Infomercials are long-format television commercials, typically five minutes or longer. Infomercials are also known as paid programming (or teleshopping in Europe). This phenomenon started in the United States where infomercials were typically shown overnight (usually 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.)--outside of peak hours. Some television stations chose to air infomercials as an alternative to the former practice of sign-off. By 2009, most US infomercial spending is during early morning, daytime, and evening hours. Stations in most countries around the world have instituted similar media structures. According to tapebeat.com, over $150 billion of consumer products in the U.S. are sold through infomercials.
The term "infomercial" is sometimes misapplied and used to refer to direct response television advertisements (DRTV) of 60 to 120 seconds. However, the term describes program length advertisements which, in the US, are typically 28 minutes and 30 seconds (see above references). In the US, DRTV advertisements of 30 seconds to 2 minutes are typically called "short form" or "DRTV spots" and are not included in the advertising industry's use of the term "infomercial". Note that in the US market, a small amount of media can be purchased for 5 minute advertisements, although this time is quite limited. Outside of the US market, lengths depend on the lengths allowed by television stations and government regulators.
While the term "infomercial" was originally applied only to television advertising; it is now sometimes used to refer to any presentation (often on video) which presents a significant amount of information in an actual, or perceived, attempt to persuade to a point of view. When used this way, the term may be meant to carry an implication that the party making the communication is exaggerating truths or hiding important facts. Often, it is unclear whether the actual presentation fits this definition because the term is used in an attempt to discredit the presentation. In this way, political speeches may be derogatorily referred to as "infomercials" for a specific point of view.
The word "infomercial" is a portmanteau of the words "information" and "commercial". As in any other form of advertisement, the content is a commercial message designed to represent the viewpoints and to serve the interest of the sponsor. Infomercials are often made to closely resemble actual television programming. Some imitate talk shows and try to downplay the fact that the program is actually an advertisement. A few are developed around storylines and have been called "storymercials". However most do not have specific formats but craft different elements to create what they hope is a compelling story about the product offered.
Infomercials are designed to solicit a direct response which is specific and quantifiable and are, therefore, a form of direct response marketing (not to be confused with direct marketing). For this reason, infomercials generally feature between 2 and 4 internal commercials of 30 to 120 seconds which invite the consumer to call or take other direct action. Despite the overt request for direct action, many consumers respond to the messages in an infomercial with purchases at retail outlets. For many infomercials, the largest portion of positive response they aim for is retail sales. These retail sales make infomercials similar in impact to traditional commercials where advertisers do not solicit a direct response from viewers, but create the commercials with a goal to leave behind messages and brand that the advertisers hope will lead people to purchase their product or increase acceptance of the product.
Many traditional Infomercial producers make use of flashy catchphrases, repeat basic ideas, and/or employ scientist-like characters or celebrities as guests or hosts in their ad. The book As Seen on TV by Lou Harry and Sam Stall highlights the history of products as the Flowbee, the Chia Pet, and Ginsu knives. Sometimes traditional infomercials use limited time offers and/or claim one can only purchase the wares from television to add pressure for viewers buy their products. The products frequently marketed through infomericals include cleaning products, appliances, food, dietary supplements, alternative health aids, memory improvement courses, books, recorded music, videos, real estate investment strategies, beauty supplies, baldness remedies, sexual enhancement supplements, weight loss products, personal fitness devices, home exercise machines.
Major brands (e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Thermos-Grill2Go) have used infomercials for their ability to communicate more complicated and in-depth product stories. This practice started in the early 1990s and has increased since. Brands generally eschew the "cheesy" trappings of the traditional infomercial business in order to create communication they believe creates a better image of their products, their brands, and their consumers.
