This is a paper I wrote quite a few years ago, when I was in graduate school. And although the products may seems a bit outdated today, all of the basic elements are exactly the same. Proof positive that the more things change, the more they stay the same, if you ask me. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it!
Enthralled By Informercials
I am fascinated with infomercials! They are such a gas—all that high energy and earth-shattering results! I am mesmerized by their spectacular claims and often find myself thinking of the turn-of-the-century snake oil salesmen depicted in the movies or of the hard sell techniques associated with the stereotypical used car salesman.
Yet, increasingly marketing professionals are including infomercial components as essential constructs in their advertising campaigns. Why…? Because the good ones include important tactical ingredients… and they work!
As a strategic marketing consultant I am often called upon to design and develop specific marketing/advertising campaigns. This means that I work directly with advertising agencies to develop comprehensive direct response sales campaigns, designed to generate incremental revenues/profits. Generally, I use direct mail, radio/television, internet ads, and print in various combinations.
Ad Campaigns and The Importance of Planning
Each time I develop direct response communications campaign I am careful to include time-tested elements designed for maximum yield. I incorporate these elements at the beginning of the creative process then check, and recheck, before completing. Not one to leave things to "chance" I have a firm belief in the value of careful strategic planning and striving for flawless execution, but I'm always looking for short cuts… I hate reinventing the wheel!
That's why I developed and still use a wonderful tool… my infomercial checklist!
However, I feel compelled to editorialize a bit…
- Those of you who are familiar with me know that these tools are only effective after a well-thought-out strategic marketing plan is in place… one which includes your company's long and short-term strategic goals and objectives; vision and mission statements; target markets; and other elements that impact campaign planning.
- Additionally, I make it part of my everyday routine to read, measure and avail myself of information which might prove helpful during the planning process. Once this initial stage is completed, however, I am ready to brief the advertising agency on the specific elements required in the advertising mix.
Although each direct response campaign has its unique requirements, I use a traditional checklist of successful tactics that must be a part of every campaign. I devised this list using four sources: my own experiences as a consumer; qualitative customer feedback; quantitative research; and my personal methodologies and observations.
Over the years I've seen umpteen infomercials and have succumbed more often than I'd like to admit (and I consider myself a "savvy" shopper who watches very little TV!) I've been stuck with a few "dogs", but overall I haven't been too disappointed and sometimes quite thrilled! And even though I see far fewer these days, I still heartily recommend infomercial viewing as a "quick and dirty" direct response advertising lesson.
If you choose to "tune in" you'll quickly notice that the good ones employ identical, disciplined and effective, techniques meant to get you out of your chair and to the phone, credit card in hand.
For novices, let me first explain that direct response advertising is designed to achieve an "immediate", almost impulsive, purchase decision. Prospects are urged to "act now" and are "incentivized" to do just that. Actual sales channels vary but direct mail, radio, catalogs, internet and television are often the mediums used. Whatever the mix, direct response ads are a great way to sell lots of product quickly. Infomercials are not different. The producers use proven advertising techniques to produce the desired results - sales.
However, direct response television (DRTV) strategists go one step further and use these elements in a unique and emphatic way. This requires that they be particularly diligent during the planning process due to the expensive nature of the medium. That is, the tacticians must develop a successful campaign while paying even closer attention to detailed comprehensive qualitative and quantitative data; competitive information; and profit and loss.
What is an infomercial?
Infomercials are direct response television (DRTV) advertisements. The most common types are the long-form infomercial (30-minute ‘programs') and the shorter image ads, called "spots". On their own, spots are less successful than the longer form (estimates say that 1 in 40 are successful, compared to 1 in 15 of the 30-minute variety) (Reagan, 1998, p1) and are often used to reinforce the longer version.
Although they can be used for brand awareness or lead generations, they are most often used to make incremental revenues. This is mass media held accountable for bottom-line results. They are great for generating an enormous amount of sales in a very short period of time. Moreover, they are often used to introduce a new product to a reluctant retail market, the ultimate goal being mass retail distribution. (This is especially true of products that have "made it" in Europe but can't get on American retail shelves.)
