Blue Secret out of her purse.

Regaining full consciousness somewhere between the Jeffrey Dahmer jokes and the late-breaking announcement that one of Jamie Farr's in-laws regularly participates in Hill Top studies, I'm happy to discover we only have a couple more minutes left to bake.

Happy? I'm ecstatic! And I'm not alone--the trapped-in-hell atmosphere has been replaced by the kind of giddy euphoria you experience on jets right before a long flight touches down.

After surrendering our sodden pads to science (the gloved technicians adroitly stuff them into labeled test tubes), we all adjourn to the TV lounge where we're expected to wait for an hour. When I ask why, a technician explains that the pads are being weighed; those who didn't sweat enough will receive a minimal "drop fee" and be dismissed from the rest of the study.

I shake my sweat-drenched head in disbelief. "Someone can sit through that and still not sweat enough to suit you?"

"We've got standards," she says, shrugging.

Just as my confidant had predicted, the rest of the study was--well--no sweat.

Three of my fellow guinea pigs were too calm and cool for their own good; they collected $14 checks on their way out the door.

I, meanwhile, discovered that I was more or less as moist as the next man. Arranged in progressing order of our sweatiness, I charted at 21 out of 42.

Except for the more-of-the-same final Friday night sweat, the rest of the study was a snap. After washing and application, everyone would sit around the air-conditioned TV lounge and shoot the breeze for an hour. I was downwind from several interesting conversations and learned that my fellow panelists included a repo man, a construction worker, an ex-con, a hotel bell captain, an etymologist, a Vietnam vet and, yes, a Lady and the Tramp speculator. Nice guys all, but I seriously doubt any of us will be forming a men's auxiliary "Pit Club."

All of which could come as disappointing news to Jan Vollmer, but somehow doesn't. This is, after all, a woman who takes considerable--and understandable--pride in knowing that her sweat glands (not to mention other portions of her anatomy) have played a small but important role in shaping the personal-care-product landscape as we know it today.

"Well, the hot room isn't for everyone," she concedes. Then, forging ahead, "Maybe you'd do better in a patch study. What's your work schedule like? If you can get on a program that lets you come in right before or after work, you can really make some good money for not very much of your time."

After I promise to sleep on it, the product-testing dynamo makes a startling confession that temporarily unites us in the spirit of product-testing brotherhood.

"I guess everybody's got something they'd be uncomfortable testing," she says. "For me, it'd be an early morning breath study--oh, I think that'd be just horrible."

"And feet, stinky feet. That and feminine hygiene spray.


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