I had never seen so many nuts in my life. I mean the food kind of nuts. Get your mind out of the gutter.
The aisle at my local Co-op Food Store had a shelf lined with nuts and other snacks. You know – the self-serve containers where anyone can stick their unwashed hands. Almonds, cashews, and peanuts sat ready for the next nut enthusiast. I had to choose which ones I would be slapping later.
A box featuring a small picture of a smiling man holding a black and white device sat among various products in my home. The man: Vince. The device: the Slap Chop™.
Vince’s gospel, “You’re gonna love my nuts,” echoed through my head. He says it in an infomercial where he uses a Slap Chop™ to dice nuts and other foods.
Infomercials, or direct response television commercials, feature dramatic re-enactments and enthusiastic people showing off “life-changing” products for the low cost of $19.95. If I could really change my life for $19.95, I would have retired after my 13th birthday.
“BuT iNfOmErCiAlS aRe FuLl Of LiEs AnD cRaP!” you say. Yet, they exist. They must work, right? Do they only sell crap?
It’s time to put them to the test. I’m taking you on a tour of the infomercial universe, and we’re starting with Vince’s nuts.
The Slap Chop™ is meant to simplify cooking by cutting your food with one easy Slap™. In the infomercial, Vince Slaps™ away at different foods like potatoes, tuna, onions, and, of course, nuts. The food cuts up into nice little chunks.
The infomercial claims the Slap Chop™ is easy to use. Vince even Slaps™ his nuts with one finger. He also opens the device “like a butterfly” and says it’s easy to clean.
I ordered the Slap Chop™ from Amazon for $29.95, and the product came in an environment-damaging plastic bag. I ripped it open, causing the device’s three pieces to fly free.
In my attempt to juggle the pieces before they hit the floor, I poked myself with the blades, which barely left a scratch — what a way to find out they aren’t that sharp.
I started with an apple, but it didn’t fit. I had to precut food so the Slap Chop™ could cut it further.
I put a small piece of apple in the Slap Chop™ and gave the top one good Slap™. The apple disappeared. Magic!
Wait, nope. The apple had stuck itself into the curved blades, and I mean it was in there. Several Slaps™ later, the apple mostly came free and turned into finely diced apple bits. It was much easier to cut the apple with a knife.
I opened the Slap Chop™ “like a butterfly” and realized it must be cleaned after every use. Apple innards were strewn about, and little bits were stuck in the blades.
It was not easy to clean. I manoeuvred a damp cloth between the blades, but I had to use a toothpick to remove larger pieces.
Vince was right about his nuts though. I Slapped™ some roasted, salted cashews, and they turned into tiny, crumbly pieces. As advertised, they were perfect for ice cream.
Onions were too big. The infomercial claims the Slap Chop™ could peel an onion after a Slapping™. All I got was a pile of mashed onions. It was like an onion salad where the only ingredients were onions and onion skins.
I cut off another piece — without the skin this time — and Slapped™ it like a YouTube subscribe button. My reward was a pile of onion mush.
The blades bent out of shape, and the interior plastic broke. At this point, it was less of a Slap Chop™ and more of a Slap Pound™. It broke after three items.
Despite being hot trash, the Slap Chop™ has a convincing infomercial. Infomercials are like that.
But how do they work? Where do they come from? Where do they go? Where do they come from Cotton Eye Joe?
I’ve used “infomercial” to describe stuff from 30-minute paid programming sagas to short commercials for products like the Slap Chop™. It’s more complicated than that.
Infomercials are a form of direct response television, DRTV for short, and there’s disagreement on how they’re defined. The consensus splits them into two categories.
Short-form infomercials are no more than two minutes and are what we usually see during Family Feud reruns. Long-form infomercials are “true” infomercials and vary in length. Marketing researchers Tom Agee and Brett A. S. Martin say they run between three and 60 minutes.
I’ll be using “infomercial” for both forms. It’s likely most people would describe these commercials as “Informercials”. You wouldn’t catch your grandma saying, “I bought that product from a short-form direct response television commercial!”
The caveat is much of my research focuses on long-form DRTV, and not all information will be interchangeable. Demographics might change between forms, but they share characteristics.
Infomercials often feature “life-improving” products. AJ Khubani, CEO and founder of TeleBrands, says in a Bloomberg Businessweek article that his company sells inexpensive products that fix life’s annoyances.
As for who watches infomercials, it’s inconclusive. Marketing researchers Naveen Donthu and David Gilliland suggest there are no demographic differences between those who buy from infomercials and those who don’t.
Economics writer Thomas Mucha says infomercial viewers are “between the ages of 30 and 50 with some college education and an income of about $50,000 a year.” Most respondents in Agee and Martin’s study on the potentially impulsive nature of infomercial purchases are women.
