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Sold? Interested,at least? Maybe,if some vegetable chopping device was tossed in to sweeten the deal? Whether or not you've just updated your subscription,chances are that something in an infomercial has piqued your interest this year. Perhaps you thought that booming pseudo-lumberjack Billy Mays had the answer to all your housecleaning woes (“Powered by the air we breathe!”),or that a vibrating belt could buzz your gut into a set of rock-hard abs. Either way,somebody's buying: advertisers spent well over $900 million in 2002 on infomercials. So,what new,innovative timesaving,life-altering products took center stage this past year in the infomercial industry?
“Nothing new,really,” said Gerald Bagg,president of Quigley-Simpson,a Los Angeles-based media buying agency. “In 2002,what succeeded were the old tried and true products.”
Out of the top five infomercial products of the past year,as ranked by Response magazine,only one was newly introduced: Super Blue Stuff. Super Blue Stuff – now known simply as “Super Blue” – was advertised as a “natural pain reliever” good for everything from muscle aches to arthritis,using the ultimate pain-fighting secret weapon: “emu oil.” Sounds like a success,right?
“One of the low points of the year would definitely have to be Super Blue Stuff,” noted infomercial guru and industry-known “Father of the Infomercial” Tim Hawthorne. But don't take his word for it. “Definitely one of the worst,” consented Kevin Veal,president of AMG,LLC,a direct television marketing company.
“Super Blue Stuff was the No. 1 seller in March,and was gone by August,” due to investigation by the Federal Trade Commission of the claims about the gooey unguent,said Hawthorne. Super Blue,Inc. later settled a lawsuit with the commission in November for $3 million.
Response ranked Proactiv Solution,an acne treatment pitched by actress Vanessa Williams,as the top infomercial of 2002,doing $500 million in sales. Proactiv has been on the market for three years. Joseph Sugarman,author of “Triggers: 30 Sales Tool You Can Use To Control The Mind Of Your Prospect To Motivate,Influence and Persuade,” attributed the success of Proactiv to two fundamental factors of successful infomercials,neither of which involved the former Miss America.
“One,the product revolved around a cure,” he said. “It's easy to sell a cure. Two,Proactiv was what we call a ‘continuity product' – things that customers have to keep buying after they've already made the initial purchase.”
In the case of Proactiv,purchasers pay to be part of a “Clear Skin Club,” where the medication is sent every 60 days. “Sometimes,companies can actually lose money for the first 10 to 12 items they send out,” Sugarman said. “The real money comes after customers are used to receiving the product and continue to pay to get it.”
Just how much of Proactiv's success is attributed to Vanessa Williams is debatable. Veal noted that Guthy-Renker,the producing company,has “freshened” up the infomercial as of late,adding model Stephanie Seymour after Seymour revealed her patronage of Proactiv products in an interview with People Magazine. Along with ex-“Who's the Boss?” sitcom star Judith Light,the infomercial relies heavily on celebrities throughout the half-hour slot. So,are a few semi-celebrities the new key to success for infomercials? Could the “Perfect Pancake” flourish with a little help from a recognizable star from a long-canceled sitcom? Is “Married with Children” star David Faustino available?
“You don't need a famous person to have a successful infomercial,” said Sugarman. “It adds a little credibility,and it may cause a person to take notice. But in general,it is not an essential. I actually think it lacks creativity.”
Neither of the second and third-ranked infomercials relied on Hollywood; they relied on price. The Sharper Image Ionic Breeze ventilation system sold their share despite the $500 price tag,and the cheapest Bowflex machine rings up at $700. Bowflex – which has been in the market for more than 300 weeks – and Tony Little's “Gazelle” were two strong-selling fitness machines that made health and fitness products,as a category,the best sellers of the year,said Bagg. There was one exception: the mime-kickboxing workout video series,Tae Bo,which “tried to make a comeback but didn't find much market,” noted Hawthorne.
Skipping over the healing emu grease,Carlton Sheets' get-rich-through-real-estate products – on the market for more than 10 years – rounds out the top 5 of Response's list. But,“I think in 2003 we will finally be seeing the end of these real estate programs,” predicted Sugarman. “People are going to realize that they are just stupid.”
In which case they would join a few other short-lived 2002 infomercial fads,including the “suspect ab-belt shows,” said Hawthorne. “'Fast Abs,' the ‘Ab Energizer,' “Abtronic Fitness'… they were embarrassing to the industry. Thank goodness most of them were off the air by June.”
“The ab-belts would top my ‘worst-of' list,” said Veal.
If patterns hold,what will probably succeed in 2003 will be the products that sold in years past. The trend in the infomercial industry is that successful categories of products cycle through over the years,producing similar but slightly altered products with different names,said Veal.
“The direct response television industry is all about how many people you can sell to at that time,” he said. “When the market for a category is filled,it will always be back in a few years.”
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