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Miracle Infomercials

TV's Hard Sells Are a $256 Billion Business

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page F01

Last year, people sitting at home watching television spent $91 billion on products they saw on infomercials, more than the gross domestic product of New Zealand. They lapped up products that claimed to make them look prettier, get skinnier, cook tastier, grow richer, remember better and love longer.

Like everyone, infomercial customers have needs and desires. Unlike everyone, they act on them. You can find them on the Internet, which, for infomercial patrons, is a megaphone, complaint desk and Father Confessor.

On www.infomercialscams.com -- which, despite the name, also posts plaudits -- Denise writes of the AB-DOer exercise bench ($150): "My pastor's wife used it and still uses it. She went from a Size 16-18 to a Size 2. Yes, 2."

Elise, on the other hand, ordered the Igia Pore Cleanzer ($30): "I have blackheads and I believed the infomercial description of this product. The instructions said that if you have trouble you should use it after a long bath or shower when the pores will be open. I took a very hot bath for one hour and I still didn't suck anything out of my skin."

The infomercial turns 20 this year, an occasion that most people probably are as eager to mark as the 30-year anniversary of the invention of the leisure suit or the centennial of the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War.

Veg-O-Matic daddy Ron Popeil, also responsible for the Pocket Fisherman, first bought 60-second television commercials in the 1950s and is often thought of as the father of the infomercial. But the Federal Communications Commission did not allow more than 16 minutes of advertising per hour, with two-minute spots the maximum length, until 1984.

The restriction was lifted that year, owing to the proliferation of cable stations and industry lobbying, and the 30-minute infomercial was born. Herbalife nutritional product infomercials appeared on USA Network. Soon after, Bill Guthy -- who owned a cassette-tape copying business -- met resort scion Greg Renker and the pair started an infomercial studio, Guthy-Renker. They signed up former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton to pitch motivational books, leading to their next client, Tony Robbins.

Robbins's "Personal Power" motivational books, tapes and seminars became a juggernaut, thanks to his infomercials, which showed him hanging with celebrities and royals, befriending children and piloting his own helicopter. The towering Robbins's mesmerizing positivism proved irresistible to buyers. (Do not look directly at him!)

Today, infomercials are a $256 billion-per-year industry (including its business-to-business component), according to the Electronic Retailing Association, the trade group of companies that sell via radio, television and the Internet. Of that figure, the association estimates that last year, consumers spent $91 billion on products advertised on 30-minute infomercials and 30- and 60-second ads that included a call to action. Example: A 30-second ad for, say, the Bowflex home gym is considered in the same category as a 30-minute Bowflex infomercial, because both include a phone number and a command to buy. This differs from a standard television commercial, such as for a Chevy truck, that simply aims to create brand recognition.

A new sort of infomercial has emerged, one that does not ask the consumer to buy something right away. Mainstream manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble are buying half-hour slots to promote their products, hoping you'll remember to buy them when you hit the stores.

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