Sales of Anthrax Ties Anything But Microscopic

ENCINO -- When Roger Freeman first started selling ties printed with the microscopic designs of deadly diseases, he knew the idea was sure to raise some eyebrows.

But what he didn't expect was that the macabre news of the times would mean a boom in his business, Infectious Awareables, as people scrambled to snap up his silk ties depicting the elegant, but deadly anthrax bacterium.

"It is so interesting, the human nature of it," Freeman mused Wednesday as he sifted through the orders taken on his Web site -- www.iawareables.com -- most of which seemed to be for the anthrax design.

When Freeman, a retired Encino dentist, began the business with his wife in 1997, his customers were generally people close to viruses and diseases -- doctors, educators, researchers and public health workers.

Freeman hawks his microbe wear (not just neckties, but also scarves and boxer shorts) at medical trade shows and as part of science museum exhibits, at the gift shops of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and online.

But recently, Freeman has gotten a lot of interest from another clientele -- those in the general public "who just want to wear something weird," he said.

Perhaps it is weird to sport the patterns of death on one's tie or scarf, but Hal Kassarjian, a professor of marketing at California State University, Northridge, suspects the popularity of the anthrax ties is a form of gallows humor.

"People are anxious," Kassarjian said, "and this is a way of making fun of the anxiety. I think that's what were dealing with here."

After practicing dentistry in West Los Angeles for 30 years, Freeman set about to find a business venture that was creative, had a public health education aspect and that could be operated from any location. Plus, he's always been interested in the life sciences.

So when someone gave Freeman a herpes tie from a wholesale company (which he eventually bought) he found the venture that met all those needs.

The idea was that the attractive tie designs would spark discussion about the very real threat from ultimately gruesomely diseases, Freeman said.

"What other opportunity would we have to talk about the plague?" he said. "I really do believe it generates a lot of discussion. More than I ever thought."

Each tie comes with a "learning note" on the back that gives some background on the pathology of that particular microbe. For example: "Tuberculosis is a chronic infection, usually affecting the lungs, transmitted by inhalation of infected airborne droplets."

Freeman lists the TB blue pattern as one of the most compelling designs, though his wife is partial to the Bubonic plague (described as "a very cool, very serious pathogen"). Buyers can also choose from the cubist malaria, the paisley-like herpes or the boxy arrangement of HIV, among others.

Freeman said that despite the name recognition, he would not consider creating a smallpox tie. However, he is considering creating a smallpox vaccine design as a way to spark some interest in vaccinations.

If anthrax is a little too close to home right now, there are plenty of other sartorial offerings sporting less-deadly patterns such as dental plaque, dust mites and chlamydia.

Before the run on anthrax, tuberculosis was the best seller, Freeman said. But some things, no matter how lovely, just don't do well. For example, the breast cancer tie that features the image of a single cancerous cell polarized male and female buyers.

"That's what I thought was going to happen with anthrax," Freeman said, "that sales would drop off the face of the earth, but I'm looking at the orders from the Web and the last four were anthrax."

Daily News, November 1, 2001
by Mariel Garza, Staff Writer

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