Lessons from the Past: Infomercials — The Only TV Advertising Viewers Chose to Watch
I wrote the following in 2004 then discovered Claude Hopkins’ book Scientific Advertising from the early 20th century. I was struck by how what he had learned was so similar to the lessons I had just written about. A recent Hopkins discussion on Twitter led me to resurrect the article.
Of course, 30 minute infomercials are on a slow slide into oblivion. But we should never forget that:
Infomercials were the only TV advertising that consumers chose to watch.
When a consumer sees a TV spot, they’ve chosen to watch the show in which it’s aired. Not so with infomercials. We had to create 30 minute shows which would first, and foremost, DRAW viewers then hold on to them.
Had no one watched infomercials, it wouldn’t matter. But, consumers stopped and watched infomercials in massive numbers. These infomercials led them to spend billions — some directly but the far bigger amount (10x-20x) in the store.
You’ve probably not given infomercials even a passing thought for a decade or so. But here are nine (9) lessons brand advertisers should to learn from infomercial experience based on my over 20 years planning, creating and studying this advertising form.
While people stopped because they like learning about products, let’s take our first lessons from why people stay tuned.
1. Consumers respond to advertising that helps them make smart purchase decisions.
In research, consumers complain about the lack of information at retail stores. They laugh at the idea that traditional advertising helps them make purchasing decisions. And, while the web offers lots of information, it doesn’t often help consumers envision new products in their lives.
Infomercials succeeded by offering consumers something they aren’t getting anywhere else — communication and demonstration about new products that make products meaningful. Of course, if your need is reminder advertising you have different challenges. But for a product based company with new products to bring to market, infomercials were incredibly effective.
2. Effective communication is a process.
Traditional advertising usually limits itself to a single “big idea” or mere “lifestyle” messages. By contrast, infomercials persuade consumers through a communication process – moving them from initial awareness to purchase. A long form show does this by layering a set of core messages so that each uncovers a deeper understanding of the product. It’s the layering of these messages that make infomercials so persuasive.
3. Product understanding generates far more value than brand.
Atomic Direct’s Drill Doctor infomercial spent years on-air and drove nearly 3 million unit sales. The campaign built so much price support consumers willingly paid $100 – $175 for a product that sharpens $0.25 drill bits. By contrast, traditional brand advertising rarely generates dramatic price support. Why? Consumers pay more for meaningful products than for brand. (They pay the most for a meaningful product with a good brand.)
4. The creative idea cannot become more important than the communication.
Infomercials only succeeded when consumers picked up the phone. And by counting phone calls, we learned that humorous DRTV spots generally don’t work. We’ve learned that DRTV messages must be carefully oriented around the product and not simply a lifestyle. And, we’ve learned that ideas like storymercials (a version of an infomercial based around a “story” which my first agency invented) generally fail. Why? These clever ideas entertain the creative team but rarely add anything meaningful to communication for the consumer. And humor becomes inappropriate the closer you get to asking for the order (you wouldn’t buy a car based on a joke — why expect it to wrk anywhere else).
5. Consumers only need about 15 seconds of concept.
I worked with a number of traditional agencies who wanted to stretch their 30-second spot ideas into 30-minute shows — agencies like Chiat/Day. They always failed. Why? Traditional advertising is usually based around big conceptual statements that are important, but quickly absorbed. Once interested by the concept, consumers want to know more. Unfortunately, traditional agencies rarely offer more. When they do, it’s usually only product features. Successful infomercials offer much more. We filled 30 minutes with the value a product brings and helping consumers understand the product well enough to believe it would be meaningful in their life.
6. Positive messages are most powerful.
Too often, traditional advertising starts and stays negative. (Who EVER thought post-modern philosophy was a good basis for advertising? It’s bad enough for visual art.). Anyway, infomercials are a generally positive art form – where products promise clear results. And in the short form arena, DRTV spots rarely spent more than 10% to 20% of a commercial defining the problem. Why? Because advertising delivers higher impact when it communicates positive messages.
7. Don’t just “do” research — listen to it.
It took a long time for infomercial agencies to come to realize research had value. It took even longer for them to learn the skills for listening to it and executing accordingly. Focus groups can’t be about verbatim transcriptions or tallying up “how many said what”. Research should never ask consumers to critique creative choices or discuss “likeability”. Research must focus on how messages change consumer perception of a product – something you learn by putting down your pen to watch and listen.
8. Ask people to take action.
Perhaps afraid of the answer, traditional advertising rarely asks consumers to take action. But infomercials always asked consumers to take significant action – often purchasing the product. And experience proved that with the right understanding of a product and the right offer, consumers would take that action. But you have to ask. Consumers don’t know what next step would be smart by osmosis.
9. Don’t take a campaign off the air too soon.
Phones told us when an infomercial stops working. By counting calls, we found that strong campaigns produce the same phone results for years. Interestingly, Claude Hopkins found the same thing with his work 100 years ago. Is it possible that traditional advertisers abandon advertising too quickly? Certainly there is always pressure for “new” creative. But brand advertisers should resist the temptation to plan too many new creative executions into their strategies.
I doubt most Brand Advertisers will take time to think deeply about infomercials
Sadly, no brand agency will think very deeply about infomercials. In part, it’s career death to breath the word accidentally in their sleep. But, also, the agency business trains it’s culture to deliver a type of creative correctness where infomercials are forbidden.
It’s not that I’m shocked — I’ve always been an odd man out. I’m the rare mathematician who worked in aerospace and sold supercomputers before finding my path in advertising. When I found my path, it started with infomercials. And, even then, I’ve carried so many hats — strategy, account planning, agency owner, creative director, and have even directed a number of national TV spots.
So while I know what I’ve written fits with my “odd man out” reality, it would be good for agencies and their clients if there were more openness to the lessons which can be learned from this fading art form. Until then, I’ll keep proudly talking about what we achieved for clients with this powerful, but rapidly disappearing, medium.
©2020 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved
Through my company, Protonik LLC based in Portland Oregon, I consult with companies on their efforts around new and innovative products and explore what marketers should learn from the field of complexity science. An adjunct instructor are Portland State University, I teach marketing, consumer behavior, and advertising.
As a specialty, I also advise a select group of clients attempting to bring new life to Shelf Potatoes or taking existing products to new markets. You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at www.Protonik.net.
Categories: Advertising, Communication, Direct Response, DR Television, TV & Video