During the early days of television, many TV shows were specifically created by sponsors with the main goal of selling their product, with the entertainment just used to hold the audience. A good example of this is the early children's show The Magic Clown on NBC, which was created by Tico Bonomo essentially as an advertisement for Bonomo's Turkish Taffy. It is claimed that the first informercial for a commercial product appeared in 1949 or 1950, for a blender. Accounts vary on whether this was for a VitaMix blender as claimed by Vitamix or from Waring Blenders as claimed in various online sources. Eventually, FCC limits on the amount of advertising that could appear during an hour of television did away with these programs, forcing sponsors into the background; however, few infomercials, mainly those for greatest hits record sets and Shop Smith power tools, did exist during the period when commercial time was restricted.
It is quite possible that the first modern infomercial series which ran in North America was on San Diego-area television station XETV, which during the 1970s ran a one-hour television program every Sunday consisting of advertisements for local homes for sale. As the station was actually licensed by the Mexican government to the city of Tijuana, (but the station broadcasts all of its programs in English for the U.S. market), the FCC limit at that time of a maximum of 18 minutes of commercials in an hour did not apply to the station.
Infomercials proliferated in the United States after 1984 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eliminated regulations that were established in the 1950s and 1960s to govern the commercial content of television. Informercials particularly exploded in the mid-1990s with motivational products, personal development products, and infamous "get-rich-quick schemes based on the premise that one could quickly become wealthy by either selling anything through classified ads or through real estate flipping. These were hawked by personalities such as Don Lapre and Carleton H. Sheets, among others.
In the UK, "admags" (advertisement magazines) were originally a feature of the regional commercial ITV stations from launch in 1955 but were banned in 1963. The word 'teleshopping' was coined in 1979 by Michael Aldrich who invented real-time transaction processing from a domestic television and subsequently installed many systems throughout the UK in the 1980s. This would now be referred to as online shopping. In the 1989, the Satellite Shop was the launched as the first UK shopping channel. Shortly afterwards, infomercials began on satellite television and they became known as teleshopping. The UK permits neither paid infomercials nor teleshopping on mainstream network television. Political infomercials known as 'Party Political Broadcasts' are allocated to political parties according to a formula approved by Parliament and are available only on mainstream radio/network television, are strictly limited and are free of charge. Political parties or politically-motivated interest groups cannot buy advertising on UK TV. There is no prescription drug advertising because, with the single provider health system in the UK, there is only a single buyer for the whole country. Most auto advertising on TV is by manufacturers, however some are from local dealers. There are no televangelists.
Some US televangelists such as Robert Tilton and Peter Popoff buy television time from infomercial brokers representing TV stations around the U.S. and even some mass-distributed cable networks that are not averse to carrying religious programming. A block of such programming appears weekdays on BET under the umbrella title BET Inspiration. Politicians are also known to buy infomercial-length time blocks, as detailed below.
TiVo uses paid programming time weekly on the Discovery Channel on early Thursday mornings and ION Television on early Tuesday mornings in order to record interactive and video content to be presented to subscribers of their service in a form of linear datacasting without the need to interfere with a subscriber's Internet bandwidth. The program is listed as Teleworld Paid Program, named for TiVo's corporate name at its founding.
When they first appeared, infomercials were most often screened in the United States and Canada during late-night/early morning hours. As stations have found value in airing at other times, by 2008 a large portion of infomercial spending is early morning, daytime, early prime and even prime time. There are also entire networks devoted to just airing infomercials all day and night for the sole purpose of cable/satellite providers receiving revenue from the channel operator from any sales for their area, or to fill empty time on local programming channels. CNBC, which airs only one hour of infomercials nightly during the business week, airs up to 28 hours of infomercials on Saturdays and Sundays during the time where the network's business news coverage otherwise airs. A comparison of television listings from 2007 with 1987 verifies that many broadcasters in North America now air infomercials in lieu of syndicated TV series reruns and movies, which were formerly staples during the more common hours infomercials are broadcast (i.e., the overnight hours). Infomercials are a near-permanent staple of ION Television's daytime and overnight schedules; multichannel providers such as DirecTV have objected in the past to carrying ION feeds which consist largely of paid programming.
