Infomercials are a type of specialized television programming that is designed to sell or promote products, services, and ideas. Infomercials are not only longer in length allowing them to deliver more, in-depth information than traditional TV spots, they also seek an immediate response from viewers to purchase or get additional information about the goods and services they feature. Infomercials generate quantifiable results; sales are attributable to each airing, which means their success is measurable unlike other forms of advertising.
The word “Infomercial” is a combination of the words “information” and “commercial.” The information relayed in an Infomercial is designed to voice the viewpoints and interests of the sponsor. Infomercials frequently are created to resemble regular television programming and often use television personalities as hosts. They feature different elements designed to deliver a compelling story about the product or services offered. Some are full of demonstrations, most feature testimonials, others showcase celebrities, and still others mimic talk show formats.
Also known as “paid programming,” the Infomercial was invented in the USA to fill airtime that had previously gone unused. Initially many television stations aired Infomercials as a way to avoid the old tactic of “signing off,” thus they were typically shown in the off-hours between 1:00 AM and 6:00 AM, outside of the peak primetime favored by most commercial broadcasters. Receiving advertising revenue for off peak hours allowed stations to increase their bottom lines. Since their inception, Infomercials have become such a popular medium that now some channels show only Infomercials, airing them 24 hours each day. Other stations supplement their unscheduled network or syndicated programming time by airing Infomercials during daytime hours as well as nighttime. Most countries around the world have television programming with similar structures. Paid media spending on Infomercials in the United States alone is about a billion dollars a year.
An Infomercial is typically the length of a standard half hour TV program, featuring informational segments intercut with commercials known as CTAs. A CTA is a “Call to Action”, a :120 – :180 segment within the program that discloses details about the product offer, price point, and includes a telephone number, text code, or website, providing viewers the opportunity to respond. There are generally three CTAs in the half hour Infomercial, sometimes more when they are on the shorter side, and they are designed to create urgency in the viewer to take action.
The effectiveness of the format is proven over decades of success, and the Infomercial a staple in the advertising and marketing industries, though it has evolved since the early days. Even the name has changed to accommodate the growing use of and need for the format. Today the Infomercial is also referred to as “Direct Response” (sometimes shortened to DRTV); “Brand Response” more commonly used by established brands using the format to augment their more generalized advertising efforts; “Performance Marketing,” which came out of the emergence of the internet and digital advertising and referring to the quantifiable attributes of this format; and, finally, “Direct-to-Consumer”, describing why it is THE marketing approach today. Direct-to-Consumer Marketing has risen to the top of most brand’s marketing platform due to the demands of digital marketing, which is all direct-to-consumer.
The format of the Infomercial has also evolved. Originally the word primarily referred to the Long-Form program length format, specifically 28:30, but other program lengths have emerged. Today, Direct Response selling can also be seen in 5:00 and 3:00 called mid-form, and :120, :60 and :30 called short-form or spots. Each has a specific role and may be added to a marketing campaign depending on the marketer’s needs.
Today, to be successful with the abundant – but fragmented – media, established brands and entrepreneurs alike are adopting a “be everywhere” marketing strategy, in which Long-Form Infomercials are still an essential component. Industry professionals know they are the workhorse of any marketing campaign. Airing a Long-Form generally lifts returns on investment results across ALL media, including digital and retail.
5:00 & 3:00 Mid-Form
We see these used successfully today for brands that already have established awareness through a Long-Form. These shorter formats become part of a longer marketing strategy, used together with a successful Long-Form and other formats. There are generally fewer available opportunities to air mid-form lengths, however strategically they offer ways of being the only products or services offered between the half hour programming breaks.
This format is often used for lower price point products that can be easily and quickly explained, those that might have fewer features and do not require a full half hour. Many products featured in Long-Form campaigns also find success airing this shorter length concurrently as a reminder to potential customers of the features and benefits showcased in the Long-Form Infomercial. These television spots employ most DRTV strategies, including a telephone number, text code, or website, and driving viewers into action to purchase or get more information.
:60 & :30 Spots
Though not as effective at driving sales, these formats allow you to get into media you otherwise cannot get into for visibility and broad reach. These are used by established brands, to keep the brand top of consumers’ minds.
