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Television

They pitch, and we catch

Infomercials get no respect, but they fuel sales in the billions. No wonder they're multiplying.

November 17, 2002|Kevin Maynard | Special to The Times

It's 2 a.m. The world is dark except for the glow of your TV. That "Miracle Pets" marathon on Pax has ended and paid programming has started. OK, admit it. You watch infomercials. Yes, those tacky 28-minute spots with pitchmen pushing everything from the Ab-Doer to the Zap Cleaner Kit as though it's the Second Coming. Or rather the Second Coming plus a free set of Ginsu steak knives.

If you're too tired to exercise or too lazy to clean, don't worry. Flip to another channel, where you'll find infomercial superstar Anthony Robbins, who sells personal enhancement backed by his mile-wide smile; or loud Billy Mays, the stocky pitchman who keeps you enthralled at the cleaning potential of orange oil; or for a bit of creepy fun, there's ageless Cher touting hair care products.

And if you can resist all of this, chances are someone you know can't. By industry estimates, infomercial viewers buy more than $115 billion in products each year. And that number is growing. Particularly among women over 40 who represent an estimated 80% of infomercial consumers. "Men control the remote control," says Denise DuBarry-Hay, chief creative officer of info-company Thane International Inc. "But women control the purse. It's in our nature to shop anyway." It's even become a respectable enough medium for Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and General Motors.

Webster's defines an infomercial as "a television program that is an extended advertisement often including a discussion or demonstration." That, essentially, means that anything from, say, a five-minute spot for Time-Life's "Sounds of the '70s" CD set to QVC's 24/7/364 days of sales programming (it actually goes dark on Christmas Day) fits the definition.

Expect the category, born in 1984 when the Reagan administration dropped the rules limiting the time stations could devote to commercials, to grow too. In an ever expanding universe of channels with an insatiable appetite for cheap programs, infomercials are just the ticket, especially in the late-night hours. And with the threat to conventional advertising posed by personal video recorders like TiVo and Replay, better-produced infomercials -- disguised as entertainment programs -- are likely to proliferate.

"Everybody wants to get rich. They see these people on television making money," says Ron Popeil. "But first you better make sure you have a quality product." He should know. Dubbed "the king of infomercials," the chief executive of Chatsworth-based Ronco Inventions has been selling kitchen gadgets and do-it-yourself gizmos for more than 50 years, working home shows and state fairs long before broadcast media.

He's also third generation in the biz: He learned the trade from his father, Samuel, who worked the carnival circuit with his big invention, the Veg-O-Matic ("It slices, it dices, it makes julienne fries"). Samuel learned the business from his uncle, way back when.

Ron Popeil's secret for staying in the game? He develops all the inventions he sells, making him a rarity in a world where pitchmen come and go. (Remember Susan Powter, Dave Deldatto, Mike Levy's Amazing Discoveries, Don Lapre's MoneyMaking Secrets?) Popeil talks about his products like they're his children: the Pocket Fisherman, the Smokeless Ashtray, the Ronco Clean Air Machine and, of course, the GLH Formula #9 Hair System, a thickening powder spray that covers embarrassing bald spots. "I wear it every day," Popeil says.

But the product he's proudest of is the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ, which can be bought for four easy payments of $39.95. Studio audiences weep at the sight of fat sliding off the glistening, whirling meat. Most of Popeil's products have sold more than $100 million, but the Showtime Rotisserie has almost exceeded $1 billion.

Celebrities push the widgets

A natural-born, unstoppable salesman, he can't help pitching, even when just talking: "I was on Larry King and he asked me, 'Can I put a chicken in it at the beginning and eat it by the end of the show?' " Popeil remembers. "At the end of the show, he said, 'That's the best-tasting chicken I have ever had in my entire life.' When a customer buys my machine and uses it for the first time, they say the same thing."

Although Popeil has become famous from his talk-show appearances, he insists he's not a star. "I'm deemed to be a celebrity but I'm really not. My products are the celebrities." Still, many infomercial companies use celebrity spokespeople to successfully sell their wares. Guthy-Renker, with annual sales of about $700 million, uses a cadre of famous faces for its products: Daisy Fuentes for Winsor Pilates, and Judith Light and Vanessa Williams for the acne-fighting Proactiv Solution. One of its clients, self-improvement guru Anthony Robbins, spoofed himself in the Farrelly brothers movie "Shallow Hal." Fitness professionals Billy Blanks and Richard Simmons have become their own brand names.

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