Speaking of inconclusive, infomercial revenue varies across the board. Different articles from different years make different claims about infomercial sales and media buying. I saw numbers ranging from $750 million to $200 billion. The industry is probably worth something between a chocolate bar and Jeff Bezos’s bank account.
“Okay,” you say, “there must be some solid information on the creator of infomercials, right?” Not really.
Entrepreneurs like Kevin Harrington, Philip Kives, and AJ Khubani have claimed responsibility for infomercials or the industry’s success. The earliest infomercial I found was for a Vitamix blender from 1949. The company’s founder sat down and demonstrated the product in a long-form commercial.
Believe it or not, the government is also inconsistent. According to Ad Age, the US government essentially banned long-form infomercials on broadcast TV in the 1960s after limiting how much brain-melting advertising one could watch every hour. In 1984, it said “whatever” and changed back.
Nowadays, there are only a few rules for infomercials. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says long-form ads must be labelled as “paid commercial advertising.” The Federal Trade Commission says reasonable infomercial claims must be provable.
The Slap Chop’s™ claims were mostly gobbledygook, but what about other infomercial products?
Red Copper Square Dance Pan™
I love squares, I love dancing, and I love pans, but red scores a C on the colour scale if I’m generous, so I didn’t know what to expect with this product.
The Red Copper Square Dance Pan™ came in more environment-damaging plastic, and I got it from Amazon for $39.95. My student budget of zero dollars has been taking a hit.
In the infomercial, they claim the pan is so non-stick the food will “dance right off!” They show eggs sliding around; burnt, stuck-on messes coming off clean; how the pan is dishwasher-safe; and how it can bake food in the oven. They also claim the pan “defies scratches” and has a metal “stay-cool handle.”
Like a total square, I read the instructions. Before cooking, I had to “season” the pan by greasing it with veggie oil and chucking it in the oven for 20 minutes at 300 F. They suggest seasoning it twice a year.
After waiting for the square root of 400 minutes and letting the pan cool, I was ready.
I cracked an egg and plopped it in. It made a… round… shape. God, I wish it was a square. The egg stuck at first but stuck less as it cooked. I flipped it without a problem but broke the yolk before taking it off the pan.
My now over-hard egg slid around as one might slide into someone’s DMs. It wasn’t quite the same as the commercial, but it was close.
The stay-cool handle was really hot close to the pan, but the end where normal people would grab it was warm at most.
Pancakes were next. The batter made a non-square shape in the centre of the ungreased pan. Two non-sticky flips later, I had a nice, fluffy Red Copper Square Dance Pancake™.
Two successes in a row? What trickery! I had to push this pan to the limit. They claim it “defies scratches.” I grabbed a metal spatula and got to work.
My incredible strength and overwhelmingly massive biceps were no match for this pan. I only managed to make a few scratches in the middle.
I had one final test. I grabbed a bag of sugar from my cupboard and poured some into the pan. I let it burn until I had a nice, sticky mess.
After letting it cool, I wiped out quite a bit. With some water, I wiped out even more. After a run through the dishwasher, the pan was clean except for where I had ruined it with my huge muscles. Good work, Red Copper Square Dance Pan™, good work.
Why is DRTV so cool?
I’ve been tossing around “direct response television” like eggs on a Red Copper Square Dance Pan™, but I haven’t explained what it means. DRTV is a form of direct marketing that uses video as its medium. But what is direct marketing?
Drayton Bird, the author of Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing, says direct marketing connects businesses and customers through a direct relationship. More simply, marketer Rick Cesari says it’s marketing that gets you talking with businesses. DRTV is a visual way to send that message.
Most infomercials share characteristics. Agee and Martin say infomercials feature calls to action, purchase info, testimonials and product demonstrations. They were talking about long-form, but you can see these characteristics in short-form too.
Martin, Agee and Andrew C. Bhimy have a hot take in another article about infomercial effectiveness. They suggest infomercials use testimonials and product demonstrations to persuade viewers — bonuses, celebrities, and “using models representative of the target market” help too.
Buttloads of product information improve infomercial effectiveness. Mucha writes, “Product pitches should tell a story, and the more you tell, the more you sell. Consumers love to watch before-and-after transformations. Show them. Then show them again.” Donthu and Gilliland say infomercials can demonstrate the pros of a product without giving away the cons.
Many of my sources suggest infomercials are useful for tracking sales. Cesari says, “With [direct response], you have an absolute mathematical, spreadsheetable, [profit- and loss]-able way of saying, ‘This is what you spent. This is what you sold.” He adds, “When consumers respond, you can see it in the sales spike.”
Things are a little different with consumers. Infomercial viewer psychology is as complex as the cosmos.
Agee and Martin’s research suggests infomercial purchases aren’t usually made by impulse since frequent infomercial viewers use some planning. Infrequent viewers are more likely to make impulse decisions.
Marketing researchers Claudiu Dimofte, Richard Yalch, and Kyra Wiggin study how the infomercial viewer thinks. They suggest it’s hard to dismiss visual demonstrations, and that some people buy products out of curiosity.
