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They pitch, and we catch

Special to The Times

It’s 2 a.m. The world is dark except for the glow of your TV. That “Miracle Pets” marathon on Pax has ended and paid programming has started. OK, admit it. You watch infomercials. Yes, those tacky 28-minute spots with pitchmen pushing everything from the Ab-Doer to the Zap Cleaner Kit as though it’s the Second Coming. Or rather the Second Coming plus a free set of Ginsu steak knives.

If you’re too tired to exercise or too lazy to clean, don’t worry. Flip to another channel, where you’ll find infomercial superstar Anthony Robbins, who sells personal enhancement backed by his mile-wide smile; or loud Billy Mays, the stocky pitchman who keeps you enthralled at the cleaning potential of orange oil; or for a bit of creepy fun, there’s ageless Cher touting hair care products.

And if you can resist all of this, chances are someone you know can’t. By industry estimates, infomercial viewers buy more than $115 billion in products each year. And that number is growing. Particularly among women over 40 who represent an estimated 80% of infomercial consumers. “Men control the remote control,” says Denise DuBarry-Hay, chief creative officer of info-company Thane International Inc. “But women control the purse. It’s in our nature to shop anyway.” It’s even become a respectable enough medium for Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and General Motors.

Webster’s defines an infomercial as “a television program that is an extended advertisement often including a discussion or demonstration.” That, essentially, means that anything from, say, a five-minute spot for Time-Life’s “Sounds of the ‘70s” CD set to QVC’s 24/7/364 days of sales programming (it actually goes dark on Christmas Day) fits the definition.

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Expect the category, born in 1984 when the Reagan administration dropped the rules limiting the time stations could devote to commercials, to grow too. In an ever expanding universe of channels with an insatiable appetite for cheap programs, infomercials are just the ticket, especially in the late-night hours. And with the threat to conventional advertising posed by personal video recorders like TiVo and Replay, better-produced infomercials -- disguised as entertainment programs -- are likely to proliferate.

“Everybody wants to get rich. They see these people on television making money,” says Ron Popeil. “But first you better make sure you have a quality product.” He should know. Dubbed “the king of infomercials,” the chief executive of Chatsworth-based Ronco Inventions has been selling kitchen gadgets and do-it-yourself gizmos for more than 50 years, working home shows and state fairs long before broadcast media.

He’s also third generation in the biz: He learned the trade from his father, Samuel, who worked the carnival circuit with his big invention, the Veg-O-Matic (“It slices, it dices, it makes julienne fries”). Samuel learned the business from his uncle, way back when.

Ron Popeil’s secret for staying in the game? He develops all the inventions he sells, making him a rarity in a world where pitchmen come and go. (Remember Susan Powter, Dave Deldatto, Mike Levy’s Amazing Discoveries, Don Lapre’s MoneyMaking Secrets?) Popeil talks about his products like they’re his children: the Pocket Fisherman, the Smokeless Ashtray, the Ronco Clean Air Machine and, of course, the GLH Formula #9 Hair System, a thickening powder spray that covers embarrassing bald spots. “I wear it every day,” Popeil says.

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But the product he’s proudest of is the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ, which can be bought for four easy payments of $39.95. Studio audiences weep at the sight of fat sliding off the glistening, whirling meat. Most of Popeil’s products have sold more than $100 million, but the Showtime Rotisserie has almost exceeded $1 billion.

Celebrities push the widgets

A natural-born, unstoppable salesman, he can’t help pitching, even when just talking: “I was on Larry King and he asked me, ‘Can I put a chicken in it at the beginning and eat it by the end of the show?’ ” Popeil remembers. “At the end of the show, he said, ‘That’s the best-tasting chicken I have ever had in my entire life.’ When a customer buys my machine and uses it for the first time, they say the same thing.”

Although Popeil has become famous from his talk-show appearances, he insists he’s not a star. “I’m deemed to be a celebrity but I’m really not. My products are the celebrities.” Still, many infomercial companies use celebrity spokespeople to successfully sell their wares. Guthy-Renker, with annual sales of about $700 million, uses a cadre of famous faces for its products: Daisy Fuentes for Winsor Pilates, and Judith Light and Vanessa Williams for the acne-fighting Proactiv Solution. One of its clients, self-improvement guru Anthony Robbins, spoofed himself in the Farrelly brothers movie “Shallow Hal.” Fitness professionals Billy Blanks and Richard Simmons have become their own brand names.

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But others downplay the importance of famous faces. “People think that if they hire a well-known face that that will make a difference,” says Jan Muller, high-energy spokesman for such things as the FoodSaver Vac 500 and the Paint Stick house-painting tool. “But what makes the difference to the viewer is the story. If they buy into the story and they feel that you’re a person they can trust and believe in, that’s what makes people like me ... Joe Fowler, Kathy Mitchell, people that are on year in, year out. What makes it work is that we’re ordinary people.”

