Crass Commercialism and Corporate Greed in the Age of Infomercials
Welcome to the wacky world of infomercials. Part product and message tester, part venue for new product introduction and jumping off point for retail hook-ups, this lengthy commercial (normally 30 minutes) usually airs between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. (In media circles the graveyard shift or in infomercial-speak primetime) when rates are dirt cheap and viewership is minimal.
With an “inspirational” pitch master (or mistress)— the late Billie Mays (Oxiclean, Kaboom), Richard Simmons (“’Sweatin’ to the Oldies”), George Foreman (Foreman grill), Ron Popeil (Showtime cooker, “just set it and forget it”) — the infomercial does double duty —selling a product worth $1.00 or less for $10, $14.95, and at the high end $19.95 to 1% of its audience and soaping the runway for the other 99% to purchase the same product at a retailer (Walmart, Walgreens, Target). Here’s how HawthorneDirect a big time direct response advertising agency for the infomercial crowd describes the source of the infomercials’ profitability: “99% of infomercial viewers will not buy direct [1% if average response rate] in response to television…But these millions of non-purchasing infomercial watchers are primed to purchase the product at retailers or through catalogs, their preferred buying channels.”
With a 1% response rate and viewers whose main claim to fame is their insomnia —how profitable could these niche marketing schemes possibly be? In a word or two very profitable. In 2015, infomercials managed to rake in around $250 billion —1% of US GDP. The best-selling infomercial products today include: the blockbuster Proactiv, an acne cure system, that rakes in over $1 billion annually. That’s only the tip of a very profitable iceberg. For Americans with delusions of 16” biceps there’s Tony Horton’s P90X workout system jingling the cash registers to the tune of $400 million; George Foreman, who estimates his own personal haul from the Foreman grill at $200 million, sells $202 million worth of grills annually; those in the market for what usually turns out to be the most expensive clothes rack in history annually scoop up enough Bowflex workout machines to produce $193.9 million in revenues. Along with these newest profit centers are some older products that have stood the test of time: Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley’s Total Gym system, over $1 billion in total revenues; Showtime Rotisserie, $1.2 billion; Ped Egg, a callus remover, $450 million; Snuggie, a blanket with sleeves, $400 million; Richard Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies, $200 million; and Suzanne Somers’ Thighmaster, $100 million.
Even the way-out products are profitable enough to merit repeat airings. How about the mind boggling Uro Club, a 9-iron golf club doubling as a portable urinal for the prostate challenged, or Jump Snap, a ropeless jump rope. Only the lonely will pull out their wallets for Perfect Polly, a life-size plastic “parakeet,” motion activated to mimic the sounds and movements of a real parakeet. For a real deal at only $19.95, you can be the proud owner of a ShamWow, a combination chamois, towel, and sponge holding 20 times its weight in liquid (later modified to 10 times after the FTC intervened). Finally, for those who want to save on their heating bills, behold the Snuggie, a blanket with sleeves (the offer usually includes a “free” book light shipped along with your order).
Infomercials are hardly the new kid on the block. The first infomercial debuted in 1949. “Papa” Barnard founder of the Vita-Max corporation (then known as the Natural Foods Institute) starred in an infomercial entitled “Home Miracles for 1950” introducing his souped-up blender the perfect accompaniment to a healthier diet, a pitch tailor made for an American consumer-driven audience. Why eat healthy? According to Papa Barnard “with health [you] have wealth without health you’re a miserable failure.” Failure being defined as losing your job, your income, and your life. It was a potent appeal for first-generation television viewers. Today, Vita-Max blenders retail for over $400 and are sold in hundreds of retail outlets.
There you have it. Feeding the worst instincts of America’s all-consuming consumer mentality, one major direct response corporation, Telebrands, rakes in half a billion dollars annually selling products (e.g. Slice-O-Matic, pocket hose, hurricane spin mop) for hundreds of times more than their actual cost. Consider how much the average American will benefit from the the QRay wellness bracelet that “works to balance your own negative and positive energy forces optimizing your bio energy to provide an overall sense of well-being” [quoted from the infomercial] or the Boyfriend body pillow “a soft body pillow that looks like the torso of a man with a comforting arm that cuddles and holds you throughout the night. Aside from being more than a little creepy, this surrogate man-blanket is going to cost you $34.95, a bargain compared to the $60.00 you’ll have to plunk down to “optimize your bio energy” with a QRay bracelet.
Sometimes, not often enough, the makers of these products get caught and the amount of the judgment against them is a reminder of how lucrative this market is. Take for example our old friend the QRay bracelet. In 2006, a federal appeals court upheld the verdict of a lower court that ruled Que Te (Park) companies issued false and misleading health claims to sell the QRay bracelet. “This is an egregious example of false advertising,” said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC’s [Federal Trade Commission] Bureau of Consumer Protection. “These defendants lied about the so-called medicinal benefits of their product, and deceived people in pain. The judgment against them is a real victory for all consumers.” The damages assessed against the company: $87,000,000. Extrapolating from that award, total profits no doubt amounted to several hundreds of millions of dollars. P.S. the bracelet is sold today at various outlets including Amazon at the same exorbitant price minus some of the more wildly exaggerated claims.
