Switchboard operators will not be standing by when the folks behind BluBlockers, Soloflex, the Juiceman, the “Perfect Smile,” food dehydrators, and cooking ware where you “set it and forget it” are saluted tonight in Las Vegas.
But numerous other operators will be standing by in the massive Paris hotel ballroom -- the television marketers of thigh and bun masters, egg yolk extractors, onion choppers, portable rotisserie grills and other items that have stirred the attention and opened the pocketbooks of insomniacs for the last two decades.
The occasion is the 20th anniversary of the infomercial, that ubiquitous staple of odd-hour television, the genre that packaged direct advertising to consumers in easily recognizable TV formats, complete with its own language -- “Call in the next three minutes and you also get....” -- and colorful personalities. And though the birthday cake may not be sliced and diced, toned and heavily made up, what better place to celebrate than in a town that really understands the power of money?
Infomercials took in more than $150 billion last year (out of a total of $256 billion in “direct response” business), according to industry leaders. Thousands of attendees ranging from small-time entrepreneurs to executives from major corporations are expected to drop in on the gala, which is the keynote event for the four-day 14th annual conference of the Electronic Retailing Assn., the trade organization for companies that sell goods and services directly to the public.
Dan Danielson, head of Mercury Media, one of the leading media buyers in the direct response industry, has compiled a video montage of the earliest infomercials. “It’s a great hook for the convention,” he said.
Who can forget the car wax infomercial where the hood of a Rolls Royce was set on fire but the car was undamaged? Or Ron Popeil spray-painting his head with GLH (Great Looking Hair) to cover his bald spot? Or Oscar winner Cher shooting the breeze with makeup and hair care expert Lori Davis, or Grammy winner Dionne Warwick singing the praises of the Psychic Friends Network? Or the ponytailed and ironically named Tony Little yelling, “Technique, technique” at sweating exercisers, and the chunky fitness guru Richard Simmons hawing his “Deal-A-Meal” and “Sweatin’ to the Oldies?”
It was still up in the air over the weekend whether Vanessa L. Williams, Victoria Principal, Kathie Lee Gifford or other Hollywood celebs who have pitched products through the years would attend the historical salute, but several infomercial pioneers from in front of and behind the camera are expected to raise a toast to the industry that brought them fame and fortune.
“When we started, we were not sure how long this was going to last,” said Greg Renker of the Guthy-Renker Corp., which since 1988 has grown into one of the world’s largest TV-response-driven companies, with annual sales in excess of $1 billion. Renker is scheduled to be rewarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the tribute.
Said Renker: “We were just enjoying it for the moment, but now it’s clear that people really do enjoy buying off television. They know they’re being sold and they like being sold and they’re ready to step up and spend their money. Our feeling now is that we feel a greater responsibility than ever to make sure the consumers have a satisfactory experience. We’ve moved toward more authenticity and less puffery.”
Blurring the lines
This nostalgic look back also comes at a time of transition for the industry. Major corporations and brands are turning to infomercials as an effective marketing tool. The form itself has left its mark on popular culture. Just like the infomercial borrowed from TV game-show and talk-show formulas, much of television is now utilizing techniques from infomercials, blurring the line between programming and promotion.
Oprah Winfrey’s recent giveaway of 276 new Pontiac G6s to her studio audience was essentially an infomercial for Pontiac, complete with a visit to the company’s manufacturing plant. The “cast” of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover -- Home Edition” uses tools and appliances from Sears. On the second-season opener of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” the contestants created a new toy for Mattel, which the toy company will now market. Ford and Coke not only sponsor Fox’s “American Idol” but have prominent product placement.
Ironically, television is now being used to sell ... television. Vintage installments of “The Carol Burnett Show” and Dean Martin celebrity roasts are being sold through infomercials.
“It’s the mainstream of the marketing future, and it’s only going to get bigger,” said Steve Dworman, who compiled interviews with direct-TV marketers for his new book, "$12 Billion of Inside Marketing Secrets.”
The industry launched in 1984 when then-President Reagan signed the Cable Communications Policy Act deregulating TV. Still-young cable networks, desperate for revenue, sold chunks of unsold air time to the highest bidder, often at bargain-basement rates. The lust for shopping on TV was clear; infomercials started popping up around the same time as 24-hour shopping networks such as QVC.