In addition to purchasing directly in response to the airing of an Infomercial or shorter lengths, viewers may also be directed to a delayed action, such as to go to a retail store to purchase the advertised product. Often well-known brands understand that the sales lift at retail is frequently the largest response to an Infomercial, which is why so many name brands use Infomercials to drive sales. Many retailers are reluctant to add new products to their stores without the promise of widespread advertising, including through Infomercial airings, to help educate and convince buyers to purchase these products. Some brands offer unique pricing and limiting special offer pricing of their products and state “offer not available at stores” or “exclusive television offer” so as to encourage immediate purchases. Their goal is to recoup the costs of television advertising or simply because they have not achieved widespread retail penetration and have products that are not available nearby to a potential buyer’s home. In the case of the latter, retail distribution can be later enabled by the success of direct sales.
No marketing campaign is complete today without a digital or online marketing plan. As stated prior, every interaction online is direct-to-consumer, and direct marketing strategies are most effective in this medium, as are the formats listed herein.
Products Using Infomercial Marketing
Infomercials can be used to successfully sell virtually any business-to-consumer product or service. Traditionally, at the national level these have included food-preparation devices, cleaning products, personal fitness devices, beauty supplies, dietary supplements, hair-loss remedies, weight-loss programs, books, memory improvement courses, compilation albums, videos, real estate investment strategies, home exercise machines, home security, smart home products, insurance, self-help programs and more.
Infomercials often offer free trials of a product, multi-pay options, drop pay terms and are available by calling a toll free number or going to a transactional website. Sometimes a two-step process is used to gather additional information or set appointments for follow-up.
The majority of Fortune 500 brands have used or are in the process of creating direct-to-consumer strategies, often involving Infomercials to create the benefit of direct relationships with their customers. These household named companies have utilized Infomercials for their power to tell more in-depth and complicated stories than possible in a 30-second commercial. Widespread deployment of Infomercials started in the 1990s and has increased since then. Advertisers using Infomercials today recognize the need to have direct relationships with their customers. Direct communication with their potential customers results in a better image of their products and brands and provides an opportunity to increase the lifetime value of this relationship by responding to their customers’ needs as well as cross selling them other products they market.
Some Infomercials can also be used to generate sales or foot traffic at a local level; frequent sponsors of this type include automotive dealerships, attorneys, and medical service providers and jewelers.
The most successful Infomercials employ a proven formula format and compelling storytelling and creativity. While many advertisers have thought they could produce an effective Infomercial, there is much, much more expertise involved than in traditional advertising. A successful Infomercial campaign is a result of a deep dive competitive analysis, value driven offer development, frictionless landing page websites, cross platform targeted messaging, and so much more. DRTV campaigns offer a measurable form of advertising, so understanding the data and measuring the success of each airing is also key.
Needs Beyond Creative
The market reach for Infomercials is large and occasionally international and can drive sales at an exponential rate. Inventory management becomes a key aspect of this form of marketing, as does fulfillment center logistics, call center scripting and media response analysis.
In television’s early days, television programs were typically created specifically by sponsors to sell their products, often using entertainment programming to promote their products. Soap operas, which were sponsored by soap manufacturers, received their name from this practice. The first known Infomercial of this type created specifically for a commercial product was for a Vitamix Blender, recorded in 1949 and broadcast in 1950.
Limits were eventually placed on the amount of advertising that could be aired during an hour of television by the Federal Communications Commission, which forced sponsors into the background. However, some Infomercials, such as those for Shop Smith Power Tools and Greatest Hits Record Sets, were still created and aired during this period of commercial time restriction.
In the 1970s, Mexican television station XETV, which was based in Tijuana but also served San Diego, ran a one-hour English-language show on Sundays featuring San Diego homes for sale. Because it was a foreign station, the FCC’s limit on commercial minutes per hour did not apply. During this time period, Ginsu Knife ads featuring the hard sell of; “But wait! There’s more!” were being shown on American late-night TV.
In 1981, the FCC lifted its prohibition on advertisements that were program length on the radio.
