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.

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Dewey Webb