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"It reminds me of an old joke," she says. "How many people in a behavior- modification program does it take to change a light bulb? Only one--if he's willing to make the change."

But Babich is among those who have strong reservations about the use of those tapes to treat people who may have deep-rooted psychological problems. "Hypnosis is just one tool," says Stuart Litvak, a Phoenix psychologist who says he also uses some hypnotherapy. "And if you've got one tool and it's a hammer, what do you do? You treat every problem like a nail. That's a mistake."

But how do you explain away Sam Meranto's legion of satisfied customers, those talking billboards who regularly pour their hearts out on his TV show? "There's going to be a certain success rate associated with anything you do," insists Litvak. "No matter what you do, there are going to be a certain number of people who'll respond to it. But what about the failures? You rarely hear anything from them. That's the problem here. You can get a testimonial from anybody about anything and it doesn't mean a damn thing if you don't know how that percentage relates to the number of failures."

Meranto has heard it all before. "Yeah, well, what do you expect those guys to say?" asks Meranto. "For starters, they're jealous--they don't want the competition. Let's put it this way: Suppose that you're a psychiatrist and you've got Mrs. Johnson giving you $200 a month and she's been coming to see you for three years. She's a steady customer. The average psychiatrist, according to the 1978 American Medical Association Journal, has less than 300 patients in his whole career! Me, I wanna get people well right away. I don't wanna be a crutch. I wanna teach them how to be what they really want to be."

(In return for that, Meranto says he charges $15 per 45-minute session. Depending on what ails 'em, he says, the total cost could range from $300 to $1,500.)

Meranto appears to delight in skewering his more sheep-skinned brethren.
"People come to me as a last resort," he explains. "I've had people who've been to the some of the most famous hospitals in the world. They've been to this doctor, they've been to that doctor, and they still got the pain. That's where my work comes in."

Hold your applause, please.
"I believe, really believe, that God gave me a calling to help these people," Meranto contends. "I wasn't meant to make them act like chickens or dogs, or have them put on glasses and see nude people. I believe this gift was meant to be used for a more constructive means."

Meranto says he first took the wraps off his gift while working as a teenage door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman in Worcester, Massachusetts. An amateur hypnotist, Meranto decided to see whether he could boost his sales through self-hypnosis. Using an old wire recorder that continues to occupy a hallowed spot in Meranto's office, the fledgling messiah recorded a series of pep talks that he later listened to while he slept.

Although some studies have since suggested that the only people who really benefit from sleep-learning recordings are the people who market them, Meranto says he was too busy selling vacuum cleaners to notice.

"I had this recorder on a timer and every night after I'd fall asleep, I'd listen to myself," he explains. "I'd tell myself, `You're gonna be more assertive, you're gonna be more aggressive, you're gonna be the best salesman who ever worked for Electrolux.' And you know what? It worked! I could sell like nobody's business. Here I was driving around in a brand-new 1952 four-door Plymouth and I was a kid--19 or 20 tops. Before I knew it, I was making more money than I knew what to do with."

Meranto didn't mind sharing the secrets of his wealth. Having advanced to the position of assistant manager of the Electrolux office in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he began conducting daily hypnotic powwows for his sales team. "Every morning I'd say, `Close your eyes. Relax. Open your mind.' Then I'd tell 'em what super salesmen they were--how they were going to sell the pants off everyone. There were about 23 of these men, most of them in their 40s, 50s and 60s, most of them just average salesmen."

Meranto leans forward in his chair before delivering the punch line. "You know what happened? Every one of those men became sales champs. In seven months, we won five national sales contests against 10,000 other people. We won so many sales banquets, the company got tired of throwing 'em. And we got tired of going to 'em." Punching doorbells may have proved to be a financial gold mine for the young supersalesman, but Meranto claims that the real payoff came from helping the folks who answered those chimes.

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Dewey Webb