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Pitch-O-Matic : A Tour of Infomercialand, Where Schlock Can Be Strangely Seductive

August 09, 1992|MARGO KAUFMAN | Contributing editor Margo Kaufman's book, "1-800-AM-I-NUTS?," will be published by Random House this winter. The collection of essays has nothing to do with infomercials.

The following story is a paid presentation of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

(Fade in: A stunning reporter in a classic Chanel suit looks up from the computer console in her tastefully decorated writing salon. Her radiant face fills the screen. She speaks.)

I'll never forget the first time. I turned on the TV looking for the news and found John Davidson, former Hollywood Square, wearing a three-piece suit and an orchid lei, crooning in front of a lush Hawaiian vista. For a moment I thought it was a revival of "South Pacific," but then Davidson gazed soulfully into the camera and asked if I was willing to give up two hours of my time to learn the strategies of becoming a millionaire. Members of the audience, none of whom looked like financial wizards, stood up to testify about their Rolls-Royces and display their six-figure checks.

They owed it all to the mustachioed man in the luminous yellow sports jacket who came on next: Davidson's dear personal friend, Dave del Dotto, who I later learned is the star of the longest-running half-hour commercial in history. He preached that "anyone in America can get rich" with "Dave del Dotto's Cash-Flow System," a real estate course for only $297, plus $17 shipping and handling. My left brain wondered why, if he was making so much money in real estate, he was hawking audiocassettes. But my heart wanted to pick up the phone and buy. I was mesmerized by the absolute certainty of the pitchman. I knew it was stupid, but I actually hoped the course would change my life.

And it wasn't only Dave who tempted me. Day and night, on every channel on my clicker, I witnessed a parade of simple solutions to problems I never knew I had. The kind of celebrities who used to be on the "Match Game"--Alex Karras, Barbi Benton, Fran Tarkenton, Linda Gray, James Brolin, Suzanne Somers--cajoled me in loving tones, assuring me that I'd be prettier, thinner, smarter, richer, happier--a gourmet cook!--if only I'd call their 800 number and order their product. How could I just say no?

(Music swells.)

Hi, I'm Margo Kaufman and in the next 68 paragraphs I'm going to give you information about infomercials that will probably change your life. For anyone out there who doesn't have electricity, I'm referring to the "paid programming," as TV Guide calls it, that airs late at night and on weekend mornings on regular TV and around the clock on cable. The shows that resemble a bizarro "Nightline" or "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee" but are in fact bizarro commercials.

Every month, almost 100 different pitches glorifying stun guns, sleep-inducing machines, fishing lures, baldness cures, juice extractors (pick from six), even Volvos, natter from the TV screen. Any day I expect to see an infomercial for my gynecologist or a cassette course on "How to Profit in the Infomercial Age."

Right now, I'd like to go live remote to my brother Bobby's living room so that you can see just how seductive infomercials can be. Bobby has so far purchased audiocassette courses on investment management, real estate secrets and the art of negotiation, as well as a cream that revitalizes old cars and sunglasses with pinholes in them that improve your vision. Bobby, tell us: Why do you do it?

(We see a friendly, curly-haired man sitting on a sofa clutching a remote control. He is surrounded by a Flowbee, a vacuum-cleaner attachment that cuts your hair; a Thighmaster, and a gold-prospecting kit.)

Bobby: "When you're sitting in the living room on a Sunday morning and you can't pay your Visa bill, it's tempting when Dave del Dotto says you can make money. You're thinking, 'Nah, well, maybe.' Finally, one Sunday you're so depressed you send away. It's a quick fix to a problem you're never going to solve."

He's not the only one who can't control his push-button impulses. Last year, the infomercial industry enjoyed sales of about $500 million, according to John Kogler, publisher of Jordan Whitney Inc.'s TV Direct Response Monitoring Report. Anthony Robbins, the frenetic self-improvement colossus with the Jaws-like teeth, has sold more than $75 million worth of motivational tapes; Victoria Jackson has persuaded American women to spend more than $150 million to achieve the no-makeup look, and the hyper-gesticulating Juiceman, Jay Kordich, has squeezed out more than $70 million in juicers. A single infomercial swelled sales for Celeste Co.'s Caruso steam hair setters from 3,000 sets of curlers in 1989 to 375,000 last year.

Of course, to get a true sense of the net profits, one has to subtract the cost of media time, celebrity royalties, 800 numbers, shipping and manufacturing. Even so, the credit-card numbers keep rolling in. Kogler projects sales of $750 million for 1992, the bulk of them by the "Big Four" infomercial producers that dominate the industry: Guthy Renker, Regal Group Inc., National Media and American Telecast. They do everything from making the product to calling you after you bought it to see if you want another one.

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