So with about $5,000 and their credit cards, Mr. Sperling and his girlfriend at the time — a hairdresser — bought a defunct salon in Manhattan. There, they developed a hair-replacement system that used a very fine nylon mesh, adhesives and hair colored to match the customer’s.
He told The Times that he wanted to remove some of the stigma around baldness. “For years, men have felt funny even discussing it, much less trying to do something about it,” he said. “I think what I’ve done is remove some of the embarrassment associated with men wanting to improve their looks.”
The commercial that made his career first aired in 1982, and was inspired by titans of industry like Frank Perdue of Perdue Chicken and Victor Kiam of Remington Products, who started appearing in their own ads. “I said, ‘If they could do it with chickens and electric shavers, I’ll do one for hair,’” Mr. Sperling said in a 2007 documentary, “Roots: The Hair-Raising Story of a Guy Named Sy.”
But unlike those businessmen — or the executives of many corporations today — Mr. Sperling endorsed his own product with a personal appeal. “I personified the bald man who wanted to do something about his hair,” Mr. Sperling said.
The ad, filmed as a backup, almost didn’t run. Originally, Mr. Sperling planned to use a commercial showing an athletic client playing tennis, riding a horse and jogging — his hair looking healthy and unruffled by all the activity. But the original ad bombed with viewers, so the Hair Club took a shot on the second.
By the early 1990s, the commercial was airing up to 400 times a day; sales for 1993 totaled $100 million. For a time, there were about 85 salons around the country, including franchises — a testament to the power of television, and the business potential of becoming a meme, even in the pre-internet era.