Even though they are often considered annoying, infomercials have gained an undeniable reputation for effectiveness that has endeared them to American companies. Infomercials are a type of direct marketing (reaching out directly to the individual consumer). Usually thirty minutes long, these extended commercials, which are often hosted by celebrities, typically target a diverse audience from both the lower and upper middle classes. Research over the past decade—the time period in which infomercials became an advertising superpower—has shown that most people who make purchase decisions while watching infomercials are between the ages of 25 and 44.
In the words of Thomas Burke, president of the infomercial division of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, infomercials are "the most powerful form of advertising ever created." Given the growth of infomercials and their astounding success, it is a claim with significant market support. According to Kevin Whitelaw, writing in U.S. News & World Report, infomercials were a $1.5 billion dollar industry in 1995. Much of this success is due to the creativity of infomercial advertisers who use the infomercial's marginality to create a kind of cultural or sub-cultural symbol, giving a voice in the form of purchasing power to the late night and early morning consumer. These consumers are likely to be homemakers, blue-collar workers, and salespeople. This demographic information is an essential component in determining which products are selected for infomercial treatment.
One sign that the legitimacy of infomercials as an effective marketing tool has been recognized in recent years is the growing attention that larger companies have paid to the practice. Whitelaw points out that in 1995 ten percent of infomercials were being produced by big companies, such as Microsoft, Apple, Lexus, Magnavox, Sears, and AT&T. The presence of these newcomers has pushed up the prices of the ad spots on the cable stations which have traditionally carried infomercials, leaving only the very early morning spots (i.e., four a.m) within the budget of most small-and mid-sized businesses. However, with the proliferation of cable and satellite television, and the new respectability that infomercials have gained in recent years, they are still a viable advertising option for small businesses with the right kind of product or service and the creativity to sell it.
Infomercials usually work best with products that are easy to demonstrate, so that an interaction with the viewing audience can be achieved. This interaction is quite often that of teacher to student, so that infomercials become a medium for instruction, teaching people (or supposing to teach) how to better their social lives or their bodies. Such an approach creates a dialogue that the viewer can take part in, which often leads to a viewer inquiry for more information or to a purchase.
Another useful approach is to create a "storymercial," in which the infomercial sells its product by encasing it—and the targeted consumer—within a story. These "storymercials" often look and feel like documentaries in which a family or business-person go about their daily lives aided tremendously by the advertiser's product. Testimonials, or little product specific anecdotes, are similar, both pulling viewers into a world where the product is essential to success and happiness. All in all, these infomercials are attempting to show the consumer how to answer the question "How can this product help me?"
When planning an approach, advertisers often consider several criteria, such as how similar products have fared in other markets, time slots, and seasons. Most infomercial producers believe that even small television ratings for an infomercial can translate into strong returns. As Dan Danielson told Brad Edmondson and John Maines in American Demographics : "It's not uncommon for an infomercial to register no rating points whatsoever, yet net strong profits."
Edmondson, Brad, and John Maines. "Victoria the Video Hunter." American Demographics . June 1993.
McDonald, Marci. "The Dawning of the Infomercial Age." Maclean's . September 4, 1995.
Nucifora, Alf. "Is Advertising on Television Right for Your Wares?" LI Business News. November 6, 1998.
Whitelaw, Kevin. "Not Just Slicing and Dicing." U.S. News & World Report . September 9, 1996.