The creator of The Burning Bush Fire Starter, Fornoff is one local entrepreneur who's ready for his product to be off the shelves. He's closing up shop in tandem with the Bush White House, where the president and his staff will soon be turning off machines, packing up boxes and clicking off the lights as they leave.
Of course, the flame of anti-Bush sentiment burns on, even if, like its target, it's a fading ember. Come Barack Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20, the thriving commerce in Bush-bashing consumer items -- T-shirts, bumper stickers, books, counting-down-the-days-till-he's-out calendars -- will be rendered obsolete, except perhaps as museum pieces or eBay curiosities. But there's still time to burn Bush, argues Fornoff, an Asheville-based communications consultant.
The fire starter, which sells for $10, had a good run. It placed a polarizing president's mug on an object that could be burned, with the added benefit of biblical wordplay -- "burning bush" and all.
While the product does make a political point, Fornoff is quick to point out that it's all in good fun. The slogan "Toast the President Today" is printed on the box, he notes. "We believe in toasting the president," Fornoff says with a grin -- "but maybe in a different way than you would normally think."
Mountain Xpress: When and how did you envision the fire starter?
Rick Fornoff: About three years ago, I was making a fire using a fireplace starter log. And I said to my friend, "You know, this would be so much more satisfying if it was somebody instead of just a brick." And she said, "Yeah, like George Bush." And I said, "That's it -- the Burning Bush!" The idea was born.
I'd actually been burning effigies for years in association with Guy Fawkes Day. Guy Fawkes was the co-conspirator who was part of the plot to blow up the English Parliament building in 1605. He ended up being caught ... so they hung him.
And now they celebrate it in England. So, on Nov. 5, they burn Guy Fawkes in effigy over a bonfire while they set off fireworks.
Once you decided to create the product, what was your next step?
I had never made a product before, never invented anything, so I went through a long design process. I thought of using molded wood pulp, which is what they make egg cartons out of, and printing his face on it. But it had to be clear that it was President Bush for it to work.
Finally, I figured out a process: I put a fireplace starter log in a hydraulic press and squish it into an aluminum mold that I had machined down in Arden. And I put a sticker on the front of it that shows George Bush's face, then I dip it in paraffin to hold it on. Then I put a wick on the back to help light it.
I had to design the plastic clamshell package, which is made by a company in Greenville, Tenn. The sticker's made in Hendersonville, the box is made in Kansas. It's all made in America, which is the only way I could think of doing it. I wouldn't want to go offshore with something as rude as burning the president.
How many have you sold?
Something on the order of 15,000.
Do they sell better in any particular parts of the country?
They don't sell well in Florida, because nobody has a fireplace. I've had people say that they don't want one because they don't have a fireplace, and I say, "Well, I really don't care; it's funny anyway. You can put it on your shelf." ... You can use it to start your fire, but it's really more about the humor on the box and the idea.
And we should note that you decided to make another model, with Hillary Clinton's face on it.
Yeah, a lot of stores are afraid of being partisan -- that they'll lose their Republican customers. So I came up with a counter version, The Flaming Liberal, and I used Hillary Clinton on that.
How did those sell?
Surprisingly, they sold better than the Burning Bush for a while. A distributor in California who sold both products told me, "Well, there's a ton of anti-Bush products out there ... but there really aren't any anti-Hillary or anti-liberal products." Perhaps that's because conservatives don't have the same sense of humor as liberals, I don't know.
Have you had any negative reactions to the Burning Bush, from customers or critics? Anyone say, "How dare you?"
I sent a promotional mailing out at one point, and got several back that were cut up in little pieces and had unpleasant notes about how unpatriotic I was. I did have someone locally who was helping me develop the product, giving me some advice on the hydraulic presses. And then at one point he said: "I really can't do this anymore. He's my president, and as an American it's my duty to support the president, so I can't help you."
I think it's important to note that this product is done in a kind of lighthearted way. It's not a mean product; it's about the humor. ... I'm fine with laughing at liberals or conservatives. I think all politicians should be subject to humor and ridicule: It comes with the territory.
So are you going to make any other versions? Say, an Obama fire starter?
No. I thought about the idea of "Flame McCain," but did not do that. ... I think I've had enough negative feelings about it. People have said, "Burning somebody is not good karma," and there's something to that.
On the other hand, there's a great purging that comes from "burning" somebody and ridding yourself of that. In fact, the most requested product of any that I've had -- people would like to put a picture of their own choice on the fire log. For example, somebody whose boyfriend had dumped her, or somebody whose mother-in-law is awful, or somebody who has a terrible boss. So somebody could have a divorce party, say, put the picture of their ex-spouse on it, have a bonfire and dance around it. That would be a good generic use, but I'm not planning on doing any other politicians.
What would you say to a critic who says, "You're contributing to the coarsening of the political dialogue; this is too much vitriol, it's too much in attack mode"?
I'd say that they have a point. I do regret that things have become so partisan. At the same time, I think that there is a certain release that comes from expressing frustration and getting it out of your system.
It says on the side of the box, "This product best if used by Election Day 2008," so this product is really past its expiration date. There are a lot of Americans who are glad it is. So, while we're not planning on doing any other products, what we're doing is encouraging people who are interested, on Inauguration Day, to go out in their backyard or at their fireplace and burn a Burning Bush.
It'll be a national smudge, a national purge -- a way that we can say goodbye to our president and then move on.
For more information, or to purchase a Burning Bush, visit www.toastbush.com.