The FCC eliminated regulations governing the commercial content of television in 1984. This allowed Infomercials to proliferate in the United States. The earliest informercials were airing by 1985. Ten years later, by 1994, an estimated 90% of all television stations were either airing Infomercials or had previously done so.
Who Does the Selling?
Yell & Sell
In the early years of this new age of Infomercials, some advertisers used a “yell & sell” approach, often employing pitchmen from the fair circuit to pitch their products. These (generally) men were in the business of gathering large crowds to hear their pitch. While the translation to the TV screen was somewhat over the top, their use of Direct Response tactics still worked. For very low-priced products, especially ones offering a BOGO offer (Buy One Get One) this style of presentation can still exist, however fortunately for most products today, this format has given way to more sophisticated, brand elevating approaches.
Expert & Celebrity Endorsements
Infomercials have always included experts to one degree or another to add third party credibility. Sometimes they are at the center of the creative approach, at other times, they have smaller, supporting segments. There is often a debate as to whether or not celebrities should be featured in Infomercials. When there is a natural connection of a celebrity with a product, it can often be valuable. Celebrities can stop channel surfing and thumb scrolling as well as help differentiate a product in a crowded category. It was found that even when experts were used for their endorsements, having a celebrity name still added value in making a new product introduction.
When and Where
Infomercials were most frequently aired in the United States and Canada during late-night/early morning hours when they first appeared. Stations eventually found value in airing Infomercials at other times and a large portion of Infomercial spending today, in 2021, now occurs in all time periods, including prime time. There are also cable channels devoted to airing nothing but Infomercials that yield revenue for cable and satellite providers who carry them.
In 2006, some cable carriage contracts were adjusted. CNBC only aired two hours of Infomercials nightly during the business week, but sometimes aired up to 30 hours of Infomercials during the weekend. When a conventional prime-time two-minute advertising pod had no advertising scheduled, the networks frequently ran a two-minute mini-Infomercial.
An Industry is Born
Though it has evolved over decades, a new industry was born and leaders emerged. Many “Infomercial” companies began as entrepreneurs developing and marketing their own products. Some include:
- Telebrands – 1983
- Guthy-Renker – 1988
- TriStar Products, Inc. – 1992
- All-Star Products Group – 1998
- Beachbody Fitness – 1998
1986 – Script to Screen Formed
In 1986, Script to Screen, a premiere creative and production agency, is established in Southern California. Unlike other companies, Script to Screen provides creative services in direct-to-consumer marketing to new and established brands seeking expertise in the DTC field providing successful television and digital campaigns.
Script to Screen observed a large expertise gap in the marketplace for new and big brands that wanted to engage the power of Direct Response advertising. Unlike established direct marketers, new and big brands did not understand nor have the infrastructure to run a Direct Response/Direct-to-Consumer campaign. Thus, M2 was born.
1999 – M2 Meets Newcomer and Big Brand Needs
An offshoot of Script to Screen, M2 Marketing and Management Services, a Direct-to-Consumer, full-service campaign marketing consulting company, is formed to provide back end logistic set up services and ongoing data driven analysis for providing management decision making to new as well as Fortune 500 companies that recognized the power of the medium, but did not have the infrastructure to support it.
M2 augments marketer staffs, connects and manages Direct Response online and offline vendors, performs competitive product analysis, sophisticated product offer development, landing page consulting, deep data-driven analysis of campaigns, and optimizes day-to-day campaign results.
Notable Dates and Timelines
Welcome to Commercial Advertising!
|July 2, 1928||
First American Commercially-licensed TV Station (W3XK) Begins Limited Broadcasting
For the next 13 years, television was commercial-free!
Radio Programming Begins Airing Embedded Commercials Within Their Broadcasts.
This is where the term “Soap Operas” was coined as many sponsors were soap companies such as Borax, MuleTeem, Ivory, Duz Soap & products from Proctor & Gamble. This template carried over to Television Advertising later on.