Ironically, Denise DuBarry-Hay became more of a celebrity from infomercials than from her earlier career as an actress. She achieved modest success in films like “Being There” (1979) and had a regular role on the Robert Conrad series “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” but by 1988, her acting career was drying up. “I thought I was going to wind up producing films,” she says. “Then a friend told me about a woman who taught Barbi Benton how to play the piano in two lessons. And it really worked.” Breaking into the infomercial industry, she developed a spot for Piano Overnight, a musical method that featured endorsements from Benton and Alex Karras. DuBarry-Hay appeared in subsequent ads for the piano lessons and started working on marketing more products.

Today, she and her husband, Bill Hay, run Thane International Inc., one of the largest direct-response and retail marketing companies in the world. Their bestseller is Le Presse, a food slicer, dicer and corer (not to be confused with the Veg-O-matic). Other top products include the California Beauty Sunless Tanner and the Youth Cocktail, an age-defying formula of vitamins and minerals that DuBarry-Hay pitches herself. Although the FDA has not approved the Cocktail, DuBarry-Hay stands by her product. But of course, if you don’t, there’s the federally regulated 30-day money-back guarantee. “Anybody that knows about supplementation and nutrition would find this to be an incredible product,” she says. “We won’t sell anything that we don’t 100% believe in. We don’t want it to ruin our reputation and we don’t want returns.”

What does the future hold for the infomercial? Ron Pearlstein, chief executive of Infoworx, thinks he knows. He’ll talk your ear off about “infomarketing,” a one-stop-shop marketing company he’s running now that targets any budding entrepreneur with a patent, a dream -- and $80,000 to $125,000 to pay for everything from sets and props to on-camera hosts, digital editing and distribution.

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“There’s a big difference between our business model and a company like Thane. In that scenario, a company takes over all the marketing rights of a product that a developer has put their blood, sweat, tears and money into over the years. And in most cases give a 2% royalty to the product owner,” Pearlstein says. “In our model, the product owner is totally in charge. We don’t make a profit on the front end, the client covers the media costs, and if the product is successful, we get the 2% royalty. Our client has the ability to control their product and gain the lion’s share of the profits.”

More products than respect

Pearlstein is excited about Infoworx’s newest infomercial, which was just launched three weeks ago. It’s for the Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner sold for $199.95 (and developed by scientists at the artificial intelligence lab at MIT). It’s compact and small enough to glide into corners and under coffee tables to get the job done. “Roomba is a revolutionary product that will affect people’s lives,” Pearlstein says. But he adds that the vacuum’s infomercial stands on its own for pure entertainment value. “People have testified that they enjoy simply sitting and watching it work. It does have a mind of its own.”

But even with customer protection, hands-on entrepreneurs and state-of-the-art products, will this much-maligned industry ever catch a break? Popular culture has been taking shots at pitchmen even pre-infomercial, i.e. Dan Aykroyd’s hilarious fish-churning Bass-O-Matic inventor on “Saturday Night Live,” a direct jab at the Veg-O-Matic. Dennis Miller ranted, “Thank God for infomercials. I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought I’ve got to learn Chinese wok cooking from an old bald Scottish midget.” Popeil, for one, takes it all in stride. “The Bass-O-Matic was a classic,” he says. “It’s all just good publicity.”

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Who’s who in infomercials

Sure, sure, the product’s the star, but here are some of the key pitchpeople.

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The current all-stars

Ron Popeil: Arguably the father of the infomercial (see story).

Nancy Nelson: Chipper blond sidekick who plays to the doubting TV viewer for Ron Popeil and Jan Muller.

Billy Mays: Energetic barker for products such as the all-purpose cleansers Orange Glow and OxyClean, and the FoneFree, which converts cell phones into speaker phones through car radios.

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Bruno Meglio: Silver-fox Beverly Hills hairstylist and creator of the Revo Styler anti-tangling hair system.

Bob Bowersox: Genial host of “In the Kitchen With Bob,” a QVC favorite.

Famous for pitching

Billy Blanks: Tae Bo workout titan.

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Richard Simmons: Campy star of numerous weight loss programs

Jake Steinfeld: Body By ... big shot.

Famous before they pitched

Jackie Chan: (CableFlex full body workout)

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Cher (Lori Davis hair products)

Daisy Fuentes: (Winsor Pilates)

Charlton Heston (Charlton Heston Presents the Bible).

Home shopping network regulars

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Rita Wilson, Lauren Hutton, Susan Lucci, Suzanne Somers, Stephanie Seymour


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