Infomercials, also known as Direct Response TV (DRTV), are television commercials which generally include a phone number or website. There are long-form infomercials, which are typically between 15 and 30 minutes in length, and short-form infomercials, which are typically 30 seconds to 120 seconds in length. Infomercials are also known as paid programming (or teleshopping in Europe). This phenomenon started in the United States where infomercials were typically shown overnight (usually 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.), outside of prime time commercial broadcasting peak hours. Some television stations chose to air infomercials as an alternative to the former practice of signing off. By 2009, most US infomercial spending is during early morning, daytime, and evening hours. Stations in most countries around the world have instituted similar media structures. According to tapebeat.com, over $150 billion of consumer products in the US are sold through infomercials.
While the term "infomercial" was originally applied only to television advertising, it is now sometimes used to refer to any presentation (often on video) which presents a significant amount of information in an actual, or perceived, attempt to promote a point of view. When used this way, the term may be meant to carry an implication that the party making the communication is exaggerating truths or hiding important facts. Often, it is unclear whether the actual presentation fits this definition because the term is used in an attempt to discredit the presentation. Hence, political speeches or conventions may be derogatorily referred to as "infomercials" for a specific point of view.
- 1 Format
- 2 History
- 3 Criticism and legal issues
- 4 Parodies
- 5 Other uses and definitions
- 6 Infomercial companies
- 7 Use around the world
- 8 Research on effectiveness
- 9 See also
- 10 References
The word "infomercial" is a portmanteau of the words "information" and "commercial". As in any other form of advertisement, the content is a commercial message designed to represent the viewpoints and to serve the interest of the sponsor. Infomercials are often made to closely resemble standard television programs. Some imitate talk shows and try to downplay the fact that the program is actually a commercial message. A few are developed around storylines and have been called "storymercials". However, most do not have specific television formats but craft different elements to create what they hope is a compelling story about the product offered.
Infomercials are designed to solicit a direct response which is specific and at once quantifiable and are, therefore, a form of direct response marketing (not to be confused with direct marketing). For this reason, infomercials generally feature between 2 and 4 internal commercials of 30 to 120 seconds which invite the consumer to call or take other direct action. Despite the overt request for direct action, many consumers respond to the messages in an infomercial with purchases at retail outlets. For many infomercials, the largest portion of positive response is for consumers to take action by purchasing at a retail store. For others, the advertiser will instead promote the item as "not sold in stores." Some advertisers who make this choice dislike sharing profit with retailers while many simply lack the immense resources necessary to get their products into the retail channel prior to achieving on-air success. In the latter case, many hope to use profit from direct sales to build their business/company in order to achieve later retail distribution.
Many traditional infomercial producers make use of flashy catchphrases, repeat basic ideas, or employ scientist-like characters or celebrities as guests or hosts in their ad. The book As Seen on TV (Quirk Books) by Lou Harry and Sam Stall highlights the history of products as the Flowbee, the Chia Pet, and Ginsu knives. Sometimes, traditional infomercials use limited time offers or claim one can only purchase the wares from television to add pressure for viewers to buy their products.
Products using infomercial marketing
The products frequently marketed through infomercials at the national level include cleaning products, appliances, food preparation devices, dietary supplements, alternative health aids, memory improvement courses, books, compilation albums, videos of numerous genera, real estate investment strategies, beauty supplies, baldness remedies, sexual enhancement supplements, weight loss products, personal fitness devices, home exercise machines, and adult chat lines. Automobile dealerships, attorneys, and jewelers are among the types of businesses that air infomercials on a local level.
Major brands (e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Thermos-Grill2Go) have used infomercials for their ability to communicate more complicated and in-depth product stories. This practice started in the early 1990s and has increased since. Brands generally eschew the "cheesy" trappings of the traditional infomercial business in order to create communication they believe creates a better image of their products, their brands, and their consumers. Apple's use of the infomercial medium was immediately discontinued with Steve Jobs' 1997 return to the helm of the company.
