Why no female pitchmen in
Rovell’s infomercial infomercial?

          Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009

What's most interesting about Darren Rovell's "As Seen on TV" documentary on the direct-response infomercial industry is everything that's not in the program.

No self help. No music collections. No real-estate investing, no stock market trading programs, no Internet get-rick-quick schemes. Virtually no fitness equipment and no herbal/medical materials.

If those aren't the backbone of the infomercial industry, then what is?

Well, after seeing the whole thing, we think we figured it out. "Direct-response infomercial" is actually nothing more than a regular commercial with a phone number to call (at least, that's what it sounds like). A true "infomercial" as CNBCfix knows it involves a half-hour program designed to rope customers into an annuity-like situation.

Whatever, Rovell limits his one-hour production — which is entertaining and, like the Ginsu knives, never dull — to standard novelty products that are probably more often seen in regular commercials now.

He doesn't mention several angles that CNBCfix and others would find highly interesting. Such questions as:

♦ Do most buyers buy infomercial products on the first viewing, or does it take an average of three times, etc., of seeing it?

♦ Are infomercial products generally bought by the same people over and over again?

♦ Infomercial products seem in general far more tailored to women, so A) why are there no famous women "pitchmen," and B) what is, to anyone's best estimate, the male/female percentage split of infomercial buyers?

OK. So Rovell's production could've run a solid two hours with a lot more useful detail. Still, his is a good show, and an hour is probably as much as most people want to see.

AJ Khubani of TeleBrands is maybe the best interview. Despite having FTC issues with one product, he was highly candid about goals. "We fail 90% of the time," he said of the products he backs, and said it costs $70,000 to put together one infomercial.

Sam Catanese is another good interview. He runs a firm analyzing the masses of infomercials every day. He says in general, "as long as a spot is running, the product is profitable." He said everything rides on the first two weeks of the ad, called "the test," and that producers always know within a fortnight if they've got a winner or not. Development time doesn't exist. If the spot cost $50,000, it generally must gross $100,000 in two weeks to remain on the air.

Unfortunately, the commercial cuts and some of Rovell's writing are so loaded with industry cliches, if we hear "But wait, there's more!" one more time, we'll have to reach for the Alka Seltzer. But Rovell has a nice segment with Ed Valenti, who spawned the Ginsu knife in Ohio in 1978, explaining how he came to coin certain terms such as "How much would you pay?" and "But wait, we're not done yet."

This is, at heart, salesmanship at the most basic level, and there is fascination in that. These are ground-level entrepreneurs trying to persuade an average jane or joe with a tight budget to spring for something, an impulse buy. These products are raw advertising contests. We learn from Rovell's guests that product price is a big deal. Not surprisingly, we'd guess, the cheaper the item is — no matter what the item is — more people are likely to buy it. The pitchman matters too, but the effect of that and the quirkiness of the product are largely incalculable. Why did people buy a lot more Clappers and Chia Pets than egg blenders? Who really knows.

Snuggie kingpin Scott Boilen laments even the expenditure for a 2-minute commercial, saying it's people wearing a blanket, eight seconds tells it all.

Rovell does talk to the FTC about enforcing claims and refunds, but the whole show is a bit too sanitized. The most controversial infomercials generally are the long-form ones that involve money schemes or health pills, not the novelty products that Rovell devotes the time to. A common beef is that some of the self-help and moneymaking operations lure customers into buying basic books, then try to charge extra for seminars, additional DVDs, etc. Rovell doesn't go there, but mainly sticks to stuff that can be bought at Walgreens as well as on TV.

Interviews with the two most famous pitchmen (actually, we think Tony Robbins, Don LaPre and Chuck Norris are even more famous, but again, that's apparently another category), Billy Mays and Ron Popeil, are saved for the end. Rovell's chat with Mays is a disappointment in which Mays mostly just spouts cliches and doesn't appear to be a very deep person. (He is also doing a simultaneous Discovery Channel series called "Pitchmen," so maybe he's just tapped out on the subject.) He does say that 60% of his products are profitable.

Popeil, who is heading into the infomercial sunset as Rovell notes and doesn't have many secrets or a blossoming brand to protect at this point, is far more interesting. Popeil is proud to be an inventor as well as a salesman and notes that, once a person becomes a veteran at this, he can be standing there thinking about the movie he saw last night and still rattle off the sales pitch just like that.

Rovell's production likely was done with a money-back guarantee — as in, money back for CNBC. He did make an early mention to some product called "Topsy Turvy." We're still not sure what it is, but a Topsy Turvy ad did appear after the first segment.

Which begs the question as to whether there was an ad debate at CNBC over this program. Presumably, people who watch it will be people who like Mays, Popeil, the Chia, etc. So it would make sense for the operators profiled to try to sell ads during the commercial breaks. (The ShamWow people might've been thrilled to see their spot running just after an expert tells Rovell it's kind of impressive.) Presumably CNBC would restrict this for journalistic integrity, but the lines are blurred nowadays. Rovell did disclose, as one would hope, that many infomercials air on CNBC.

CNBCfix can't figure out why CNBC regularly falls into the journalism trap of harping on the monetary size of an industry or budget. On the show's page at CNBC.com, the first line of description says"It's a $150 Billion industry." What does that mean, to anyone, anyway. Advertising tip for CNBC: Don't try to sell a show by leading with "It's a $150 Billion industry." Zzzzz.

Other reviews of "As Seen on TV":

New York Post: "Rovell has got the who, what, where and how-in-the-hell interviews with the greats"

Daily News: "Bottom line is that infomercials have won the trust of millions"

Hartford Courant: "Rovell obviously a fan of the genre himself"

South Coast Today: "Folks will buy from infomercials even in the teeth of a recession"

“As Seen on TV”

Featuring: Scott Boilen, Dan Danielson, Ed Valenti, AJ Khubani, Sam Catanese, Joseph Pedott, Harry Sawyers, Jeff Meltzer, David Van Howe, Peter Marinello, Mary Engle, Vince Shlomi, Ron Popeil, Billy Mays

Reporting: Darren Rovell

Executive producer: Sanford Cannold
Senior producer: Alison O'Brien
Producer: Tom Rotunno
Writers: Alison O'Brien, Tom Rotunno, Darren Rovell
Coordinating producers: Christie Gripenburg, Samantha Wright
Lead editor: Patrick Ahearn
Editors: Nick Stantzos, Allison Stedman
Additional editing: Richard Korn
Camera: Jim Curtin, Gim Lay, Steve Ligtelyn, Raul Marin, Marco Mastrorilli, Jorge Pujol
Audio: David Grogan, Raul Jaramillo
Chief photographer: Angel Perez
Manager of digital post-production: Vito Tattoli
Creative director: Victoria Todis
Senior animator: Jackie Dessel
Designer: Peter Kourkoumelis
Real time graphics: Donald W. Jackson, Andy J. Tarabocchia
Ultimatte: Rob Van Rhyn
Studio Director: Eric Vuolle
Technical director: Greg Lord
Lighting director: Dean Crowley
Stage manager: Kyle Remaly
Audio: Jim Kerswell
Jib camera: Carl Anthony
Prompter: Shaun Frullo
Video shading: Jillian
Technical production analyst: Adam Ly
Special thanks: Jill Landes
VP scheduling, strategic planning and long form programming: Ray Borelli

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