What Exactly Is an Informercial?

Infomercials on TV
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 Infomercials are hard to sell, direct response TV commercials that usually last between 15 and 30 minutes. This is called long-form advertising and is used for products that can cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. Infomercials that are up to two minutes long are known as short-form commercials and usually come with a price tag under $20. This type of advertising is also known as paid programming, with a disclaimer preceding it using language like "the following is a paid advertisement for XYZ brand." Infomercials always ask for a sale, and are a prime example of the AIDA model.

Brief History of the Infomercial

Although infomercials became popular in the early 1980s, it is believed that the first ever long-form infomercial aired in the late 1940s for a Vitamix blender. However, in the 1970s, specifically in the San Diego area, the format took off when a one-hour TV show ran ads every Sunday for local homes. In 1982, the infomercial format we know well today aired, and it was for hair restoration and growth treatments. This was the beginning of the rise of the modern infomercial.

In 1984, they really took off, when FCC regulations imposing time limits on advertising were lifted. And it was this, coupled with the rise in popularity of self-help products and home cooking utensils that the craze caught on. Everyone was hooked on the sell, sell, sell buzz of these high-energy shows.

Top 10 Infomercial Products Through The Ages

There have been hundreds of products sold using the infomercial format over the last 30 years. But some do much better than others. Here then is the top 10 all-time best selling infomercial successes:

  • The Foodsaver Food Vacuum Packaging Machine
    A simple but expensive machine (around $130) that increases the shelf life of your food by five times.
  • The PedEgg
    A small cheese grater for your feet that beat out the pumice stone in consumer tests.
  • The Snuggie
    It doesn't get more simple than a blanket with sleeves. But the snappy jingle and low price point made it a huge success.
  • The Slap-Chop
    One of two products in the countdown hawked by Vince Shlomi, the Billy Mays wannabe. A quick and easy way to chop any kind of food, and make great tuna salad in seconds.
  • Ionic Breeze Air Purifier
    Sharper Image found its way into millions of homes with the product that removed dust, allergens and pet dander.
  • Carleton Sheets Real Estate Tutorial
    Give him a few hours and he'll turn you into a real estate tycoon.
  • Showtime Pro Electric Rotisserie Oven
    Ron Popeil, the master of the modern infomercial, tells you to "set it and forget it" with the countertop rotisserie from Ronco.
  • ShamWow
    Vince Shlomi again, this time selling a chamois that will hold ten times its own weight in liquid.
  • The BowFlex Home Gym
    Dangling the carrot of the perfect body in front of couch potatoes, the BowFlex home gym is the most popular infomercial exercise machine of all time.
  • Proactive
    And the number one spot goes to another product aiming at perfection, only this time its perfect skin. With celebrity endorsements and a low price point, it captured the attention of anyone and everyone with one pimple too many.

Pros and Cons of Using the Infomercial Format

There are upsides and downsides to the infomercial as a sales tool. Let's start with why they could be an ideal vehicle for your product or service.

The Pros of the Infomercial

  • Length. If you have a story to tell that is not going to fit in a traditional short form spot, you will love the time given to you in an infomercial. Most are around 30 minutes long, giving you plenty of room to sell every benefit and ask for the sale. 
  • Cost. Infomercials, also known as "paid programming," are usually aired during non-peak hours. The time slots between 11 pm and 6 am are very cheap, usually because not many people are watching TV. Also, it usually costs more to produce a 30-second ad than a 30-minute infomercial. 
  • Ease of production. Unlike 30-second spots that involve big ad agencies and high-end budgets, infomercials follow a simple, straightforward format. To be honest, when you've seen one, you've seen them all. Just swap out the products. 
  • Real-time ROI tracking. Unlike the ads that are more about driving awareness, infomercials are build to drive sales in real time. You can see the numbers as the infomercial airs, and see how much product you're selling. 
  • People like them. It's true. A certain audience loves the entertaining "morning show" format, and when you consider how many people avoid ads these days, that's great news.

The Cons of the Infomercial

  • Stigma. The infomercial is not considered premium advertising. Most products are the As Seen On TV kind of things. You wouldn't get Nike or Apple doing an infomercial (at least, not in the format we all know of), the stigma attached would sully such brands. So, you have to know that your product will benefit from this. 
  • Viewership. The infomercials are always running during the non-peak hours, so you are going to have a certain type of audience. Night owls, stay at home parents, old people, and so on. Of course, you will catch a wide variety of viewers, but the majority will be people that have the time and lifestyle that means they can watch TV in those hours. 
  • Price Point. You have to be able to hit a certain selling price during an infomercial in order to justify the cost. If you sell a widget that costs only $4.99, the infomercial is probably not going to work for you. Most of the time, you're looking at something like "3 easy payments of $19.99." You could bundle up though. 4 widgets for $19.99 plus S&H is much more likely to work in this format.