During the early days of television, many TV shows were specifically created by sponsors with the main goal of selling their product, the entertainment angle being a hook to hold audience attention. A good example of this is the early children's show The Magic Clown on NBC, which was created by Tico Bonomo essentially as an advertisement for Bonomo's Turkish Taffy. It is claimed that the first informercial for a commercial product appeared in 1949 or 1950, for a blender. Accounts vary on whether this was for a VitaMix blender as claimed by Vitamix or from Waring Blenders as claimed in various online sources. Eventually, FCC limits on the amount of advertising that could appear during an hour of television did away with these programs, forcing sponsors into the background; however, few infomercials, mainly those for greatest hits record sets and Shop Smith power tools, did exist during the period when commercial time was restricted.
It is quite possible that the first modern infomercial series which ran in North America was on San Diego-area television station XETV, which during the 1970s ran a one-hour television program every Sunday consisting of advertisements for local homes for sale. As the station was actually licensed by the Mexican government to the city of Tijuana, but broadcasts all of its programs in English for the US market, the FCC limit at that time of a maximum of 18 minutes of commercials in an hour did not apply to the station.
Credited for coining the word "infomercial" was hospitality/entertainment impresario Paul Ruffino whose CineStar company was a pioneer in purchasing program-length commercial time. The first infomercial as we know it today aired in 1982. Entrepreneur Robert E. Murphy, Jr., looking to market a hair growth treatment reached out to a Chicago ad agency where he met Frank Cannella, who convinced broadcast stations and cable networks to sell time for his format. The show was a hit.[according to whom?]
Infomercials proliferated in the United States after 1984 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eliminated regulations that were established in the 1950s and 1960s to govern the commercial content of television.. Informercials particularly exploded in the mid-1990s with motivational and personal development products, and infamous "get-rich-quick scheme"s based on the premise that one could quickly become wealthy by either selling anything through classified ads or through real estate flipping. These were hawked by personalities such as Don Lapre and Carleton H. Sheets, among others.
When they first appeared, infomercials were most often screened in the United States and Canada during late-night/early morning hours. As stations have found value in airing at other times, by 2008 a large portion of infomercial spending is early morning, daytime, early prime and even prime time. There are also entire networks devoted to just airing infomercials all day and night for the sole purpose of cable/satellite providers receiving revenue from the channel operator from any sales for their area, or to fill empty time on local programming channels. CNBC, which airs only one hour of infomercials nightly during the business week, airs up to 28 hours of infomercials on Saturdays and Sundays during the time where the network's business news coverage otherwise airs; since the September–October 2008 financial crisis, CNBC has inserted a paid programming bug on the top right corner of the screen during all airings of infomercials.
A comparison of television listings from 2007 with 1987 verifies that many broadcasters in North America now air infomercials in lieu of syndicated TV series reruns and movies, which were formerly staples during the more common hours infomercials are broadcast (i.e., the overnight hours). Infomercials are a near-permanent staple of ION Television's daytime and overnight schedules; multichannel providers such as DirecTV have objected in the past to carrying ION feeds which consist largely of paid programming. Some cable channels, such as Corner Store TV, Access Television Network and GRTV, specialise in an all-infomercial format.
In the United Kingdom
In the UK, "admags" (advertisement magazines) were originally a feature of the regional commercial ITV stations from launch in 1955 but were banned in 1963. The word 'teleshopping' was coined in 1979 by Michael Aldrich who invented real-time transaction processing from a domestic television and subsequently installed many systems throughout the UK in the 1980s. This would now be referred to as online shopping. In the 1989, the Satellite Shop was the launched as the first UK shopping channel. Shortly afterwards, infomercials began on satellite television and they became known as teleshopping. Until 2009 UK permitted neither paid infomercials nor teleshopping on mainstream network television. However in 2009 OFCOM allowed up to three hours of infomercials a day on all programme channels. In the UK political infomercials known as 'Party Political Broadcasts' are allocated to political parties according to a formula approved by Parliament and are available only on mainstream radio/network television, are strictly limited and are free of charge. Political parties or politically motivated interest groups cannot buy advertising on British TV. There is no prescription drug advertising because, with the single provider health system, (the NHS) in the UK, there is only a single buyer for the whole country. Most vehicle advertising on TV is by manufacturers, however some are from local dealerships.
