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But there's more!

Makers of infomercials toast their past and look for the next Pocket Fisherman.

September 27, 2004|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Switchboard operators will not be standing by when the folks behind BluBlockers, Soloflex, the Juiceman, the "Perfect Smile," food dehydrators, and cooking ware where you "set it and forget it" are saluted tonight in Las Vegas.

But numerous other operators will be standing by in the massive Paris hotel ballroom -- the television marketers of thigh and bun masters, egg yolk extractors, onion choppers, portable rotisserie grills and other items that have stirred the attention and opened the pocketbooks of insomniacs for the last two decades.

The occasion is the 20th anniversary of the infomercial, that ubiquitous staple of odd-hour television, the genre that packaged direct advertising to consumers in easily recognizable TV formats, complete with its own language -- "Call in the next three minutes and you also get...." -- and colorful personalities. And though the birthday cake may not be sliced and diced, toned and heavily made up, what better place to celebrate than in a town that really understands the power of money?

Infomercials took in more than $150 billion last year (out of a total of $256 billion in "direct response" business), according to industry leaders. Thousands of attendees ranging from small-time entrepreneurs to executives from major corporations are expected to drop in on the gala, which is the keynote event for the four-day 14th annual conference of the Electronic Retailing Assn., the trade organization for companies that sell goods and services directly to the public.

Dan Danielson, head of Mercury Media, one of the leading media buyers in the direct response industry, has compiled a video montage of the earliest infomercials. "It's a great hook for the convention," he said.

Who can forget the car wax infomercial where the hood of a Rolls Royce was set on fire but the car was undamaged? Or Ron Popeil spray-painting his head with GLH (Great Looking Hair) to cover his bald spot? Or Oscar winner Cher shooting the breeze with makeup and hair care expert Lori Davis, or Grammy winner Dionne Warwick singing the praises of the Psychic Friends Network? Or the ponytailed and ironically named Tony Little yelling, "Technique, technique" at sweating exercisers, and the chunky fitness guru Richard Simmons hawing his "Deal-A-Meal" and "Sweatin' to the Oldies?"

It was still up in the air over the weekend whether Vanessa L. Williams, Victoria Principal, Kathie Lee Gifford or other Hollywood celebs who have pitched products through the years would attend the historical salute, but several infomercial pioneers from in front of and behind the camera are expected to raise a toast to the industry that brought them fame and fortune.

"When we started, we were not sure how long this was going to last," said Greg Renker of the Guthy-Renker Corp., which since 1988 has grown into one of the world's largest TV-response-driven companies, with annual sales in excess of $1 billion. Renker is scheduled to be rewarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the tribute.

Said Renker: "We were just enjoying it for the moment, but now it's clear that people really do enjoy buying off television. They know they're being sold and they like being sold and they're ready to step up and spend their money. Our feeling now is that we feel a greater responsibility than ever to make sure the consumers have a satisfactory experience. We've moved toward more authenticity and less puffery."

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Blurring the lines

This nostalgic look back also comes at a time of transition for the industry. Major corporations and brands are turning to infomercials as an effective marketing tool. The form itself has left its mark on popular culture. Just like the infomercial borrowed from TV game-show and talk-show formulas, much of television is now utilizing techniques from infomercials, blurring the line between programming and promotion.

Oprah Winfrey's recent giveaway of 276 new Pontiac G6s to her studio audience was essentially an infomercial for Pontiac, complete with a visit to the company's manufacturing plant. The "cast" of ABC's "Extreme Makeover -- Home Edition" uses tools and appliances from Sears. On the second-season opener of NBC's "The Apprentice," the contestants created a new toy for Mattel, which the toy company will now market. Ford and Coke not only sponsor Fox's "American Idol" but have prominent product placement.

Ironically, television is now being used to sell ... television. Vintage installments of "The Carol Burnett Show" and Dean Martin celebrity roasts are being sold through infomercials.

"It's the mainstream of the marketing future, and it's only going to get bigger," said Steve Dworman, who compiled interviews with direct-TV marketers for his new book, "$12 Billion of Inside Marketing Secrets."

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