During the current financial crisis, many struggling individual television stations have devoted more of their programming schedules to infomercials and have reduced syndication contracts for regular programming. There have been stations that have found that the revenue from infomercial time sales were higher than the revenues possible through the traditional television advertising and syndication sales options. However, the reduced ratings from airing infomercials can have a domino effect and harm ratings for other programming on the TV station.
An example of a synopsis of an infomercial within an electronic program guide (in this case, an infomercial about colon detox on The Travel Channel, from Charter Communications); guidelines which previously excluded specific program information for an infomercial have been relaxed by guide providers in the last few years. A feature length documentary that chronicles the history of the infomercial is Pitch People.
In 2008, Tribune Media Services and Gemstar-TV Guide began to relax the guidelines for listing infomercials within their electronic program guide listings. Previously all infomercials were listed under the title "Paid Programming" (except for exceptions listed below), but now infomercial producers are allowed to submit a title and limited synopsis (phone numbers/websites to order a product/service seem to be disallowed) of the program's content to the listings providers.
The Fox Broadcasting Company announced that beginning in January 2009, all of its Saturday morning cartoon programming would be cancelled due to a compensation/distribution dispute with provider 4Kids Entertainment, which was replaced by a two-hour block of infomercials, Weekend Marketplace. This made Fox the first major network (excluding borderline Ion Television) to carry a schedule of paid programming. However, many local stations already utilize Saturday morning slots to air locally-programmed paid programming or programs such as Video Car Lot, which features one dealer presenting their current selection of pre-owned vehicles to encourage customers to visit their lot, or "home tour" programming where a home builder records a tour of a model home to entice homebuyers to purchase a plot in their subdivisions. Some stations opted to use the extra time on Saturday morning for E/I programming, with infomercials relegated to before or after the block, or even limited to afternoons, if local newscasts are shown earlier.
Criticism and legal issues
In the United States, because of the sometimes sensational nature of the ad form and the questionable nature of some products, consumer advocates recommend careful investigation of the infomercial's sponsor, the product being advertised, and the claims being made before making a purchase. At the beginning of an infomercial, stations and/or sponsors normally run disclaimers warning that "the following program is a paid advertisement," and that the station does not necessarily support the sponsor's claims. A few stations take the warning further, encouraging viewers to contact their local Better Business Bureau or state or local consumer protection agency to report any questionable products or claims that air on such infomercials. Some channels, such as CNBC, include a "paid programming" bug in a corner of the screen during the duration of each infomercial on that channel. Others, particularly smaller networks such as RFD-TV, have publicly disavowed infomercials and have refused to air them.
The FTC requires that any infomercial 15 minutes or longer must disclose to viewers that it is a paid advertisement. An infomercial is required to be "clearly and conspicuously" marked as a "paid advertisement for [particular product or service], sponsored by [sponsor]" at the beginning and end of the advertisement and before ordering instructions are displayed.
Considerable FTC scrutiny is also given to results claims like those in diet/weight loss advertisements. They especially focus on the gray areas surrounding claims stated by "testimonials" because the producer's choice to include a specific testimonial is an action as intentional as writing a scripted claim. The rules controlling endorsements are modified from time to time to increase consumer protection and fill loop holes. Industry organizations like the Electronic Retailing Association, who represents infomercial marketers, often try to minimize the impact of these rule changes.
Since the 1990s, federal and/or state consumer protection agencies have either successfully sued or been critical of several prominent infomercial pitchmen, including Kevin Trudeau, Donald Barrett, and Matthew Lesko.
The Infomercial format has been widely parodied:
• A skit in the cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures in which an infomercial hostess is trying to sell a clothesline for $39.95, but has to include additional offers to try to justify the high price.
• In the Garfield and Friends episode, "Dream Giveaway", Garfield dreams of attempting to give away Nermal in an infomercial, but no one wants to take him.