Some US televangelists such as Robert Tilton and Peter Popoff buy television time from infomercial brokers representing TV stations around the US and even some mass-distributed cable networks that are not averse to carrying religious programming. A block of such programming appears weekdays on BET under the umbrella title BET Inspiration. The vast majority of religious programming in the United States is distributed through paid infomercial time; the fees that televangelists pay for coverage on most religious stations are a major revenue stream for those stations, in addition to programming the networks produce themselves. (The money to pay for this air time comes mainly through listener donations, with less scrupulous televangelists using hard sell tactics to coerce faithful viewers to send money, sometimes by using a variant of the prosperity gospel.)
TiVo uses paid programming time weekly on the Discovery Channel on early Thursday mornings and ION Television on early Wednesday mornings in order to record interactive and video content to be presented to subscribers of their service in a form of linear datacasting without the need to interfere with a subscriber's Internet bandwidth (or lack thereof if they solely use the machine's dial-up connection for updating). The program is listed as Teleworld Paid Program, named for TiVo's corporate name at its founding.
During the 2007–2010 financial crisis
During the current financial crisis, many struggling individual television stations have devoted more of their programming schedules to infomercials and have reduced syndication contracts for regular programming. There have been stations that have found that the revenue from infomercial time sales were higher than the revenues possible through the traditional television advertising and syndication sales options. However, the reduced ratings from airing infomercials can have a domino effect and harm ratings for other programming on the TV station.
A feature length documentary that chronicles the history of the infomercial is Pitch People.
In 2008, Tribune Media Services and Gemstar-TV Guide/Rovi began to relax the guidelines for listing infomercials within their electronic program guide listings. Previously all infomercials were listed under the title "Paid Programming" (except for exceptions listed below), but now infomercial producers are allowed to submit a title and limited synopsis (phone numbers/websites to order a product/service seem to be disallowed) of the program's content to the listings providers.
Fox's Saturday morning programming
The Fox Broadcasting Company announced that beginning in January 2009, all of its Saturday morning cartoon programming would be cancelled due to a compensation/distribution dispute with provider 4Kids Entertainment, to be replaced by a two-hour block of infomercials under title of Weekend Marketplace. This made Fox the first major network (excluding borderline Ion Television) to carry a schedule of paid programming. However, many local stations already utilize Saturday morning slots to air locally programmed paid programming or programs such as Video Car Lot, which features one dealer presenting their current selection of pre-owned vehicles to encourage customers to visit their lot, or "home tour" programming where a home builder records a tour of a model home to entice homebuyers to purchase a plot in their subdivisions. Some stations opted to use the extra time on Saturday morning for E/I programming, with infomercials relegated to before or after the block, or even limited to afternoons, if local newscasts are shown earlier.
Criticism and legal issues
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires that any infomercial 15 minutes or longer must disclose to viewers that it is a paid advertisement. An infomercial is required to be "clearly and conspicuously" marked as a "paid advertisement for [particular product or service], sponsored by [sponsor]" at the beginning and end of the advertisement and before ordering instructions are displayed.
Because infomercials may sometimes take a sensational tone, and because some of the products and services sold may be of a questionable nature, consumer advocates recommend careful investigation of the infomercial's sponsor, the product being advertised, and the claims being made before making a purchase. To that end, some television stations and networks normally run their own disclaimers prior to, during, or after the informercial, stating that in addition to the program being a paid advertisement, the broadcaster bears no responsibility or liability for the informercial's content. (The legality of a station attempting to absolve itself of liability for a program they air, while profiting from the same program, has never been tested in court.) A few stations also encourage viewers to contact their local Better Business Bureau or state or local consumer protection agency to report any questionable products or claims that air on such infomercials. Some channels, such as CNBC, include a "paid programming" bug in a corner of the screen during the duration of each infomercial on that channel; other channels, particularly smaller networks such as RFD-TV, have publicly disavowed infomercials and have refused to air them.
