Rob Hardy:‘But Wait ... There’s More’: The history of informercials

June 2, 2009

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


A fad for deregulation hit our country in the mid-1980s, and whether you think this was a good thing or a bad thing, it inarguably brought us late-night advertisements for the miracle Food Dehydrator, the Ronco Automatic Pasta Maker, spray-on-hair for balding persons, the Snuggie and colon cleanse based on Biblical principles. 


Everybody has seen these cheesy commercials, and there is a reason: They work. Last year, 30 percent of Americans ordered something from such "infomercials." (Don''t try doing your own survey -- my guess is that people don''t easily admit to such things.) An original and amusing history of the infomercial industry is given in the appropriately-titled "But Wait ... There''s More! Tighten Your Abs, Make Millions, and Learn How the $100 Billion Infomercial Industry Sold Us Everything but the Kitchen Sink" (Collins Business) by Remy Stern. The cover of the book even has the ambiguous seal-of-approval on it: "As seen on TV." 


Stern is an editor and publisher who admits he has bought a pasta machine and the German miracle cleanser Didi Seven in his youth, and for research purposes he has ordered books and video tapes that were guaranteed to make him a millionaire in 30 days. It''s rather a good thing that such schemes have not worked for him and he has stuck to the extensive research for his book. It''s a serious look at a distinctly American commercial phenomenon, but since so much of the subject is downright silly, it is funny inherently, and is enlivened by many of Stern''s jokes. 


Of course, Stern starts with a visit to Ron Popeil, the "Grandfather of the Infomercial." Popeil was busy hawking wares on TV even before deregulation, and his family was selling gadgets way back on the New Jersey Boardwalk circuit. It was this sort of training that got Popeil into the pitchman business; for him, it was working at Woolworth''s, in the days when store salesmen really sold. He learned techniques that would hold him in good stead in television''s day. 


While these will be familiar to any late-night TV viewer, Stern gives us a useful summary of some of the principles. Popeil would warn potential customers that there weren''t many items left ("Supplies are limited!"). He''d make sure he had a crowd by telling the last few interested customers, "Wait, there''s something else I''d like to show you before you take this home with you." Then he''d simply do his pitch again. Sure, it''s the "But wait ... there''s more!" pitch he made famous on TV, but also it is reflected in the counters on marketing channels that show that ever more customers are tuning in and buying. He''d hand out numbers to consecutive customers, to make the crowd feel the gadget was so good it was worth lining up for; the analogous line on a TV pitch is, "If lines are busy, please call back!"  


Popeil''s demonstrations on TV for his Ronco gadgets like the Veg-o-Matic, the Chop-o-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman and Mr. Microphone made him a household name (and inspired the classic parody on Saturday Night Live, Dan Aykroyd blenderizing a bass for Laraine Newman to drink: "Wow, that''s terrific bass!").  


"Although his ads weren''t very glamorous," says Stern, "they earned plenty of attention (and a measure of annoyance) thanks to their in-your-face salesiness." 


Stern makes the point that Ronco''s gadgets were not miraculous or even clever inventions -- they were usually modifications (or downright steals) of previous sellers. Stern visits Popeil in his estate in Beverly Hills. The interview is, naturally, in his kitchen. Popeil is in semi-retirement, living off proceeds especially of his most successful product, the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ ("Set it and forget it"), but he continues to tinker. If he has his way, insomniacs will soon see his current brainchild, a splashless turkey fryer that will free the public from fear of Thanksgiving oil explosions. (And I bet he will throw in a marvel of a turkey baster ... if you call now.) 


Popeil may be the patriarch of infomercials, and he may be one of the more respected and respectable figures profiled here, but he is far from the only one. I was interested to read about Arthur Schiff, who came across the Quikut Knife manufactured in Ohio, a knife with the novelty of being sharp on both edges, which is really no novelty at all. Schiff''s flash of inspiration came to him when he was asleep. He bolted out of bed and wrote a word down on a piece of paper, and went back to sleep. Four hours later, he woke up, and looked at the magic word. It was "Ginsu." It meant nothing, but it sounded Japanese and had a nice free tie-in with the Benihana Steakhouses which were becoming popular at this time, 1978. There was nothing remotely Oriental about the knives themselves, but Schiff hired a Japanese exchange student to act as a chef in the commercials, which featured a tomato being given a karate chop or a Ginsu chop, and which would you rather have in your kitchen? 


Ginsu knives may not revolutionize your kitchen any more than the Veg-o-Matic will, but they are at least gadgets that work and have their uses, and are not overt rip-offs. Stern knows that even the good products pitched in this way seem more than a little cheesy, but there are other products that are simply scams. He singles out especially the businesses that promise tapes, books, and seminars that will make you a millionaire, especially in real estate. 


Donald Trump has lent his support to one of these, the National Grants Conferences, and Stern went to one of the free seminars, where he was disgusted to see attendees bullied into paying hundreds of dollars for additional training. 


The other dark side of infomercials is the cure-alls, like Fat Trapper, Hair Farmer, Lifeway Vitamin Spray or Exercise in a Bottle. Even worse are the ones with healing powers against cancer. Of course, the ads have tiny letters speeding by to say the product does not cure any disease, but the ads themselves try hard to give the opposite impression. They may not be poisons, but if they keep people from getting proper treatment, they might as well be. 


The big problem is that the Federal Trade Commission or the Food and Drug Administration may eventually take action against the worst liars, and may issue a fine of a million dollars, but companies that make a million every week don''t mind that minor fee. "Only the exceptionally unlucky end up in prison," Stern reports of these scammers. 


Still, as Stern says in his chapter on QVC, "This is real reality television." The pitches work, and they are a huge business. It says something for our species, however, that television pitchmen quickly found out that the same ads got more results when they were aired at night. At that time, people may be bored with what''s on TV, they may be sleepy and off guard, they may even be drunk; the result is advertising success! And maybe an automatic pasta maker to gather dust in a closet. 


"But Wait ... There''s More!" isn''t a volume to inspire confidence in either salesmen or in the consuming public, but Stern has written an often hilarious examination of a big business. Order his book now; if you are in any way dissatisfied with it, I am sure he will want you to return it to him for a full refund, no questions asked. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected] 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]