“Call right now! Operators are standing by to take your order.”
“Call in the next 10 minutes and we’ll double your order!”
“Not available in stores, and limited quantities apply!”
“But wait, there’s more!”
What do all these phrases have in common? They’re regularly used in infomercials—but in all honesty, they’ve become so ubiquitous in today’s society that you probably already figured that out.
For most younger generations, infomercials have been a normal part of everyday life. However, the truth is that TV stations used to end their broadcasts late in the evening, which wouldn’t resume until early the following morning.
In 1984 though, the FCC deregulated broadcast television, which allowed stations to feature programming 24 hours per day. Because these late night slots often came with low viewership, stations offered them at extremely low prices, making them ripe territory for the newly budding infomercial industry, which ultimately came into their own in the early 1990s.
Today, the infomercial market represents a global, multi-billion dollar industry that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. However, despite some of the industry’s hugely successful products, most people have a somewhat negative view of infomercial-based products.
Rightly so, because the unfortunate fact is that many manufacturers are willing to take full advantage of their customers through misleading advertising, poor quality products, high shipping and handling fees, and poor customer service.
In other words, infomercials are often more about obtaining your credit card number than they are about providing you with a quality product.
In this article, we’ll explore what infomercials are, how and why they work, as well as some commonsense tips you can use if you’re tempted to purchase an infomercial-based product.
What Is an Infomercial?
The term “infomercial,” a combination of the words “information” and “commercial,” was first coined in the 1980s by Cinestar owner Paul Ruffino, and are also known as long-form TV commercials or direct response television.
These commercials typically run in 30-minute to one-hour segments at various times during the day, and are a form of direct-to-consumer marketing.
In other words, instead of being forced to go through middlemen, such as distributors and/or retailers, infomercials have the unique ability to grab a consumer’s attention, who can then contact the company directly to make their purchase.
More recently, there is quite a bit of overlap between infomercials and “As Seen on TV” products, as they often use many of the same selling tactics, which we’ll discuss in more detail in the following section.
However, the important distinction really comes down to time; infomercials typically last between 15 and 30 minutes, while “As Seen on TV” products follow the standard commercial length of 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
For example, some of the most popular infomercial-based products, such as Ron Popeil’s Showtime Rotisserie, George Foreman’s Grill, and Tony Little’s Gazelle were very long, and featured detailed product descriptions and demonstrations.
On the other hand, popular “As Seen on TV” products such as OxiClean and Snuggies first got their start in traditional commercials.
Regardless of the type of product being offered or the product’s target market, infomercials are typically formatted in one of three ways:
- Similar to a standard talk show, where an actor portrays a TV host and interviews one or more “experts,” in addition to audience members.
- Where a pitchman performs an extended demonstration of the product through comparison tests and audience participation.
- Well-produced product samplers featuring attractive models, which are most commonly used with exercise products and nutritional supplements.
Now that we understand more about what infomercials are (and aren’t), let’s take a closer look at why companies use them.
Why Do Companies Use Infomercials?
While infomercials might initially come across as silly or cheesy, the reality is that they’re extraordinarily profitable, which is why so many companies choose to use them to market their products.
In fact, even though the mere mention of the word “infomercial” might bring to mind images of slick, “snake oil” salesmen and cheap products, Fortune 1000 firms with solid customer reputations were responsible for producing 20 percent of all new infomercials in 2004.
On top of this, the infomercial industry exceeded $100 billion in worldwide sales in 2010 alone, which is more than all feature films grossed that same year. Clearly, infomercials have solidly moved out of late night and into the prime time.
Also, infomercial-based products often come with huge profit margins. For example, if you pay $19.95 for a product, it’s very likely that the manufacturer only paid $4-$5 to produce it, which represents a 400-500% markup—and this is even before the grossly inflated shipping and handling fees are factored in.
However, while many infomercials use the phrase “not sold in stores,” the reality is that this is the ultimate goal. In other words, infomercials often act as a launchpad for manufacturers that don’t have the resources to move directly into the retail market.
But once a consumer base and an income stream is established through the use of infomercials, these companies often then move their products onto store shelves—and if things go really well—to an international audience.
In the long run, despite the potential downside—the infamous Tony Little claims that only 1 in 60 of them end up being profitable in the long run—companies continue to use infomercials because of the immense amount of money they can make when everything falls into place.
And with an average cost about 1/10th that of traditional advertising campaigns, even when it doesn’t, manufacturers are out less money than they would be with more “traditional” products.
Why Do Infomercials Work So Well?
In short, infomercials work because their creators have whittled the process of selling down to a science. And while you might think that you’re immune to them, the reality is that nearly every household in America has at least one product purchased through an infomercial. As a prime example of this, 1 in every 12 people in the U.S. now owns a Snuggie, which originally got its start through infomercials.
According to this article, infomercials work so well because they’re in the business of “selling hope.”
In other words, they make you feel good and make you believe that their product really can help you become exactly who you want to be by solving a key problem.
They’re intended to elicit a must-have response from you by making you act with emotion, instead of with cognition.