Considerable FTC scrutiny is also given to results claims like those in diet/weight loss advertisements. They especially focus on the gray areas surrounding claims stated by "testimonials" because the producer's choice to include a specific testimonial is an action as intentional as writing a scripted claim. The rules controlling endorsements are modified from time to time to increase consumer protection and fill loop holes. Industry organizations like the Electronic Retailing Association, who represents infomercial marketers, often try to minimize the impact of these rule changes. Additionally, the FTC has been enforcing laws regarding testimonials and have filed suits against several companies for publishing "non-typical" and "completely fabricated" customer testimonials to support their claims within the infomercials. In 2006 the first third party testimonial verification company was launched and now independently validates the consumer testimonials used in many infomercials.
Since the 1990s, federal and state consumer protection agencies have either successfully sued or been critical of several prominent informercial pitchmen, including Kevin Trudeau, Donald Barrett, and Matthew Lesko. Don Lapre, a salesman notorious for his get-rich-quick schemes, committed an apparent suicide while in federal custody awaiting a trial for several dozen counts of fraud.
The Infomercial format has been widely parodied:
- In a sort of self-parody, the movie Santo Gold's Blood Circus features a musical number in which mail-order jewelry salesman "Santo Gold" Rigatuso (who financed the film) advertises his wares. Santo Gold promoted the film heavily in its infomercials.
- A skit in the cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures has an infomercial hostess trying to sell a clothesline for $39.95, but has to include additional offers to try to justify the high price.
- In the Garfield and Friends episode "Dread Giveaway", Garfield dreams of attempting to give away Nermal in an infomercial, but no one wants to take him.
- In the 2003 live-action film The Cat in the Hat, the cat performs an entire talkshow-style infomercial spoof for a magical (but disastrous) cupcake maker. In the spoof, the Cat plays the roles of host and guest/expert.
- In the direct-to-video movie The Lion King 1½, Pumbaa sits on the remote in mid-movie and the screen switches to a jewelry infomercial from QVC.
- Quebec-based Têtes à Claques has produced several informercial parodies in French.
- The comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have produced several infomercial parody segments that are showcased on their oddball comedy show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, notably one for a CD-ROM-based version of the internet called the "Innernette". It employs many of the cliched infomercial hallmarks and phrases such as enthusiastic demonstrations, and outlandish claims of user satisfaction.
- "Weird Al" Yankovic parodied infomercials in the song Mr. Popeil, a homage to inventor and infomercial spokesperson Ron Popeil, on his 1984 album "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D (Popeil himself used the song in some of his infomercials). Well known pitchmen like Popeil and Billy Mays have been the inspiration for many of these parodies.
- Saturday Night Live's "Bassomatic" skit featuring Dan Aykroyd in the 1970s may have presaged the genre.
- In the "Home-Cooked Eds" episode of the Cartoon Network series Ed, Edd & Eddy, the Kanker Sisters decide to watch infomercials after taking over Eddy's house in yet another misguided attempt at affectation.
- Robot Chicken has parodied numerous infomercials, along with their hosts. Popular examples include Billy Mays, Mick Hastie, and Cathy Mitchell.
- Adult Swim aired a highly elaborate parody of an infomercial, Paid Programming, several times in November 2009. The clearest evidence that the parody, which advertised various fictional "Icelandic Ultra Blue" products, was not real was the use of profanity and the fact that Adult Swim does not air infomercials.
- The ABC improvisation-comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? (U.S. TV series) regularly satires infomercials in two of its segments. One is "Greatest Hits", where the infomercial hosts (usually including show regulars Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles) attempt to sell an album of "greatest hits" about unlikely subjects, with songs mentioned usually sung by the other show regular Wayne Brady. The other one concerns them trying to make useless junk seem desirable.
- Some of the most outstanding sketches from the Australian television sketch show "SkitHOUSE" feature a fictional telemarketing company called "Nothing Suss".
Other uses and definitions
In the United States the strategy of buying prime-time programming slots on major networks has been utilized by political candidates for both presidential and state office to present infomercial-like programs to sell a candidate's merits to the public. Fringe presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche regularly bought time on CBS and local stations in the 1980s. In the 1990s Ross Perot also bought network time in 1992 and 1996 to present his presidential policies to the public. The National Rifle Association has also aired programs via paid programming time to present their views on issues such as gun control and other issues while appealing to the public to join their organization.