Question of the day —at a time when, according to the Social Security Administration, one-half of all Americans make $30,000 or less annually and twenty percent of children in America live in “conditions of poverty,” with 2,5 million of them experiencing homelessness at some point every year, how badly do the rest of us need a “psychic friends network,” a “chatty patty,” a “pocket chair,” or an “egg wave?”
It’s 2:00 a.m. and you haven’t been to sleep yet. On goes the TV and up pops reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond (a little dated but at 2 in the morning beggars can’t be choosers) and Golden Girls (still funny after all these years). Channel surf a little more and you’re sure to find an advertisement for a product you’ll wonder how you ever got along without once you’ve called that 800 number and ordered it. Congratulations, you’ve entered a new dimension — infomercial world.
A veritable candy store of delights awaits your sleep-deprived senses. Steam combs to straighten curly hair, an “ab corset” that frees the wearer of the tyranny of crunches, sit ups or heaven forbid, the Pilates 100s, substituting electrical vibrations applied to unsightly bulges. New hope for all those under the belly button trouser wearers. Even if it doesn’t work, the reassuring pulses hold out hope – if you don‘t get electrocuted first. The best part? You won’t notice the bulges not disappearing as you will be sitting on your couch or bed watching other infomercials. Like the one designed for women of a certain age to achieve that “radiant glow of youth” from a jar. And it works so spectacularly that, as the infomercial informs you, the very same stuff is popular among the A-list Hollywood crowd.
Wait, there’s more. How about that wondrous new makeup. “light as air” powder, that gives skin, particularly ahem, ahem mature skin that “subtle’ glow, the airbrushed look. Need to lose weight? No problem. The tried and true remedy – weight loss in a milkshake. Drink up and the pounds melt away. For those of you whose predilection for instant gratification demands a quicker remedy, there’s always “body flattering” underwear that allows the wearer (once she’s successfully stuffed her way into it) to drop two dress sizes. Assuming she doesn’t faint or strangle herself, she’ll be a big hit on the singles’ circuit. Several cautions to observe while wearing this garment. Munchies are not recommended due to explosive consequences. Excessive drinking also not recommended as emptying one’s bladder could prove to be a bridge too far. Above all, resist the urge to hook up, even if he’s a hottie. Liberating yourself from constriction is not a sight for either man or beast. Even your cat should be discreetly whisked out of the room before attempting this feat. Perhaps a sympathetic girl friend, preferably one with myopia and astigmatism.
What do all these ads have in common? They provide the answer to several primal American urges– to improve body image without breaking a sweat and achieve magical transformation on the cheap. The ab stimulator and the two-size body shrinker may not be free but considering the results they’re worth every dime. Afraid you won’t be satisfied? Not to worry. If you’re not one hundred percent satisfied, mail the item back for a full refund. Except for $8.95 which covers our cost to send you the unwanted item you originally wanted. All you have to do is ship it back to us which may cost you another $6 or $7. Don’t worry, in the interests of full disclosure the government (FTC) has a tiresome regulation that requires us to disclose the refund process. Rest assured, it’s highly unlikely you’ll want one. These products are 100% guaranteed to work, complete with testimonials from folks like you, ordinary Joes and Janes. The whole pitch is carefully calibrated, complete with a telegenic pitchmen (or woman) to communicate an upbeat, sincere, convincing message to the sleepless masses at 2:00 in the morning.
Ab-shrinkers, tummy vibrators they’re an investment—your money, our miracles. But the age-reducing makeup, the wrinkles-away cream, the pounds-shedding milkshakes, order them and the first month is FREE. Exception, the acne cream works so quickly only two weeks is needed to make you a believer.
FREE is, of course, a relative term. Sure, the product itself is free – for one month. Surely you wouldn’t be piggy enough to suggest we eat the cost of sending it to you? We didn’t think so. What’s more if we promise you two batches of milkshakes or two wrinkle-free jars of magic cream or a double batch of powdery goodness, you don’t really expect us to pick up the shipping and handling (S/H) charge for the second batch do you? Think of it as a small price to pay for a virtual metamorphosis. Here’s how it shakes out. $8.95 shipping and handling for each jar of cream, batch of make-up or milkshakes. For the meager amount of $17.90, you are a new person. Guaranteed.
The only decision you have to make is what credit card to use to fulfill your order. The shipping and handling charges for your free product will be applied to it. In addition, that little card will insure you are never deprived of the life-enhancing effect of the product. By storing your credit card number in our files, we’ll be able to rush you out a refill next month, and the month after that and… You don’t have to do a thing, leaving you free to enjoy the remarkable results you see in the mirror. If you think about it, you’re not really paying for it. Visa or Mastercard is. After the first month’s free trial, the product’s laughably small price will be added onto the S/H charge bringing the total to a meager $30.15 (blame it on the government, we have to add tax)
Nota Bene: There’s always a few in the crowd who will suffer buyer’s remorse after agreeing to our terms and try to renege on the sale. We have that covered. Once we have your credit card number in our files, your credit card company cannot void the agreement you make with us even if you ask them. Unless and until we release our automatic monthly charge, that $30.15 is a fact of life (your life). Forget about it, enjoy a milkshake while applying your anti-wrinkle cream.
Ain’t capitalism grand.
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