'Infomercial' May Sell Your Avocado Peeler, but . . .

Small-business owners have made millions of dollars selling everything from car wax to travel irons via "infomercials," those 30-minute television commercials that run day and night on cable and broadcast stations across the country.

"Most small-business owners don't realize they don't have to put up a dime for the production or the air time," said Hal Morris, who has produced more than 300 infomercials and is teaching a class on them this month through UCLA Extension.

Will infomercials work for you? Ask yourself these questions: Does your product have mass market appeal? Does your product have a market value of $30 or more? Can you manufacture it for $5 or $6? Can you create magic on television by demonstrating the product? Do you have ample supplies available if the show is successful?

Although Morris has sold intangible products such as a program designed to guard against Internal Revenue Service tax audits, the most successful infomercial products have mass appeal and qualities easily demonstrated on television. The best infomercials prompt viewers to jump up and call a toll-free number to order. Other infomercials are designed to bring in qualified leads for follow-up sales or direct consumers into stores to buy the product.

"You need to make sure your story is so exciting, you can keep viewers interested for 30 minutes," said Joe Land, who starred in several infomercials selling subliminal self-improvement audio tapes. Between 1986 and 1989, Land sold about $80 million worth of tapes. He become sort of an infomercial folk hero and was the subject of an investigative report by "60 Minutes."

Independently wealthy and retired at 47, Land believes infomercials are a great way to introduce a new product to consumers.

The secret is to offer something that is initially not available in stores. If the product is a hit and retailers start stocking it, television sales plummet, Land said. Although he made a fortune selling his tapes, he cautions other business owners not to expect the same kind of phenomenal response to their products.

Every week, Tony Hoffman, president of Maui Productions in Westlake Village, reviews about a dozen potential products made by mostly small businesses. If he believes that a product will sell on television, his company buys the product from the manufacturer so there is little risk to the business owner. Then his company produces the infomercials, test markets them and buys the air time.

"Sometimes we even put up the money for manufacturing," Hoffman said. A powerful stain remover and a travel iron that can be held near a balloon without popping it have been recent hits for Hoffman. He is now producing infomercials for a juice extractor, a food dehydrator and a colored car wax that covers nicks and scratches.

Hoffman admits he has a dud now and then.

He was sure a $99 sing-along video system would be a real moneymaker.

"It was the best show we ever did; everybody loved it," Hoffman said. "But sales were so bad we called the television stations to make sure the shows had run!"

Hal Morris' class, "Infomercials: Opportunities for the Future," meets Jan. 9 through Feb. 13 at UCLA. The fee for the six-week session is $215. For information call UCLA Extension (213) 206-1708.

For more information on infomercials, contact the National Infomercial Marketing Assn., 1201 New York Ave., N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005. Telephone: (202) 962-8342.

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