2008 Presidential Campaign Use
Hillary Clinton bought an hour of primetime on the Hallmark Channel in 2008 before Super Tuesday, and on cable sports network FSN Southwest in Texas before that state's primary to present a town hall-like program. Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign has used infomercials extensively. His campaign established the Obama channel on satellite TV networks throughout the campaign season. And, a week before the 2008 general election presidential candidate Barack Obama bought a 30 minute slot at 8 PM ET/PT during primetime on seven major networks (NBC, CBS, MSNBC, Fox, BET, TV One and Univision (with Spanish subtitles)) to present a "closing argument" to his campaign. The combination of these networks reportedly drew a peak audience of over 33 million viewers of this half hour program, making it the single most watched infomercial broadcast in the history of US television.
Although not meeting the definition of an infomercial per se, animated children's programming in the 1980s and early 1990s, which included half-hour animated series for franchises such as Transformers, My Little Pony, Go-Bots and Bravestarr were often described by media experts and parents derisive of these types of series as essentially program-length commercials, as they also sold the tie-in toy lines and food products for the shows within commercials. The Children's Television Act of 1990 was instrumental in ending this practice and setting commercial limits. Currently, any advertisement for a tie-in product within the show is considered a violation of the FCC rules and is considered a "program length commercial" by their standards, putting the station at risk of paying large fines for violations.
These regulations do not apply to cable networks; for instance, Disney Channel currently features tie-ins for virtually all of its shows instead of commercials, while only going as far as promoting DVD and CD versions of those programs, while competitor network The Hub is a consortium between Discovery Communications and toymaker Hasbro, which airs many shows based on their properties on the network, an arrangement that would be impossible on broadcast television. However, as seen in the aftermath a case where the characters for shoe company Skechers's children's shoe commercials were adapted into a full-length series, Zevo-3 for Nicktoons, effectively cable networks usually use FCC rules as a basic guideline and rarely stray away from the basic tenets of the CTA to avoid risking their reputations with parents, consumer advocates and other groups which would argue for equivalent FCC controls for cable networks as broadcast networks for children's content.
A new genre of locally produced television rose in the mid-2000s as local television stations (especially those affiliated with the NBC and Fox networks, where NBC gave up the most programming time; Fox has no daytime programming per se) saw network time on weekday mornings after 9am returned to local control and saw new national talk shows either fail or not attract the right demographic to a timeslot. Beginning with Daytime on Media General-owned station WFLA-TV in Tampa, Florida in the early 2000s, a new format came into use; these programs used the structure of a traditional locally-produced daytime show with its usual format of light talk, health features, beauty tips and recipe segments (popular from the early 1970s up to the early 1990s, when expansion of newscasts became a much less expensive, more dependable form of revenue). Some of these shows, such as (ABC affiliate) WKBW-TV's long-running AM Buffalo in Buffalo, New York, seamlessly made the transition from a traditional local talk show to a paid program with little notice.
This type of program usually features light talk, designed to draw in mainly a stay-at-home female audience, followed by presentations of various products, services, and packages by local businesses; for example, a basement waterproofing system might be discussed by the representative of a company in that business with the hosts, along with perhaps a special offer for viewers; a chiropractor (or other medical professional) might discuss back pain or other health-related issues, and provide contact information for his/her practice. These segments, though carefully disclaimed after concerns were brought up about the original program model of Daytime, are designed to give a business a detailed presentation of their service that might not be possible in a traditional thirty-second pre-recorded commercial.
