Can't Take A Joke: The Tone Sanitizer Story
Some people think Matthew Farrow is an asshole.
They’ve told him as much via email and in social media comment sections, using phrases like "tasteless," “disingenuous” and "willfully diabolical" to describe his recent actions. Of course, the man behind Alexander Pedals and its sister company, Disaster Area Designs, pays them little mind.
“I could spend a lot of time worrying about those people,” he says, “but at the end of the day I’m probably worrying about what one or two out of tens of thousands think. And really, the small number of people who complain are the only ones who get airtime.”
On March 15 — a day when the US announced more than 650 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to nearly 3,500 — Farrow posted an image to Instagram.
The idea behind the post was inspired by a hand sanitizer-related meme he’d spotted online the day prior.
“When the pandemic started to really hit the news, people were freaking out and buying anything they thought might help them — things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer,” Farrow says. “I thought that a toilet paper pedal might be a little silly, but hand sanitizer seemed to be a much better fit. The iconography and design of the classic sanitizer package are really great, too, and I’m a sucker for a clean design.”
So Farrow ran with the sanitizer idea, posted the pedal concept to the Alexander Pedals social media accounts and watched the reaction. As of this writing — a month removed — the original Instagram post has more than 700 likes and 50 comments, all of which are generally positive.
“I would absolutely buy one.”
“Love this idea.”
“Take my money.”
Farrow says that most people thought the spoof was funny — but the joke didn’t land with everyone.
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Ryan Plewacki is an internet demo guy. Smart and skinny, he’s the kind that wears scally caps and denim jackets with Grateful Dead patches and actually pulls it off. He graduated with a Midwestern music degree and then moved to Brooklyn, cutting his teeth on jazz standards in the heart of NYC to cover rent.
These days, he runs an Instagram and YouTube account called Demos in the Dark and has a moderate reach, roughly 9,000 combined followers as of this writing.
On March 26, Plewacki uploaded a playful demo of the Tone Sanitizer, showcasing its range as a booster and low gain overdrive. The video was met with a positive response, save one person who went up and down the comments section attacking him and Alexander Pedals both for “making jokes about people dying.”
“I understand that any situation, and especially one like COVID-19, can produce varying degrees of sensitivity, depending on the person,” says Plewacki. “So for the most part, I let him rant. However, my patience wore off when he started harassing other commenters and not the video and I had to block him from commenting further.”
In a day and age when the subtleties of humor and sarcasm can easily be misinterpreted from behind a keyboard — and when the people behind a brand often become obscured by the brand itself, thanks to near-constant social media saturation — Farrow tries to walk the fine line between responsible brand manager and small-business owner.
“We have gotten a couple of negative comments about the Tone Sanitizer, and while those do really bum me out I also know that you can’t please everyone,” says Farrow, who employs 8 full-time staff members at his shop just south of Raleigh, North Carolina. “Building these pedals kept the team working and feeling useful. We’ve got a big shop so we’re able to maintain social distancing — and building pedals really beats sitting around wondering what happens next.”
Plus, by selling the Tone Sanitizer primarily through dealers, Farrow feels that he’s doing what he can to support other small businesses as well.
“It costs thousands of dollars to make a product like this and, at the end of the day, we are a for-profit company — so we are really trying to earn a living here. This is just a small thing we can do to help and I’m really happy that we were able to do some good during this challenging time.”
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To his credit, Farrow is no stranger to philanthropy.
Since its inception in 2015, Alexander Pedals has donated more than $20,000 to various charities in honor of his younger brother, Alexander Farrow, who died at the age of seven as the result of neuroblastoma — a rare form of cancer that starts in certain types of primitive nerve cells.
Those donations have primarily gone to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, as well as Camp Carefree, a no-cost summer camp program in North Carolina for children with chronic illnesses and disabilities, and their siblings.
“I was one of the first class of siblings back in 1986, so Camp Carefree has a very special place in my heart,” says Farrow. “Their summer sessions for 2020 are canceled due to the pandemic, but we’re still donating to them so that they can have a great year in 2021.”
Alexander Pedals has also donated to the Red Cross during past crises, but the newest recipient on its list is Inter-Faith Food Shuttle — a hunger relief initiative in Raleigh that feeds nearly 60,000 people per month, mostly children and seniors.
“They do a ton of good work here and we’re proud to have been able to help provide 1,000 meals from this run of pedals.”
Which, of course, was the idea all along.
“I know the market has slowed down a lot,” Farrow says. “So a less expensive pedal that has some social good tied to it seemed like a really good fit. We donated what comes out to $10 per pedal in the run — and we did it all up-front without waiting for the pedals to sell. That way even if nobody buys them, we’re still contributing.”
The motto that Farrow adopted for Alexander Pedals is “Great Tones, Doing Good” and he plans on sticking to it, no matter whether he’s supporting various childhood cancer organizations or local initiatives like the Food Shuttle.
“Read the fine print," he says. "Sometimes you see companies claim that they donate 'all the proceeds' from a sale to charity, but that can be misleading. As for us, we’ll continue to donate at least $5 per pedal to deserving causes as long as we’re still here.”