'But wait, there's more…'
From Chia pets to Big Mouth Billy Bass, TV products click with consumers
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - For some people, paradise can be found in four simple words: "as seen on TV."|
If you've ever been anywhere near a television you've probably seen the ads. Chia pets. Tae Bo videos. The Pocket Fisherman. George Foreman's Party Grill. And some version of a reputedly hilarious mounted fish that sings and cracks wise while hanging on your wall.
Want to lose inches off your middle, cover your bald spot, make pasta, remove stains from your clothes and slice vegetables while listening to monster hits from the Eighties? Our operators are standing by. Act now and we'll throw in the weasel ball at no extra cost.
Whether in the traditional short commercial or the increasingly popular infomercial — a 30-minute or longer ad disguised as a TV show — the makers of these products are doing whatever they can to reach through the tube and into your wallet.
Do these items make money? You bet your Ginsu Knife they do.
Direct marketing kingpin Ronco Inventions, the folks who gave us the Dial-a-Matic, the Food Dehydrator and, yes, the Pocket Fisherman, saw its 1999 sales jump five times over the previous year to $230 million.
"They're huge," said Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University in New York. "The big ones sell millions of units annually."
Isn't it ironic?
Thompson, who also is president of the Popular Culture Association, an academic organization, divides the infomercial customer base into two camps: those who really like this stuff and those who buy it to show how hip they are.
"I'm convinced a big portion of this stuff is sold completely as ironic cheese," he said. "Some of them are so incredibly stupid—like the singing fish or the Chia pet. I think people in this age of irony have an appreciation for showing what a wise guy, wassup, elbow-in-the-ribs kind of person they are."
So you may think you're the only one on earth making a terminally hip comment on today's cheese ball society, but there actually are armies of other equally cool people doing the same thing.
The alternate group of consumers consists of those who see these products as truly funny or truly ingenious.
"They like gimmicks and gizmos," Thompson said. "They see these things as the constant promise in America that a new idea can change their lives. These people are frequently disappointed when they buy that can of spray to cover up their bald spot."
Thompson sees the very phrase — "as seen on TV" — as the driving force behind sales. Look at all the people trying to get on the "Survivor" program, or the ones dragging their dirty laundry into the TV studios to appear on "Jerry Springer" and other such programs. It's on TV, so it must be important, right?
Round the dial...and the net
Ronco president Tim Dupler knows the power of television advertising. The company spends over $1 million per week on infomercials.
"Ronco has lived and died off TV," he said. "We've never branched out into other forms. We can always make money on TV. We stay on TV. We're driving retail with that and keeping an efficient operation running."
Dupler said Ronco enjoys a cancel rate on its products of less than 1 percent. Company Chairman and CEO Ron Popeil is committed to customer service, Dupler said.
"With a large number of people," he said, "if Ron comes out with a product, they'll buy it."
Ronco launched its Web site about 18 months ago and it averages about $150,000 per week in sales. Dupler said the company is expanding its Web presence by linking to TV and radio station sites.
However, the concept of "as seen on TV" is not new to the Internet. In fact, the phrase and variations of it serve as domain names for Web sites selling the stuff you see on television. The sites include AsSeenOnTV.com, asontv.com, As Seen on TV Central, and CoolTVProducts.com.
The sites can help consumers who may have forgotten the name of a certain product or didn't write down the toll free number after seeing a commercial.
"These products tend to be somewhat faddish," said Nick Arthur, vice president of marketing for asontv.com in La Jolla, Calif. "They're not always successful, but when they are, they tend to be very successful. Some products aren't fads. These are the products people bought and have a tremendous repeat business — particularly women's products."
Arthur said the number of returned products is low.
"The expectations of the customers are realistic," he said. "They know these products are not miracles. They get what they pay for. It's almost like a gift to themselves."
Throw in the towel
Web sites often sell TV products a little cheaper than the list price in the commercials. If you walk into a retail store and just buy the thing off the shelf, you'll save on shipping and handling.
But infomercials often toss in bonuses that are only available through the TV offering, so you'll want to check around first to see where you can get the best deal.
How do these products fare when tested? Well, when Consumer Reports climbed into the ring with the George Foreman's Party Grill last year, they were not impressed.
Ads for the grill proclaimed that "lab tests using hamburger labeled 80 percent show that the (grill) reduces 4 percent more fat than pan-frying a 6-ounce hamburger."
Time for a standing eight-count. In the December 1999 issue, the Consumer Reports team said it cooked identical burgers on all of the grills and in a plain frying pan and tested the burgers for fat content.
The decision? The testers found "no significant difference in fat among any of the burgers."
A spokeswoman for Salton Inc. (SFP: Research, Estimates), speaking for the company's CEO, declined comment on the Consumer Reports test.
A successful product will bring in the money and inspire imitations. Gemmy Industries Inc., the folks who brought you Big Mouth Billy Bass, the singing mounted fish, say other companies are advertising different versions of serenading sea creatures.
Company spokesman Jim Van den Dyssel said Gemmy has not advertised Billy on television, but is sold largely through --- get ready — word of mouth.
'And now an important message...'
Infomercials are bulking up their presence on television and you may wonder who's watching. An AfterMarket Co. survey conducted for Response Magazine found that women remain the primary direct response TV (DRTV) purchasers, representing 84 percent of all buyers. Seventy-three percent were homeowners and 46 percent were parents of one or two children.
The survey also found that DRTV consumers were earning more money, with those pulling in an annual income in excess of $100,000 growing from 14 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2000. Sixty-five percent said they shop on the Internet.
Exercise and diet/health related items were on the increase, along with jewelry, while the self-improvement/education category dropped from 17 percent in 1999 to 10 percent in the 2000 survey.
Consumers said the No.1 reason they buy from television is that they are unable to get the product anywhere else. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed felt the commercials accurately described the products.
The Federal Trade Commission has a list of guidelines regarding infomercials, starting with how to recognize one. They may look like a talk show or news program, and come with celebrities or paid "experts," but the goal is to sell you something. Here are some tips on dealing with the infomercial:
· Look for commercials similar to product content. Infomercials promote products or services in "commercial breaks" related to issues discussed in the rest of the show.
· Check for sponsor identification. The Federal Trade Commission requires TV stations to disclose who is paying for an infomercial at the beginning or end of the program.
· Watch for health claims or "get rich" claims. Health and financial products are two big areas for consumers. These ads often promise great results with little effort or risk.
· Celebrities and experts are often paid by an advertiser. Sports figures and TV stars have been known to make more money from infomercials than they have in their professional careers. And the advertiser often picks the studio audience.
(Click here for a list of the top "hard product" infomercials of all time, including Tae Bo, the Juiceman, and the Total Gym.)
You can file a complaint with the FTC by calling the Consumer Response Center at 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-3457) or by writing to Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Wash. DC 20580. You also may file a complaint with the agency online. In addition, your state attorney general's office may be able to help if you feel you've been cheated.
So where do we go from here? Will Americans keep up the attitude in the 21st Century? Will pink flamingoes, bowling shirts and TV products continue to be a prime source of ironic humor?
Thompson thinks attitude may run out of gas pretty soon. After all, if everybody is in on the joke, there's no one left to get an elbow nudge.
"We're so awash in tongue-in-cheek-attitude," Thompson said, "it may get to a point when it burns itself out."
Of course, the products are another story.
"They'll always be a place in America for companies to make millions selling absolutely frivolous stuff," he said.