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Inside infomercials: Could your product be sold via direct response TV?

How “Direct Response Television” could make the right product a smashing success.

Remember the Freedom Blanket? Sadly, few people do. Although it was one of the first blankets with sleeves to hit the market, Freedom Blanket was instantly eclipsed by its rival, the Snuggie.

Why? Infomercials.

The first Snuggie infomercial invaded TV screens in 2008. Five years later, Snuggie sales topped $500 million dollars. As for the Freedom Blanket, today it lies quietly atop the scrap heap of failed products.

Yet the Snuggie is still going strong, and so are infomercials. More than 8.5 million time slots worth $6.4 billion were purchased to run infomercials on American TV in 2017, according to data from DRMetrix.

Let’s take a behind-the-screens peek at infomercials, courtesy of industry veteran Steve Marcus. He’s produced campaigns for Nutrisystem, Time Life Music, Hair Club For Men and Canadian-based diet supplement Hydroxycut.

Commercial or infomercial?

Unlike commercials, infomercials feature a direct call to action, usually exhorting you to “Call now!” or visit the website at the bottom of your TV screen. That’s why it’s called direct response TV (DRTV).

“Branding through a commercial is just introducing a product. But in an infomercial, you want people to act right now,” says Marcus, President of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Marcus Productions Inc.

Images are everything

Although Ron Popeil sold millions of Veg-o-Matics with his brash yell-and-sell technique, Marcus says infomercials are actually about show-and-tell. He believes the “visual wow factor” of the product itself is more important than a booming pitchman.

Marcus stresses the product must be easy to explain and demonstrate on TV. That’s why legendary scenes — the Ginsu knife slicing through a tin can and the happy dieter holding up an enormous pair of old pants — stick in our minds long after we’ve (finally) fallen asleep to that 3 a.m. infomercial.

Is my product right for DRTV?

Marcus urges inventors and entrepreneurs to ask themselves some key questions before going down the DRTV route:

Is your product unique or new? Does it solve a common problem?

Does it have room for a price markup that’s at least four times its costs?

Does it have mass market potential, appealing to both men and women, several age groups and more than just one part of the country?

If a product doesn’t tick all those boxes, Marcus says DRTV isn’t a good fit.

Patently clear

“If you have no copyright, people are going to steal your idea,” Marcus warns. So he gives every prospective infomercial client the same advice: get a patent.

The Slanket, which also pre-dated the Snuggie, might be the ultimate cautionary tale here. Slanket inventor Gary Clegg has lamented the fact that his failure to quickly secure a patent for his own sleeved blanket allowed Snuggie to zoom ahead in the marketplace with its ubiquitous TV spots.

It takes more than you think

After you make an infomercial, you can’t just set it and forget it. You need infrastructure such as a website, 1-800 number, call centre, social media campaign, order fulfillment, inventory management, product manufacturing, shipping and customer service/support.

“There’s a lot involved there. It’s just part of the business,” says Marcus, whose company not only produces infomercials but offers many of the services listed above as well.

Costs

Here are some typical cost estimates Marcus provides to companies considering DRTV campaigns:

  • $85K to $150K — five-minute infomercial production
  • $150K to $500K — long form (28.5 minutes) infomercial production
  • $20K to $40K — national cable network test airing(s)
  • $1.5K to $3.5K — call centre (initial setup only)
  • $10K to $20K — social media campaign (per month)
  • $2K to $2.5K — fulfillment company (initial setup only)
  • $3K to $8K — DRTV campaign website
  • $3K to $6K — campaign management (per month)

What about ROI? In its first five years, Snuggie spent a staggering $35 million per year on infomercials and related marketing costs — but racked up sales of $100 million per year.

Changing channels

To keep up with consumers’ shifting attention spans and mobile viewing habits, brands like Proactiv are now making infomercials as short as one to five minutes long, often for distribution channels beyond TV.

“It’s changing the way (infomercials) will be delivered and where you’ll watch them. It’ll be on your phone, it’ll be on your computer … (It) can also run on YouTube or Instagram,” Marcus says.

But wait, there’s more! (Not really. This is actually the end of this article. We just always wanted to say that famous catchphrase.)

Photo credits to Marcus Productions Inc.

 

Up Next: How an entrepreneur turned his startup into a billion-dollar business.

Christine Wong

Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with ITBusiness.ca, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.

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