Ultimately, they “state a problem, and then present the product as an ingenious solution.” On top of this, they almost always draw you in by telling a story that you can somehow relate to, and then use repetition to drive home the point over and over again.
Seasonal Products and Airing Schedules
Would you try to sell grass seed in December? Or, how about ski goggles in July? In instances like these, it’s almost certain that these products wouldn’t sell very well at these times of year, and that their manufacturers wouldn’t realize much of a return on their investment if they chose to do so.
The point here is this: Manufacturers keep a close eye on which of their products will sell best at different times of the year, and choose to promote them more heavily when their target audiences are more likely to buy.
Part of this is based on the specific seasons, but manufacturers tend to break the four seasons (Spring, Summer, etc.) down into even smaller selling seasons—such as the few weeks surrounding high school and college graduations, the beginning of the school year, holiday vacations, etc.
This is because manufacturers fully understand when their audience will be watching TV and when they won’t, and choose to either shelf an infomercial for a couple months, or to promote it heavily around the clock.
In other words, if you’re helping your daughter get ready for prom, or helping your nephew prepare for graduation, chances are that you may not care about purchasing a product. Infomercial marketers fully understand this, and schedule their programs accordingly.
Infomercial Product Pricing
Have you ever wondered why the $19.95 price point is so common with infomercial-based products?
It’s because marketers have learned through trial and error that this price is a “sweet spot” of sorts. In other words, most people are willing to impulsively gamble $20 of their hard-earned money on a product that may or may not live up to expectations, but $30 is too high, while $10 may give off the impression of a inferior product.
As such, infomercials are specifically designed to make their products seem like extraordinary bargains, because you’re led to believe that they’ll solve a “common denominator” problem in your life; usually related to health and fitness, beauty, appliances, and diet.
Making You Say “Yes”
With this said, in a very real way, infomercials are case studies about how to make customers perform specific actions, often without them even realizing what’s happening.
As outlined in this NPR article, well known paid programming writer Colleen Szot “recently authored a program that shattered a nearly twenty-year sales record for a home-shopping channel.”
How did she accomplish this? Simply by changing the phrase "Operators are waiting, please call now," to, "If operators are busy, please call again." In other words, by making it seem like buyers might be inconvenienced due to the perception of high demand, she actually increased sales—by a lot.
Again, referencing this CNN article from 2005, “Infomercial marketers know which consumer hot buttons to hit. "Quick, easy, greed, new, fun, vanity. The infomercial needs to keep pushing as many of these as are relevant."
What’s the Problem with Infomercials?
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Infomercial-based products have huge profit margins and are sold using tried-and-true methods, so what’s the real problem?”
At its most basic, infomercials bring into question the ethics of selling, because the products they peddle rarely perform as well as advertised, and the manner in which they’re sold could be considered somewhat dishonest.
As alluded to in the first section, this is because any “experts” interviewed in talk show infomercials are often not what they claim to be, and even audience members are generally paid to attend and to provide positive feedback.
In other words, based on the way an infomercial’s product is presented, it’s made to give the appearance of legitimate consumer scrutiny and feedback, when the reality is that they’re nothing of the sort.
So how can you avoid falling prey to the subtle selling tactics found in infomercials? Let’s take a closer look.
5 Tips on Becoming a Discerning Infomercial Viewer
If you find yourself glued to the TV while an infomercial is airing, what can you do? Here are five tips to help you become a more informed infomercial customer:
Tip #1: Get Ready for Numerous Upsells
First, remember that if you do decide to call and place an order, you’ll almost certainly be upsold several products throughout the process. Think you can avoid this by ordering online? Think again, because most manufacturers will sell your contact information to third-party companies, who will then email and/or call you to upsell additional products.
Tip #2: Understand the Nature of Infomercials
Second, understand that infomercials are designed to make products look their absolute best. As such, it’s highly likely that once you receive it, it may not look as good as it did on TV, and that it very likely won’t perform as well as advertised.
Tip #3: Don’t Let the High Shipping & Handling Fees Get You
Next, before finalizing your purchase, keep in mind that many products sold through infomercials come with steep shipping and handling charges, which are almost never refundable. When you add the amount you’ll have to pay to ship the product back to the company if you’re dissatisfied, you might find out that you’ve paid more in shipping and handling charges than you’ll ultimately receive as a refund.
Tip #4: Be Wary of Big Claims
Fourth, put on your thinking cap. If a product claims to give you greener grass while making your hair regrow and giving you six-pack abs, then you can bank on it not performing as well as it claims. As trite as it may seem, the phrase “too good to be true” is a good starting point when deciding whether or not to purchase a product sold through an infomercial.
Tip #5: Learn More About the Product
Finally, do your research. HighYa exists solely to make you a more informed consumer, so if there’s a product you’re thinking about purchasing, resist the temptation to order it this very moment, and find out what other customers have to say about it first.
As we mentioned above, the ultimate goal for any infomercial product is to go retail, so there’s a very real possibility that any product you’re thinking about purchasing will soon be available at your local Walmart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, etc.
If you can be patient, you may be able to avoid return hassles, poor customer service, and numerous upsells in the first place.