• In the 2003 live-action film The Cat in the Hat, the cat performs an entire talkshow-style infomercial spoof for a magical (but disastrous) cupcake maker. In the spoof, the Cat plays the roles of host and guest/expert.
• In The Lion King 1½, Pumbaa sits on the remote in mid-movie and the screen switches to a jewelry infomercial (QVC).
• Quebec-based Têtes à Claques has produced several Informercial parodies in French.
• The comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have produced several infomercial parody segments that are showcased on their oddball comedy show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, notably one for a CD-ROM-based version of the internet called the "Innernette". It employs many of the cliched infomercial hallmarks and phrases such as enthausiastic demonstrations, and outlandish claims of user satisfaction.
• "Weird Al" Yankovic parodied infomercials in the song Mr. Popeil, a homage to inventor and infomercial spokesperson Ron Popeil, on his 1984 album "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D (Popeil himself used the song in some of his infomercials). Well known pitchmen like Popeil and Billy Mays have been the inspiration for many of these parodies.
• A well known early parody on TV was Saturday Night Live's "Bassomatic" skit featuring Dan Aykroyd in the 1970s.
• In the "Home-Cooked Eds" episode of the Cartoon Network series Ed, Edd & Eddy, the Kanker Sisters decide to watch infomercials after taking over Eddy's house in yet another misguided attempt at affectation.
Other uses and definitions
In the United States the strategy of buying prime-time programming slots on major networks has been utilized by political candidates for both presidential and state office to present infomercial-like programs to sell a candidate's merits to the public. Fringe presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche regularly bought time on CBS and local stations in the 1980s. In the 1990s Ross Perot also bought network time in 1992 and 1996 to present his presidential policies to the public. The National Rifle Association has also aired programs via paid programming time to present their views on issues such as gun control and other issues while appealing to the public to join their organization.
2008 Presidential Campaign Use
Hillary Clinton bought an hour of primetime on the Hallmark Channel in 2008 before Super Tuesday, and on cable sports network FSN Southwest in Texas before that state's primary to present a town hall-like program. Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign has used infomercials extensively. His campaign established the Obama channel on satellite TV networks throughout the campaign season. And, a week before the 2008 general election presidential candidate Barack Obama bought a 30 minute slot at 8 PM ET/PT during primetime on seven major networks (NBC, CBS, MSNBC, Fox, BET, TV One and Univision (with Spanish subtitles)) to present a "closing argument" to his campaign. The combination of these networks reportedly drew a peak audience of over 33 million viewers of this half hour program, making it the single most watched infomercial broadcast in the history of U.S. television.
Although not meeting the definition of an infomercial per se, animated children's programming in the 1980s and early 1990s, which included half-hour animated series for franchises such as Transformers, My Little Pony, Go-Bots and Bravestarr were often described by media experts and parents derisive of these types of series as essentially program-length commercials, as they also sold the tie-in toy lines and food products for the shows within commercials. The Children's Television Act of 1990 was instrumental in ending this practice and setting commercial limits. Currently, any advertisement for a tie-in product within the show is considered a violation of the FCC rules and is considered a "program length commercial" by their standards, putting the station at risk of paying large fines for violations.
These regulations do not apply to cable networks; for instance, Disney Channel currently features tie-ins for virtually all of its shows instead of commercials, while only going as far as promoting DVD and CD versions of those programs. However, as seen in the aftermath a case where the characters for shoe company Skechers's children's shoe commercials were adapted into a full-length series, Zevo-3 for Nicktoons, effectively cable networks usually use FCC rules as a basic guideline and rarely stray away from the basic tenets of the CTA to avoid risking their reputations with parents, consumer advocates and other groups which would argue for equivalent FCC controls for cable networks as broadcast networks for children's content.