Infomercials' Unique Advantages
Although DRTV ads utilize tried-and-true marketing elements, they do have unique - advantages over more traditional forms. Please note the following:
- Companies have a great deal of time with potential customers! Strategists can accomplish a lot of things in 30 minutes. Multiple product benefits, features and positioning information can be conveyed in detail. When customers ‘stay tuned' it results in the generation of more sales - hence dollars.
- When successful, they pay for themselves quickly by generating revenues (which are easily measured). In this way, the expensive medium can instantly become self- liquidating.
- They can act as powerful conduits for other sales. If the viewer doesn't buy directly from the infomercial, they have a greater chance of buying the product from an alternate sales channel by virtue of their initial prolonged exposure.
Do Infomercials Work?
The simple answer: "The good ones usually do; the bad ones usually don't..." (Reagan, 1998, p.1). This is no surprise. Although there are common elements in all infomercials, the best ones have a good product; sophisticated sales approach; qualityproduction and exceptional backend sales processes.
Infomercial Products and or Services
There are no product/service limits on the use of infomercials. They are used to sell almost anything, among which are weight loss products/programs; "get rich quick" plans; cleaning products; computer software; handyman tools, etc. During my research I viewed infomercials for the following products:
- Radiant Health (books, video, cassette).
- Slim Down Solution (weight loss capsules).
- BowFlex (exercise equipment).
- Total Tiger (exercise equipment).
- The Breast Enhancer (vitamins, cream).
- Perfect Pancake (kitchen appliance).
- Drill Doctor (tool sharpener).
- Victoria Principal Cosmetics (cosmetics and skin care).
- Get Rich Quick - Hour of Power (real estate investment plan).
- Time Restore System (skin treatment).
In my opinion, the most successful ones feature products that are tangible and demonstrable—particularly when the host/hostess can show, or promise, dramatic results quickly and easily. When this is not the case, a variety of other techniques are used to overcome the intangibility factor - like books, newsletters, videos, etc. Although the customer is asked to buy the "concept" it is made more tangible via supplementary products.
Most marketing professionals would agree that the processes involved in running a successful infomercial campaign is daunting, even for the most seasoned experts. This is even-more of a reason why DRTV planners must develop well-thought-out tactical plan. The following represent the most often-used marketing tactics. They are all meant to achieve the desired gross - sales results.
Presentation: Establishing Credibility
Infomercial producers realize that in order to sell their client's products/services they must establish credibility with their target viewers. This is particularly important because often the goods in the spotlight are new to the marketplace; not widely available through traditional sales channels; and cannot be "touched" by the prospective customer. The producer must evoke a positive emotional response from each viewer - one that can be associated with the product. This is accomplished in several ways by:
Controlling the physical environment
... with visually appealing sets designed to evoke a sense of quality, hominess, professionalism, etc.
Using a host who is a likable, friendly guy/gal next-door personality.This person represents your mother/sister/brother/neighbor – someone you would trust to provide honest feedback and advice. This is just "word of mouth" in another form!
Having celebrities sell!
This is axiomatic in the DRTV industry (and all other forms of advertising as well). Stars are paid lots of money because they move lots of product. Knowing when to acquire a celebrity and making a good match with a particular product is part of the marketers' challenge. For instance, Joan Van Ark is the spokesperson for Slim Down System; Victoria Principal very effectively hosts an infomercial for a cosmetic line; Cindy Marshall Day co-hosts the Atkins Weight-Loss System and Jenny Lee Harrison hosts "Get Rich Quick".
The celebrities are never at the height of their fame but are recognizable television personalities. The viewer feels as though they having an intimate conversation with someone who has "made it" and can easily become disarmed if the celebrity does a credible job of convincing viewers that they really use the product (Victoria Principal does this particularly well.).
They even use folksy phrases like, "this just makes so much common sense. . ." (Day, The Atkins Answer, 2002) and usually end their pitch with something like, "Take charge of your life right now, just like I did. Write down that number and make that call. Change your life, like so many others today." "The channel stopping power of stars is really key to the success of a show today", says John Berzner, President of American Video Group, "You must believe that they like this product and stand behind it." (Miller, 1999, p.1)
Most infomercials are co-hosted by an industry expert, i.e. a physician, scientist, CEO, professional weight trainer, etc.
These professionals are used to add additional credibility in several ways. Often they are there to provide medical/scientific explanations for the product/service's dramatic results; testimonials on the efficacy of the product; and/or to emphasize the arduous research processes involved in the product development. To that end, several of the infomercials I viewed used several types of visual techniques to accomplish this.
