Infomercials still ad up after 20 years on air

Monday, June 28, 2004

Maybe it was the TAEBO Live! 4-pack Workout DVD where men and women kick and punch their way toward losing unwanted pounds and revealing the buff bod hiding inside all of us.

Or maybe you were mesmerized by the Turbo Cooker 1838, an astonishing cooking system that bakes, boils, broils, braises, fries, steams and stews all your favorite dishes.

Whatever caught your eye, there you were, 28 minutes later, with credit card in hand, dialing an 800 number ordering something like a Flowbee, the gadget that you put on your head so that a suction can pull your hair up and allow recessed blades to cut your untamed mane.

This year is the 20th anniversary of those ubiquitous 28-minute feature-length TV ads, better known as infomercials, that Americans love to hate but apparently can't resist.

Faded in 1960sEvery year, men and mostly women shell out more than $1 billion buying stain eliminators, hair removers, veggie choppers, fat reducers and more. If you include short-form spot ads that drive people to stores searching for "As seen on TV" products, gross revenue for such infomercials rose to $154.1 billion last year. That's almost an 81 percent jump in just six years. Combine TV, radio and Internet retailing and it's a staggering $256 billion industry.

To borrow a line from uber-infomercial king Ron Popeil, who sells spray-on hair-in-a-can among other needful things, "a-MAZ-ing."

"Television learned a while back that people had more tolerance for advertising than once thought," said Gary Edgerton, an Old Dominion University professor and co-editor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television.

Lengthy commercials for home remedies and cooking programs existed long before infomercials, but they faded from fashion in the 1950s and 1960s when the Federal Communications Commission began cracking down on the number and length of TV ads. For years, the FCC allowed only 16 minutes of ads per hour of programming, and they were limited to 30-second to 2-minute spots spread through the show, according to the Electronic Retailing Association.

But the proliferation of cable stations led to intense lobbying against those restrictions. In 1984, the industry succeeded, convincing the Reagan administration to deregulate the amount of advertising time allowed per hour on TV.

Enter Herbalife.

The weight loss and nutrition products infomercial debuted on a Sunday 20 years ago on the cable channel USA Network.

Cable stations, hungry for revenue and eager to fill the air with cheap programming, sold half-hour blocks for a few hundred dollars to equally hungry entrepreneurs eager to promote their wares. Industry watcher Steven Dworman says infomercials actually helped new and struggling cable channels like Black Entertainment Television, or BET, generate enough money to survive the early years.

Soon, infomercials didn't just interrupt regular programming, in some cases, they became the programming: Their success helped spawn channels like QVC and the Home Shopping Network, which feature all commercials all the time.

But things continue to change for these tenacious TV hawkers.

In 1980, there were a mere 28 networks vying for consumer attention; today, there are 339 networks on cable or satellite TV, making it that much harder for infomercials to find an audience. It also costs a lot more to buy air time and produce an infomercial these days: Over the past 14 years, rates have gone up 500 percent in some cases, costing anywhere from $150,000 to $1 million to produce and air an infomercial.

In 1991, one out of seven infomercials was able to turn a profit. These days? Only one out of 60 is financially successful.

"They make everything look so believable," said Baltimorean Jacqueline Nevrette, who, after much coaxing, admitted she purchased some sort of hair removal system years ago as seen on TV. "It was a big disappointment. That's the last time they'll get my money. But those commercials are everywhere."

What hasn't changed is a typical infomercial's intrinsic ability to hypnotize after all these years.

"I start watching for five minutes and then before I know it, it's half an hour later," said Jay Thompson, a 32-year-old disc jockey who first denied he ever watched such programming. "I'm amused by them. They're so pumped up and excited. After a while, I start believing that those things work."

The winning formula is basic. Frustrated consumer has problem. Thrilled info-host introduces solution. Increasingly ecstatic info-host demonstrates gizmo. Audience oohs, ahhs. Cue testimonials from happy users -- even better if they're celebrities. Frustrated consumer, grinning from ear to ear, proclaims it life-changing experience. Cue selling price, usually just $19.99 or three easy payments of $29.99, shipping and handling not included.

But wait! There's more! Rapturous info-host announces deal clincher: Buy now and get a second gizmo, absolutely free! Everyone needs a second gizmo, right?

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: