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Media Zone: Infomercials Turn 25 ... and Still Can't Get No Respect

1 Jul, 2009 By: Response Contributor Response


I'm hardly the first to call infomercials the Rodney Dangerfield of advertising, but 25 years after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eliminated restrictions on how much advertising TV stations could air in an hour, I feel oddly compelled to tug on my necktie and give my head a quick shake.

 Timothy R. Hawthorne
Timothy R. Hawthorne

It's a love-hate relationship America shares with my favorite format. Given sales figures for products from Proactiv Solution to P90X, the love is indisputable. Even in our blemished economy, advertisers spend around $1 billion on half-hour time slots alone — and viewers make plenty of purchases to justify it. What's more, millions who haven't (yet!) bought infomercial products have likely made time to watch parodies on YouTube, or perhaps even made one themselves.

But parodies are not always kind. In jest, they make fun of Billy Mays' yelling and Vince Offer's headset. More cutting, they attack the utility of mattresses, stain cleaners and wealth-building strategies. By extension, they ridicule the people who purchase them. They get no respect either — no matter how efficient their kitchens or stain-free their carpets.


 

An online "Infomercial Trek" reveals a growing handful of Web sites that drip with venom far worse than the snake oil they purport to illuminate. Unambiguously-named sites like Infomercial-Hell.com and InfomercialScams.com are hardly fair and balanced (the latter doesn't post "reviews," it posts "complaints").

Only when you go boldly to more general forums does the commentary start to mirror behavior. A Minnesota-themed blog featuring an "Infomercial Sucker Poll," for instance, returned more positive comments about As-Seen-On-TV products than it did negative ones — including the delighted (and delightful) admission: "It actually really worked."

Infomercials thrive by making good first impressions and by delivering products that solve common consumer problems. So it's ironic that their reputation still is bogged down by a past generation's mindset. In movies, infomercials often serve as shorthand to illustrate the sleaziness or emptiness that define hapless characters' lives. It's what downtrodden schlubs watch at the motel, or what captivates the drunken numbskulls in Old School.

From that intellectual giant we call "movies," this is harder to swallow than sawdust. What's truly empty-headed is singling out infomercials as deceptive and silly. Sleazy? DRTV is the most transparent selling format out there. Want to know what that steam mop costs? We'll tell you 10 times. That 12-pack of Coors shown in Sunday's baseball game commercial? Sorry. You have to hop in your car to find out.

No product that can support a half-hour of scrutiny can be that bad of a product. Just imagine what an infomercial for a soft drink might look like. After "it tastes good," you're pretty much grasping at "it's bubbly," and "it's not as bad for you as beer." So who's fooling whom?

Happily, after 25 years, we industry veterans can enjoy the last laugh. The chronic displays of disrespect remain tiresome, and the haters are tedious nags. But suck as they do, they don't do it nearly so well as a Fantom, a Shark or an Oreck. As millions of consumers can tell you ... they actually really work!

Timothy R. Hawthorne is founder, chairman and executive creative director of Hawthorne Direct, a full-service DRTV, print, mail and digital ad agency founded in 1986. A 35-year television producer/writer/director, Hawthorne is a cum laude Harvard graduate.


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