For instance, some contain videotapes of scientists hard at work in their laboratories (e.g. Slim Down System); complicated-looking graphs or charts depicting scientific information (thought is "if it's that complicated and I don't get it, it must be real science"), and sensational dramatizations. Phrases like, "we've spent years looking through the research..." (Radiant Health, Prof. Brian Peskin, 2001) and, "Why trust this testing? Because they're the Only manufacturer to use US Government testing standards for purity and performance..." (Van Ark, Slim Down System, 2002) are also used to reinforce the believability factor.
Essential to any good advertising campaign, product performance and quality is vital to the success of the infomercial.
"The producer ought to be able to tell you what's wrong with that product and how to fix it. Good entertainment and good pictures will get consumers to look up, but all of that won't sell a bad product." (Petitto, 1999, p.2). A specific formula is used in most, if not, all infomercials. First a "problems" such as stubborn stains; wrinkles; lack of money or too much body fat are identified.
The identified struggle which are most successfully offered in this venue carry strong emotional baggage and their solution still remains elusive in the general marketplace. The producers must successfully demonstrate that the problem will disappear quickly and with little or not effort!
That is the formula for the sale and drives the "story". The idea is sound but the application gets tricky. Facts help but a good story sells!
They usually give enough information on the product but generally don't overdo this, choosing to relate a story instead. When the story is a good one (i.e. it evokes an emotional reaction in the viewer by relating just how the product helped them -the big promise) it works beautifully - and if it's one that the viewer can easily repeat himself or herself, it is even stronger.
Customer testimonials are used in 100% of infomercials, but come in many different forms
Although in all instances they depict someone(s) gushing about the product and are used to verify spectacular results. A company may not be allowed to ‘oversell', but ‘unsolicited' customer testimonials may. The most common are:
Before-and-After or "If it works for me... " Ads for weight loss and/or cosmetic products use these most effectively
For instance, pictures of a fat, miserable man/woman is placed directly next to a slimmer, happier version of the same person. Additionally, there is often a ‘live' video of that same person extolling the virtues of the product. They also often use black and white videos when exhibiting the "before" phase and lively, colorful ones for the "after".
Some infomercials utilize the ‘Larry King' spontaneous call-in testimonials
They are meant to appear as unsolicited recommendations, instead of the planned and rehearsed acts they truly are. Sometimes the industry expert calls the host to offer their ‘objective' positive assessment as well.
Panels, town hail meetings, living room chats
These are used particularly effectively with cosmetic and skin care products. For example, a group of women seem to be sitting in a friend's living room, discussing the wonders of the product. (e.g. Victoria Principal's cosmetic line). It appears unrehearsed... the viewer feels like they're eavesdropping on a neighborhood party.
These work well with cleaning products because the live audience gasps and cheers at the amazing results. I've noticed, however, that often the infomercial producers do not do a stellar job of creating realistic audiences. The clapping and reaction shots sound and look phony.
Often the host/hostess visits professionals at work.These are more relevant for weight training equipment ("let's visit the gym..."), power tools, and real estate schemes.
"15 million people are already using...." or, "Because of the overwhelming reaction to this product, the lines might be busy, but stay on the line and someone will help you. .". The message here is that if so many other people are buying it, particularly if the phone lines are jammed, why shouldn't I? Everyone else can't be that stupid."
This is a very important element in the process. Some use original scores while others never go beyond stock music. Effective "selling" necessitates kindling an emotional response and music helps achieve this." (Finn, 2001, p.1).
Infomercials take the tried-and-true advertising rule of repetition to a new level. All the essential elements in every infomercial are repeated a minimum of three times. Not only is the message itself echoed, but it is often done so, using the exact same creative! In this way, late viewers don't miss important information and those that hang in there for the entire ‘show' get the message reinforced over and over.
Strong Call to Action:
This is essential ingredient is used brilliantly in many infomercials and an integral component of all direct marketing tactics. It employs a tried-and-true psychological tactic, one offering a "special deal" to the first so-many callers; those who "order in the next 20 minutes, etc. Viewers are supposed to think that they won't be able to take advantage of the "deal" unless they comply. They believe they are getting a deal "even though they may be going from an inflated price down to normal price." (McCrea, 2000, p.1) Creating this psychological impact is accomplished in several ways. They are:
I have never seen one infomercial that didn't make use of the "X" ... that is, they display the "real" price and then slash through it with the new, special price.