“In the beginning, it was a gold rush, like a Wild West show,” said Dworman, who also publishes the Infomercial Marketing Report. “They were these guys who came in, talking about no money down on real estate.”
The infomercial “episodes” of “Amazing Discoveries” and “Incredible Breakthroughs,” which pushed such items as car wax, stain cleaners and math-whiz kits for kids, were not too far removed in spirit from network shows such as “That’s Incredible.” Other ads for products such as “Mega Memory” looked like talk shows, complete with bands and live studio audiences.
And then there were the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time infomercial stars, who at times became so popular that they were guests on mainstream talk shows, approached on the streets for autographs and parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
Ron Popeil became a multimillionaire with GLH, the Popeil Pocket Fisherman and the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie. Raspy-voiced Tony Robbins built an empire based on his “Personal Power” books and tapes. Perhaps most prominent of all was Susan Powter of “Stop the Insanity,” a weight loss program. Powter’s short, spiky, peroxide-blond hairdo and bellowing, hyperactive style became such a rage that television producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (“Designing Women”) once toyed with the idea about building a sitcom around her.
But the growing pains of the industry also included questionable items and claims, crackdowns by the Federal Trade Commission and more than a few debacles.
Smooth-talking businessman Dave Del Dotto had his get-rich-quick infomercials -- which featured crooner John Davidson singing about realizing dreams -- pulled off the air in 1992 when the Federal Trade Commission charged him with making unsubstantiated claims. Last year, U.S. marshals, operating at the behest of the Food and Drug Administration, seized about $2.6 million worth of Coral Calcium Supreme, a dietary supplement hawked by entrepreneurs Kevin Trudeau and Robert Barefoot in paid advertising airing on Discovery Channel, Bravo and the Comedy Channel. The FDA and the FTC went to court to stop Trudeau and Barefoot from making claims about coral calcium’s health effects.
Renker said the Electronic Retailing Assn. is more diligent now about checking out the legitimacy of infomercial claims. Noted fitness salesman Tony Little: “The industry has come a long way in the last 20 years. We’ve shaken off a lot of the lower-end products. The public is more educated. There are warranties and consumer experts.”
Several of the current infomercial celebrities, including Daisy Fuentes, Mari Winsor of “Winsor Pilates,” and Forbes Riley, host of “Pro-Strong Nails” and “Abs of Steel,” are scheduled to attend tonight’s event. But Powter has no intention of attending the festivities.
Powter, who said she left the industry in disgust because it wasn’t “authentic,” is marketing her female-targeted weight-loss book, “The Politics of Stupid,” and her “Trailer Park Yoga” video on her website.
“I still have my power,” said the Seattle-based Powter, 46, who grew back her hair and had her third son six years ago. “What happened to me was an atmospheric happening. I just took my voice back from those morons.”
But those in the industry remain optimistic that the upcoming adventures of the Gazelle Freestyle Supertrainer, the Eggstractor and Lateral Thigh Trainer will still appeal to viewers, who will vote with their remotes -- and wallets.
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Great moments in infomercial history
* 1984 -- Herbalife purchases a 90-minute Sunday night block on the USA Network and company founder Mark Hughes hosts the first infomercial, set in a Midwest hotel ballroom and filled with testimonials about the wonders of his product. Distributors in the audience are handed checks for $30,000 to $50,000. The phone lines go crazy.
* 1987 -- The portable Soloflex exercise machine becomes the first high-end product to be sold.
* 1989 -- Mike Levey launches his “Amazing Discoveries” series. With his Everyman demeanor and outlandish sweaters, he excitedly markets hundreds of products, including car wax and kitchen gadgets.
* 1989 -- Tony Robbins launches his “Personal Power” campaign, and Victoria Jackson launches her cosmetics line.
* 1990 -- Dionne Warwick hosts “The Psychic Friends Network,” a talk show featuring reenactments of guests’ otherworldly experiences.
* 1993 -- “The Martinettis Bring Home a Computer” is the first “storymercial,” using a fictional Middle American family to promote the benefits of the Apple Macintosh Performa. The half-hour spot is co-produced by Apple Computer Inc.