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The Spray-On Hair Audience : TV: Infomercial customers are a billion-dollar market. Who are these people and why are they giving their credit card numbers to strangers?

March 30, 1993|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Blame it on all those plums growing in Fay Duga's back yard.

Rather than let them rot, Duga churns the plums into jelly and stores it in jars. But the work was getting to be a bit much for the 79-year-old resident of Highland Springs, so when she saw some widget called a food dehydrator advertised on a flashy, 30-minute TV commercial, she ordered one for $79.06.

But Duga never could get her Ronco electric food dehydrator to work. "I said to myself, 'Oh nuts, it's easier the way I do it,' " she said. So Duga went back to her old method of preserving, then shipped back the gadget.

Like millions of TV-watching consumers, Duga was lured by the breathless promises of television marketing at its most awkwardly compelling: the infomercial. An infomercial is a 30-minute TV commercial--usually produced at a fraction of the cost of a conventional 30-second spot. Unlike most TV ads, however, infomercials typically pressure consumers to order the products right away.

In the world of infomercials, knowing the audience will become increasingly critical. At stake is more than $1 billion in annual infomercial-related sales. But there have been scant few studies about the people who purchase from infomercials. It has generally been more luck than serious marketing research that has led to the most successful infomercials.

Exactly who are these people who can be persuaded to pick up the phone, call perfect strangers and give out credit card numbers for items they have never seen or touched? For the first time, some details are emerging.

One recent survey of 6,000 regular TV shoppers revealed that minorities represent a disproportionate 45% of the nation's TV shoppers, said Harvey D. Braun, national partner at the New York accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, which conducted the survey with Columbus, Ohio-based Impact Resources.

Only 11% of the TV shoppers are over age 65. Men buy almost as often as do women. Most home shoppers are married or living with someone else. And while the rich do little home shopping, lower-income families make more than 44% of the purchases. About 76% of the TV shoppers have VCRs at home, and 67% have cable TV.

Meanwhile, 44% of the TV shoppers are regular buyers from catalogues--a rate nearly four times higher than that of the general market.

"They're the same people who buy from the Fuller brush man and the Avon lady," said Barry J. Cutler, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Practice.

Indeed, marketing consultants say many buyers are much like Duga--people who simply believe that the products advertised will make their lives better.

To learn more about customers such as Duga, more than 400 infomercial makers attended a conference in Los Angeles last week. The sponsor of the conference, the Los Angeles-based Infomercial Marketing Report, sends out a monthly newsletter with tips on infomercial trends.

"The rise of the infomercial is sociologically tied to the things going on in this country," said Steve Dworman, publisher of the newsletter. "A lot of people are afraid to go out of their home to shop."

A lot of others are also frightened to order anything from an industry that sells everything from spray-on hair to bee pollen that supposedly helps people shed weight, rid allergies and, of course, reverse aging.

But even as the infomercial industry insists that its reputation has greatly improved--with the likes of Volvo, Kodak and Ross Perot now on board--the sleaze factor is always lurking.

The Federal Trade Commission will announce today that it has fined Philadelphia-based National Media Corp. $275,000 for "deceptive endorsements" of four different products that have been sold nationally on infomercials. Among the products: Crystal Power, a crystal that was promoted as a cure for breast cancer.

Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau's regional office in Cypress reports an uptick in infomercial-related complaints, including 65 since the beginning of the year for Agoura Hills-based Ronco Inc. Ronco executives did not respond to telephone and fax requests for comment.

Several consumer groups contend that many people watch infomercials simply because they can't figure out whether they're watching a TV show or a commercial. "Infomercials work best when their clear purpose is masked," said Ronald K.L. Collins, co-founder of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Commercialism.

The majority of consumers who respond to infomercials are simply people who are unsatisfied with their lives, said Dr. Joyce Brothers, the consumer psychologist. "The more unhappy people are with their lives, the more they will believe that something can magically change it," she said. People respond to infomercials, Brothers said, "hoping these products can make them thinner, prettier, healthier and happier."

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