Reduced payment ploy
An example - "this whole thing is yours for three easy payments of $X, and if you call within the next 30 minutes and we'll knock one payment off. . ." or "for the first 90 callers we'll throw in another jar absolutely FREE. This is a $______ value!"
In other words, if you don't buy right away, the price will go up drastically, so take advantage of this today.
"This is an exclusive TV offer ... you can't purchase this in any retail store." By establishing product distribution exclusivity the viewer feels pressured to buy right away, since they cannot be sure if they will ever come across the product again (even though all of the products are widely available on the internet and through other distribution channels - see www.as-seen-on-tv-infomercials.com)
Infomercial products are easy to purchase! A viewer calls the toll-free number and can order quickly and efficiently. They accept all forms of payment-major credit and debit cards; check; money orders; etc. Additionally, in all cases you can opt to have your payments spread out over several months, although there is usually an incentive to pay in one lump sum.
Risk free purchase
All infomercials go out of their way to emphasize that you can try their product risk-free. They expound on their generous, no-questions-asked, unconditional money back guarantees repeatedly. Again, this takes the angst out of purchasing something you can't touch or smell.
Specialized phraseology and Superlative Language
The host's unbridled enthusiasm always peppered with interesting, often repeated words and phrases like the following:
- "It's the best kept secret..."
- "This is wealth you never thought you could have.
- "You will not believe the extraordinary results..."
- "This has never been done before..."
- "Our exclusive ingredients makes possible these amazing results.
- "Do you want to lose weight and never be hungry or have to exercise?"
- "It's like a miracle..."
The dramatic results promised by using the product are always effortless - whether it's for losing weight, investing in real estate, getting stains out, etc. The message is that you don't have to do anything - the product will do the work for you.
DRTV marketers are using these more often. They understand that if you can get a customer to buy the first in a series of products for a discounted price the first time, it is easier for them to continue to purchase the rest of the series for a higher price.
This works particularly well for cosmetics, diet programs and books. "Continuity is a wonderful way to earn reoccurring income from a consumer. It also allows companies to introduce new ancillary products. Every time you ship, you can introduce new products to the buyer." (McCrea, Response TV, 2001, p.1). This trend will increase the need for better data processing systems at the fulfillment centers.
As consumers become savvier I predict there will be a trend toward "quality" infomercials, as well as for other forms of advertising. However, the basic elements will remain essentially the same. "The key is to stay true to the basics, while adding a fresh approach; the higher quality looks of shows will be key to present the right image." (McCrea, 2000, p.2)
I believe that all marketers should take a hard look at the tactics used in good infomercials and incorporate them into their own direct response campaigns. The checklist of questions should look something like this:
- Have I done my homework? Do I understand my target market and their needs? Do I understand my company's resources and those of the competition? Does this form of advertisement make sense from a targeting perspective and can I afford to try it?
- Credibility - Does my marketing collateral, spokesperson and message representbelievability, honesty and class? Is it appropriate to enlist the help of a celebrity? Is it important that I communicate some technical information about the product to engender trust? What is my story? Have I conveyed it in a way that will evoke apositive emotional response?
- Testimonials - Have I included real-life positive customer feedback? If so, have I presented in a way that is powerful and honest?
- Product - Have I correctly identified the consumer problem that my product will fix?Does it deliver on the promise? Is this the proper vehicle for delivering the productmessage? Is the product easy to use? Have I conveyed that ease.
- Continuity - It this product a good candidate for repetitive sales (the gift that keeps ongiving...)? If so, have I developed a process that makes it easy for customers to keeppurchasing it? Do I have the backend support to implement a program like this?
- Repetition - Have I repeated the most important information many times? Can this beaccomplished better using various sales channels?
- Transaction - Do I make it easy for most people to buy my product? What could I do to make it even easier? Have I offered them a risk-free way to try my product? Do my prospects know that I will stand behind my product?
- Call to Action - What about my offer will make someone get up, go to the phone and buy my product NOW?
- Backend Marketing - Am I ready and able to take orders? Do my backend processes ensure that my customers' experience will be a positive one?