Operators have been standing by for 20 years

The incredible infomercial is big boost for profits

Material World

February 29, 2004|By Knight Ridder / Tribune

Believe it or not, the infomercial is 20 years old. And how it has grown.

Today, the often mocked format is as much a part of the TV landscape as sitcoms and reality shows. And bigger business than ever.

The diet aid Herbalife was among the first infomercials to break big during the mid-1980s. Since then, infomercials have created some of the best-known faces in America.

Self-help guru Tony Robbins has sold more than $300 million of his products through infomercials.

Ali MacGraw and Lisa Hartman opened the way for actors to appear in infomercials when they turned up in a 1989 makeover spot for Victoria Jackson Cosmetics.

Ron Popeil, creator of kitchen products and the famed Pocket Fisherman, may be the best-known infomercial star and salesman. His company, Ronco, has generated $1 billion in sales.

Infomercials were born out of a Reagan administration ruling in the mid-'80s that lifted restrictions on how much commercial time stations could air. As a result, struggling cable networks took hold of the concept and sold large chunks of time to the highest bidder.

Marketers then created spots designed to look like TV shows, while including a call-in sales pitch.

"Infomercials were a saving grace for a lot of independent TV stations and cable networks," said Steven Dworman, author of a book about the industry.

Over time, the appeal of infomercials has been, in part, the mix of products, running from the useful to the incredibly useless -- all sold with the seriousness of an evening newscast.

"These pitches are still incredibly convincing and incredibly effective, even on people who know better than to buy this stuff," said Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson. "But my guess is that a lot of people are watching them with a portion of their tongue in their cheek."

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