Just like with infomercial industry revenue, there are no clear-cut costs behind making and running infomercials, but many of my sources claim it’s cheap. They say prices generally range from the low ten-thousands to the low hundred-thousands.
Infomercials have a deliberate style because it’s effective. They’re good at selling products, such as weird, prescription-changing glasses.
Bkjsheu akjd wnejkw wnkjcu tahkj? Sorry, I was wearing my brand-new Dial Vision glasses.
I ordered Dial Vision from Amazon for $9.99. The glasses are meant to be the perfect backup pair because you can adjust the prescription on the fly. That’s the idea anyway.
In the infomercial, an older woman effortlessly moves the dials until one of those classic eye charts comes into focus. Later, she adjusts them into reading glasses.
I can’t say I had high hopes for this product, but the container immediately put me off. Dial Vision had misspelt its own name on the packaging, and the big ol’ logo said “Dial Visicn” with a “c.”
It gets better. Every single reference to Dial Vision said “Dial Visicn.” Needless to say, I will refer to it as such.
Dial Visicn came with some warnings. A bit of “don’t do anything dangerous while wearing Dial Visicn” here and a bit of Dial Visicn “contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm” there. Sigh. Do it for the grade, William.
Dial Visicn came with an eye chart slightly bigger than a sticky note, and it featured varying sizes of letters. The instructions said to place it 13 feet away when adjusting the lenses, so I stuck it to my cupboard and used a measuring tape to find the right distance.
My vision is pretty bad. I can’t see far-away things. I can’t even read the words on my laptop when I take my glasses off.
At 13 feet away, I could not make out most of the letters even with my regular glasses. To be fair, my prescription is pretty old, but the bottom row was so tiny I doubt the world’s greatest pilot could read it.
I whipped out Dial Visicn, put in the nose piece, and inspected the lenses. Thin layers of scratched-up, peel-able, protective plastic separated the lenses from the elements.
Too bad they were useless. I tore them off and found a big splotch of orange-coloured something between the right dual lenses. It heavily impaired my vision.
Standing 13 feet away from the eye chart for ants (Zoolander anyone?), I twisted those dials all the way forward. I tried to at least.
The dials were difficult to move a nanometre, never mind all the way forward. It didn’t help that everything was blurry. Dial Visicn felt like a rainy windshield.
I moved the dials into what I thought was the right position. The glasses warped my vision, the giant splotch over my right eye didn’t help, and I only got it to a semi-usable spot.
My vision did improve, but the blurriness made it difficult to see. If I squinted and moved my right eye around, I could make out the first three or four lines of the chart.
I could read the same amount with my regular glasses, but while my regular glasses made everything clear, Dial Visicn was only “clear” in a few places. The rest was blurry.
To be fair, Dial Visicn did help me read at much closer distances, but it was still blurry, uncomfortable, and unenjoyable.
I thought to give Dial Visicn one last chance. Amazing! The right dial was easier to move! Oh wait, that’s because I broke it. Before long, the plastic dial flew out of the frame, and so did the lenses.
Trying to put it back together, I broke the dial entirely. It was much easier to physically move the lenses without the dial, and it clearly showed me the glasses can change prescriptions, but the splotch and blurriness still rendered them ineffective. I’ll stick to fixing my broken glasses with tape.
Direct Response Internet?
I know what you’re thinking, “But people don’t watch TV anymore!” I’m here to argue DRTV has moved on. It doesn’t need you. You’ve hurt it for the last time.
Drayton Bird discusses how the internet is great for direct marketing because customers and businesses can form relationships with one another. It’s also very fast.
Bird says internet users are often searching online, which opens them to sales. For example, I used Squarespace for a school assignment, and now I am bombarded with Squarespace video ads on YouTube. They know.
What does this have to do with DRTV? I’ve spent several thousand words discussing infomercials, yet I haven’t talked about their online presence. You don’t really see DRTV commercials on the internet. Do you?
I was “raising my hand” (Bird’s words) when using Squarespace, and I made it clear I wanted to make a website. I got a video ad for Wix Logo Maker. Wix is a website builder.
A handsome man sat down and walked me through the Wix Logo Maker, showing me how to make my own logo and add it to merchandise. Step by step, he demonstrated the website, and I was sold.
The ad had a model representing me (handsome), a clear demonstration, a call to action, and a way to start a direct relationship. Isn’t that an infomercial but on the internet? It has the same characteristics!
Perhaps we don’t think about infomercials on the internet because we skip or block video ads. Maybe we’re used to the campy, low-budget style of TV infomercials. But, maybe infomercials have evolved and are alive and well on the internet.
Watch the next few video ads you see online. Use what you learned today and ask yourself, “Is this DRTV?” I think there’s a good chance it is.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some nuts to eat.