FCC is Created
Congress passes the Communications Act, which replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
FCC minimizes and later eliminates the amount of time commercials can be broadcast per hour
|July 1, 1941||
The First Television Station in America (WNBT) Begins Regular Broadcasting
WNBT became WNBC
The very first program aired on this date was a major league baseball game featuring the Brooklyn Dodgers vs. Philadelphia Phillies at Ebbets Field, New York City.
|July 1, 1941||
World’s First TV Commercial (:09 sec.) Aired Prior to “Live” Dodger/Phillies Game
The original price to air this :09 second commercial at the time was $9. $5 for the air time and $4 for the station fees.
The audience for this ad numbered 4,000 television sets.
History of the Infomercial: The Early Days
W.G. “Papa” Bernard, founder of the VitaMix Blender, produced the very first long-form Infomercial for VitaMix that aired on US television.
|1949 – 1954||
First Regular TV Series to Feature a Commercial Sponsor
Infomercials of the 60s
Many companies began creating long-form infomercials for their products during these early years.
FCC Sets Commercial Limits
In the early 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), set limits on the number of commercial minutes allowed per hour of programming, requiring that all commercials be clearly identified as such. (Thus eliminating most Long-Form Infomercials at this time).
Philip Kives – Pitchman and Entrepreneur
Acquired many products such as the Chop-O-Matic (Acquired from Ron Popeil’s inventor Father, Samuel Popeil), The Miracle Brush, Fishin’ Magician & Feather Touch Knives utilizing 2 and a half minute short-form infomercials.
Philip Kives (Continued)
1964 – 1970
Ron Popeil – Inventor & Pitchman
Sunday Real Estate Infomercials
Arthur Schiff – Ad Man & Copywriter
DOJ Sues NAB
NAB Drops Restrictions
History of the Infomercial: The Modern Era
Script to Screen Formed
1970 – 2020
Memorable & Popular Infomercial Products/Spots
Dates reflect year product and/or brand was launched.
Note — during this period the industry experienced The Tough Years: 2006 – 2009
The global pandemic affected all global economies. However, ecommerce exponentially grows as retailers are closed.
Direct Response is alive and currently a $200 billion dollar annual industry.
|1990 – 2019||
Top 10 Most Financially Successful Infomercials
As listed from TheRichest.com
10. Thighmaster – Total Sales: $100 Million
9. Sweatin’ to the Oldies – Total Sales: Approx. $200 Million
8. Snuggie – Total Sales: Approximately $400 Million
7. Ped Egg – Total Sales: Approximately $450 Million
6. Showtime Rotisserie – Total Sales: $1.2 Billion
5. Bowflex – Annual Revenue: $193.9 Million
4. George Foreman Grill – Annual Revenue: $202 Million
3. Total Gym – Total Sales: $1 Billion
2. P90X – Annual Revenue: $400 Million
1. Proactiv – Annual Revenue: $1 Billion
The TV Pitchmen & Women
* Indicates Script to Screen shows
Celebrities Turned Pitch Person
Truth in Advertising (The Seedy Side)
Every industry has its bad guys, and the Infomercial business is no exception. Though the industry has worked with the FCC to bring high ethical standards to the business, here’s a few that did not heed the call:
Beyond the Infomercial
|July 9, 2009||
The first episode of Pitch Men debuted featuring DR TV HOSTS Billy Mays & Anthony Sullivan. This was the first show of its kind to go behind the scenes of the Infomercial Industry. Billy Mays passed away in June 2009 prior to the premiere of this series. The show played for one more season with only Anthony Sullivan hosting.
|August 9, 2009||Shark Tank
The second show in featuring Infomercial industry experts emerged just a month later and is still airing today. It is a ratings success and has won multiple Emmy Awards.
|1980’s to the Present||The Parodies
Since audiences first watched Infomercials, viewers often ridiculed DRTV products and shows proclaiming them as cheesy, hokey, and cheap.Often fodder for late-night TV hosts/Comedians
Products So Ridiculous, You Have to Laugh:
History of the Infomercial: The Future
|2021 – ???||
The Direct-to-Consumer industry is grappling with these questions and more, as the future in a post-pandemic world begins to emerge. One thing is certain: The Infomercial Long-Form and variations will certainly remain a powerful, measurable marketing tool as more companies and brands move toward one-on-one communication with their customers.