I love infomercials. I always have, for as long as I can remember. There is just something simultaneously amusing and compelling about this much-maligned, over-the-top form of advertising.
Maybe it’s the gratuitously negative “before” segment, where buffoonish actors, in a dismal black-and-white universe, fail utterly in their attempts to chop garlic or coil a garden hose.
Or, perhaps it’s the absurd novelty items that are lauded as “life changing” by a loud, chipper narrator, who offers to sell you NOT ONE, BUT THREE units for the UNHEARD-OF PRICE OF JUST $19.99!!!
They are unarguably a bit cheesy, and have earned a (somewhat deserved) reputation for selling cheap, gimmicky products using unsubstantiated claims or wild exaggerations. I’m not really disputing this, but I do think that infomercials possess an endearing quality that makes us love them in an indulgent way. And I believe that, when it comes to content, infomercials do many things well.
To start with, the term “infomercial” is actually a bit of a misnomer when it comes to the two-minute “commercials” that air between TV segments on regular breaks. The industry term is “Direct Response Television” (DRTV), which refers to ads calling viewers to action with a website or a phone number. An “infomercial,” proper, is the long-form, 15-30 minute ad that is often called “paid programming” on network schedules.
DRTV, as a format, began in the late 1940’s/early 1950s, when William G. “Papa” Bernard conducted a demonstration of his Vita-Mix Blender for a television spot. Sales took off, and the format became especially popular with novelty products that required contextualization, explanation or demonstration.
Plus, DRTV ad campaigns were cheap. Advertisers chose to purchase “off” time from the networks, either during the workday or late at night, when air time was at its least expensive. Currently, the average cost of a 30-second national ad is about $350,000, or about $11-12,000 per second, while a DRTV ad costs between $14 and $140 a second. So it was a great option for small startups or for larger companies looking to run a targeted “test campaign” to determine the viability of a particular product.
Here are some good examples of infomercials (I’m still going to use that term because y’all know what I mean):
- Shamwow – An absorbent multi-purpose cloth
- PedEgg – A pedicure aid
- Snuggie – A blanket with sleeves
- ProActiv – Acne medication
- SlapChop – A food chopping device
- Perfect Polly – A fake motion-activated parakeet
- Pocket Hose – An easy-to-store garden hose
- Showtime Rotisserie Grills– A countertop rotisserie oven
- P90X – An intense workout regimen
- George Foreman Grill – A fat-draining countertop grill
- Bowflex – A resistance-based home gym
- Thighmaster– A thigh-toning device
- Bacon Bowl– A mold for creating…. yep, bowls made of bacon
- Hawaii Chair– A gyrating chair that tones your core
You may laugh at the strangeness of a robot parakeet or the virally popular Snuggie, but infomercials are big business. Jon Nathanson, a blogger for Priceonomics and Slate, writes in his article “The Economics of Infomercials:”
[Infomercials are] serious business. Collectively, the U.S. market for infomercial products stood at $170 billion in 2009 and could exceed $250 billion by 2015. In fact, with the worth of the entire U.S. network and cable industry estimated at $97 billion as of 2013, DRTV is much bigger than TV itself.
At the present, the majority of products marketed on infomercials are actually purchased in brick-and-mortar retailers, many of which offer “As Seen on TV” sections. Nathanson suggests that currently, the infomercial format is “not really about selling you anything. It’s about selling you to retailers – running cheap tests in local markets, building local retail relationships, then moving up the chain to national deals.”
Despite the shifting financial strategies behind infomercials, many of the genre’s identifying stylistic characteristics have remained fairly constant over the years. If you watch almost any of the videos I’ve linked above, you can quickly get a sense of unifying traits: a problem is presented, a product is introduced, an actor or pitchman shows you how the product solves your problem, a “shockingly low” price is revealed and you receive information about how to order the product.
Again, I’m not advocating that you model your presentation closely after the infomercial model, unless, of course, you are marketing high heels for dogs or a mop that scrambles eggs. But here are some of the ways that infomercials use and manage content in an effective way.
1) Establish a clear, open relationship with your audience.
Unlike some more subtle, conceptual (sometimes confusing) advertising, infomercials make it VERY obvious which product they are selling, and that they are, in fact, trying to sell it to you. This can be a refreshing change in an era when marketing often tries to disguise itself. There is no mistaking the directness of “Order now!” or “Call within the next 15 minutes and you’ll receive ___!” When you’re creating content, consider whether your message and call to action are clear to your audience.
2) You don’t always need to re-invent the wheel.
Infomercial formats often make use of the “before/after” trope, or the celebrity spokesperson, or the highly-visible money-back guarantee to enhance their content. It’s because these measures are proven and effective, and they call to viewers’ minds a familiar narrative and structure. So if you have a website format that has worked in the past, or a brochure that is clear and easy-to-use, don’t automatically dismiss re-using them simply because the form or conventions are not “new.”
3) Focus on making your content user-centric.
The producers of infomercials go to great (sometimes excessive) lengths to demonstrate the many ways their product will improve YOUR life. Whether this means listing off dozens of foods you can chop, numerous surfaces you can sanitize or places you might want to take your remote-control beer cooler (hint: pretty much everywhere), what makes this a great strategy is that it proves the advertisers have really thought about users and their needs. When I write copy for hotel websites, I try to think about what kinds of travel needs guests might have, and how that particular hotel can fulfill them. Is there a refrigerator for leftovers? Does the hotel have a forgotten items service? Are there enough outlets or USB ports? Is there a drugstore or a bank within walking distance? These details may seem small, but they can add up to create comprehensive user-friendly content across the entire website, portraying the hotel as one that understands the stresses of traveling and is doing everything possible to address them.
So the next time you’re up at 3 am and see an infomercial for some product like the BeDazzler or the Perfect Pancake, remember that even the silliest forms of advertising and marketing can be based on solid tenets of communication and content. And try to resist the siren song of Pajama Jeans.
Sally Boman – Writer/Editor