A new genre of locally produced television rose in the mid-2000s as local television stations (especially those with the NBC and Fox networks, where NBC gave up the most programming time) saw network time on weekday mornings after 9am returned to local control and saw new national talk shows either fail or not attract the right demographic to a timeslot. Beginning with Daytime on Media General station WFLA-TV in Tampa, Florida in the early 2000s, a new format featuring the structure of a traditional locally-produced daytime show with the usual format of light talk, health features, beauty tips and recipe segments which was popular up to the early 1990s (when expansion of newscasts became a much less expensive, more dependable form of revenue) came into use. Some of these shows, such as WKBW-TV's AM Buffalo in Buffalo, New York, seamlessly made the transition from a traditional local talk show to a paid program with little notice.
This type of program usually features light talk designed to draw in mainly a female audience, and then presentation of products, services, and packages by local businesses; for example a basement waterproofing system might be discussed by the representative of a company in that business with the hosts, along with perhaps a special offer for viewers. These segments, though carefully disclaimed after concerns were brought up about the original program model of Daytime, are designed to give a business a detailed presentation of their service that might not be possible in a traditional thirty-second or one minute ad.
Though locally produced, the programs are also presented by hosts which are not associated in any way with the station's newsroom, or by a host who formerly anchored a station's newscasts and may be looking for an easier and less harried work schedule. Under most guidelines, hosts cannot appear in newscasts and in productions run by the sales department at the same time, due to ethical concerns about sponsorships influencing newscasts. Thus, news anchors and reporters cannot host these shows, nor can hosts of these shows appear in newscasts as reporters; for instance, in the case of the aforementioned AM Buffalo, host Linda Pellegrino was forced to resign her post as a weather anchor on WKBW when AM Buffalo began adding sponsored segments. In fact, if a breaking news event takes place during the program, it is usually cut off with only a quick pause and no mention by the host that they are sending viewers to the news desk for details on the story. In definition, these programs can be considered infomercials, albeit not exactly meeting the letter of the definition.
The Daytime model has since been adapted by Meredith Corporation, which uses a modified form for their national/local hybrid program Better, along with LIN Media, which features the same format with localized titles on many of their stations (on WLUK-TV in Green Bay, Wisconsin, it is known as Living with Amy, while WNAC-TV of Providence, Rhode Island brands their program The Rhode Show, and Hampton Roads station WVBT calls their program The Hampton Roads Show). Journal Communications also features a format called The Morning Blend on many of their stations which is much closer to the Daytime format.
Traditional infomercial marketers source the products, pay to develop the infomercials, pay for the media, and are responsible for all sales of the product. Sometimes, they sell products they source from inventors.
There is also a well developed network of suppliers to the infomercial industry. These suppliers generally choose to focus on either traditional infomercials (hard sell approaches) or on using infomercials as advertising/sales channels for brand companies (branded approaches). In the traditional business, services are usually supplied by infomercial producers or by media buying companies. In the brand infomercial business, services are often provided by full service agencies who deliver strategy, creative, production, media, and campaign services.
Use of infomercials around the world
The infomercial industry was started in the United States and that has led to the specific definitions of infomercials as direct response television commercials of specific lengths (:30, :60, :120 seconds; 5 minutes; or 28 minutes and 30 seconds). Infomercials have spread to other countries from the US. However, the term "infomercial" needs to be defined more universally to discuss use in all countries. In general, worldwide use of the term refers to a television commercial (paid programming) that offers product for direct sale to consumer via response through the web, by phone, or by mail.
There are few structures that apply everywhere in the international infomercial business. The regulatory environment in each country as well as that country's television traditions have led to variations in format, lengths, and rules for long form commercials and television commercials selling direct to consumer. For example, in the early 1990s long form paid programming in Canada was required to consist only of photographs without moving video. (This restriction no longer exists).
Many products which started in the US have been taken into international distribution on television. And, each country has local entrepreneurs and marketers using the medium for local businesses. What may be called infomercials are most commonly found in North and South America, Europe, Eastern Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
In many countries, the infrastructure of direct response television distributors, telemarketing companies and product fulfillment companies (shipping, customer service) are more difficult and these missing pieces have limited the spread of the infomercial.
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