Though locally produced, the programs are also presented by hosts which are not associated in any way with the station's newsroom, or by a host who formerly anchored a station's newscasts and (while still familiar with the station's viewers) may be looking for an easier and less harried work schedule. Under most guidelines, hosts cannot appear in newscasts and in productions run by the sales department at the same time, due to ethical concerns about sponsorships influencing newscasts. Thus, news anchors and reporters cannot host these shows, nor can hosts of these shows appear in newscasts as reporters; for instance, in the case of the aforementioned AM Buffalo, host Linda Pellegrino was forced to resign her post as a weather anchor on WKBW when AM Buffalo began adding sponsored segments. In fact, if a breaking news event takes place during the program, it is usually cut off with only a quick pause and no mention by the host that they are sending viewers to the news desk for details on the story. In definition, these programs can be considered infomercials, albeit not exactly meeting the letter of the definition.
Other broadcasters as have adopted the model are:
- Meredith Corporation, which uses a modified form for their national/local hybrid program Better.
- Belo, which uses a modified form on many of their stations, branded Great Day (city) in several markets; WFAA-TV uses the name Good Morning Texas to have some similarity to Good Morning America as WFAA is an ABC affiliate, while KGW-TV, an NBC affiliate, brands its program Greater Portland Today to have similarity with the Today show.
- LIN Media, which features the same format with localized titles on many of their stations (on WLUK-TV in Green Bay, Wisconsin, it is known as Living with Amy, while WNAC-TV of Providence, Rhode Island brands their program The Rhode Show, and Hampton Roads station WVBT calls their program The Hampton Roads Show).
- Journal Communications also features a format called The Morning Blend on many of their stations, which is much closer to the Daytime format.
Traditional infomercial marketers, for example, Guthy-Renker and Telebrands, source the products, pay to develop the infomercials, pay for the media, and are responsible for all sales of the product. Sometimes, they sell products they source from inventors. Telebrands's process of bringing a product to the air and to market was seen in the 2009 Discovery Channel series PitchMen, which featured Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan, along with the top executives of Telebrands. Beachbody is a company dedicated to selling at-home fitness programs. Dean Graziosi's media and investment company, Dean Enterprises LLC, grossed $60 million in 2009 by airing infomericials about real estate.
There is also a well-developed network of suppliers to the infomercial industry. These suppliers generally choose to focus on either traditional infomercials (hard sell approaches) or on using infomercials as advertising/sales channels for brand companies (branded approaches). In the traditional business, services are usually supplied by infomercial producers or by media buying companies. In the brand infomercial business, services are often provided by full service agencies who deliver strategy, creative, production, media, and campaign services.
Use around the world
The infomercial industry was started in the United States and that has led to the specific definitions of infomercials as direct response television commercials of specific lengths (:30, :60, :120 seconds; 5 minutes; or 28 minutes and 30 seconds). Infomercials have spread to other countries from the US. However, the term "infomercial" needs to be defined more universally to discuss use in all countries. In general, worldwide use of the term refers to a television commercial (paid programming) that offers product for direct sale to consumer via response through the web, by phone, or by mail.
There are few structures that apply everywhere in the international infomercial business. The regulatory environment in each country as well as that country's television traditions have led to variations in format, lengths, and rules for long form commercials and television commercials selling direct to consumer. For example, in the early 1990s long form paid programming in Canada was required to consist only of photographs without moving video. (This restriction no longer exists).
Many products which started in the US have been taken into international distribution on television. And, each country has local entrepreneurs and marketers using the medium for local businesses. What may be called infomercials are most commonly found in North and South America, Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
In many countries, the infrastructure of direct response television distributors, telemarketing companies and product fulfillment companies (shipping, customer service) are more difficult and these missing pieces have limited the spread of the infomercial.
Research on effectiveness
Research has been conducted on consumer perceptions of infomercials. Agee and Martin (2001) found that infomercial purchases involved some degree of planning rather than being purely impulse purchases. Aspects of advertising content also influenced whether the purchase decision was impulsive or planned. Martin, Bhimy and Agee (2002) studied the use of advertising content such as the use of testimonials and consumer characteristics. Based on a survey of 878 people who had bought products after viewing infomercials, they found that infomercials were more effective if they used expert comments, testimonials, product demonstrations, and other approaches. Consumer age and product type also influenced perceived effectiveness.
- Brokered programming
- Direct response television
- Informative advertising
- Psychological pricing
- Sponsored film
- Television advertisement
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