Sunday, July 27, 2008

Kitten Confessions, Part Five

My name is Kitten, and I adore infomercials.

Before I continue, I just need to add that I rarely purchase items from informercials. I purchased some fitness videos from the FIRM several years back, but that's about the extent of it. I just enjoy watching informercials for their sheer entertainment and production values. Some of them make me laugh, and it's not laughing with the participants--it's laughing at them.

Let's start by going over the history of the infomercial. We all have President Reagan to thank indirectly for this bastion of American advertising. How so? Well (to borrow a classic Reagan catch phrase), before 1984, the FCC had a rule stating that, in 60 minutes of a television time slot, there could be no more than twelve minutes of commercials. That's right, twelve. To make a long story short, in 1984, the television industry was deregulated, and stations could show as much commercial activity as they pleased. This is the main reasons why TV stations no longer have sign-offs, and broadcast infomercials whenever their audience is asleep. (That having been said, I know of one station in Springfield, Massachusetts that signs off every Monday morning at 12:30 and goes back on the air around 5:00).

So now the industry has been deregulated, and all of a sudden there's all of this unused, cheap airspace in the wee hours of the morning, when most people are assumed to be sleeping. One of the first people to take advantage of this opportunity was Ron Popeil, who became one of the pioneers of the infomercial industry. Ron Popeil was the head of Ronco, the company that invented and produced such gadgets as the Veg-O-Matic, the Showtime Rotisserie, and hair in a can, among others. (Interesting bit o' trivia: Popeil's father, Samuel Popeil, invented the Veg-O-Matic.)

The invention of another Ronco product, the Chop-o-Matic, is probably the reason for Ronco's entrance into the infomercial industry. Ronco salesmen had a difficult time carrying and finding vegetables for Chop-o-Matic demonstrations, so Ron Popeil came up with the solution: why not tape a demonstration, then sell it to various TV markets?

But wait, there's more! That's a bit of infomercial language that we can thank Mr. Ed Valenti for. Who is Ed Valenti? Why, he's the man responsible for bringing us Ginsu knives! I hope I have some readers who remember Ginsu knives! Not only that, but Ed Valenti is responsible for the whole direct response advertising industry. You can read more about that here, right on his very own website.

Ginsu's advertising success included the use of such language as, "If you order now, we'll send you a ___________ absolutely free!" and "But wait, there's more!" Ron Popeil employed this language into his own informercials, and...well, you've seen the result if you have either stayed up late at night, caught yourself watching CNBC on weekend afternoons, or have watched any of the old PAX TV stations up till they officially started their programming at 5:00 PM.

After the success of Ginsu and Ronco, many other businessmen jumped on the infomercial bandwagon, like Richard Simmons, who has successfully used the format to sell his Deal-a-Meal plans and Sweatin' to the Oldies videos. The fitness guru has filmed his productions in various locales such as malls, cruise ships, and clients' houses, complete with before and after photos and heartfelt customer testimony. I really enjoy his informercials because they seem really genuine. You can tell he really cares about his clients, and that they adore him, for the way that he's changed their lives. I must admit I've gotten a little teary-eyed at some of them.

And then there are the infomercials that are so unbearably fake, you wonder why they were even produced. I'm thinking here about the "fake talk show" infomercial format, complete with studio audience, satellite feeds with special guests, and the "take the 'Miracle in a Bottle' challenge" to remove wrinkles. There are two current infomercials that pop into mind here: Sheer Cover, with Leeza Gibbons, and Meaningful Beauty, with Cindy Crawford. First, I think to myself, "How do they find people for a studio audience for an infomercial?" Secondly, I think, "How do they make this so damn entertaining? It's a fake talk show; I shouldn't be watching this!"

By the end, I'm sorely tempted to make the $29.95 monthly investment to make my skin look better. I resist every time, since I really like my current skin care regime, but the temptation is there.

Then there are the informercials with the actors and actresses that are being so serious and passionate about the products they're plugging. I saw one this morning with Melissa Gilbert, who was pitching the Wen Hair Care System. It's a system that totally eschews shampooing, and the inventor claims that the detergents in many supermarket shampoos are as strong as those used to wash our clothes, and "why should you damage your hair with such harsh detergents?" His product is a cleansing conditioner that contains no lathering ingredients, no harsh detergents that "will strip away your hair of its natural oils." At the end of this infomercial, Melissa Gilbert appears again, on the verge of anger, pleading, "This morning, you damaged your hair! Every time you shampoo, you damage your hair!"

I used good ol' Pantene shampoo and conditioner this morning, and my hair feels--and looks--fine. Yet I kept wondering, "Would Wen make my hair even silkier than it is now?"

What the hell is it about infomercials that make me wanna buy their products? I never do, but still, they're so convincing! I don't know that much about marketing psychology to analyze the reasons for my behavior, but I have to give myself credit for having the discipline not to reach for my Visa card...

...until last night.

I got home around 11 PM, flipped on the TV, and started to channel surf. I happened upon the last five minutes of an infomercial on the Comcast network:

"Get The Carol Burnett Show: Collector's Edition for your own home, only $19.95 for the first volume! We'll send you a new volume every 4-6 weeks. And if you call within the next three minutes, we'll cut the price in half!" it really? the end...Harvey and Tim were sitting in folding chairs, and the figure in the middle...Carol herself, thanking us for buying the Collector's Edition of her DVDs.

I got out my Visa and picked up the phone.

No comments: