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An infomercial is a form of television commercial, which generally includes a toll-free telephone number or website. Most often used as a form of direct response television (DRTV), long-form infomercials are typically 28:30 or 58:30 minutes in length. 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 peak prime time hours for commercial broadcasters. Some television stations chose to air infomercials as an alternative to the former practice of signing off. By 2009, most infomercial spending in the U.S. occurred during the early morning, daytime and evening hours. Stations in most countries around the world have instituted similar media structures. The infomercial industry is worth over $200 billion.
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 promote 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. Hence, political speeches or conventions 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 standard television programs. Some imitate talk shows and try to downplay the fact that the program is actually a commercial message. A few are developed around storylines and have been called "storymercials". However, most do not have specific television formats but craft different elements to tell what their creators hope is a compelling story about the product offered.
Infomercials are designed to solicit a direct response that is specific and at once quantifiable and are, therefore, a form of direct response marketing (not to be confused with direct marketing). For this reason, infomercials generally feature between two and four 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 is for consumers to take action by purchasing at a retail store. For others, the advertiser will instead promote the item as "not sold in stores." Some advertisers who make this choice dislike sharing profit with retailers, while many simply lack the immense resources necessary to get their products into the retail industry channels prior to achieving on-air success. In the latter case, many hope to use profit from direct sales to build their business/company in order to achieve later retail distribution. Standalone shorter commercials, 30 to 120 seconds in length with a call to action, are erroneously called infomercials; when used as an independently produced commercial, they are generally known as DRTV spots or short-form DRTV. Many products and services that advertise using infomercials often also use these shorter spots to advertise during regular programming.
Many traditional infomercial producers make use of flashy catchphrases, repeat basic ideas or employ scientist-like characters or celebrities as guests or hosts in their ad. The book As Seen on TV (Quirk Books) by Lou Harry and Sam Stall highlights the history of products such as the Flowbee, the Chia Pet and Ginsu knives. Sometimes, traditional infomercials use limited-time offers or claim one can only purchase the wares from television to add pressure for viewers to buy their products.
The products frequently marketed through infomercials at the national level include cleaning products, appliances, food-preparation devices, dietary supplements, alternative health aids, memory-improvement courses, books, compilation albums, videos of numerous genres, real estate investment strategies, beauty supplies, baldness remedies, sexual-enhancement supplements, weight-loss programs and products, personal fitness devices, home exercise machines and adult chat lines. Automobile dealerships, attorneys and jewelers are among the types of businesses that air infomercials on a local level.
Major brands (such as Apple,Microsoft and 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. Such advertisers generally eschew the less reputable trappings of the traditional infomercial business in order to create communication they believe creates a better image of their products, brands and consumers. Apple's use of the infomercial medium was immediately discontinued with Steve Jobs' 1997 return to the helm of the company.
During the early days of television, many television shows were specifically created by sponsors with the main goal of selling their product, the entertainment angle being a hook to hold audience attention (this is how soap operas got their name). A good example of this is the early children's show The Magic Clown on NBC, which was created essentially as an advertisement for Bonomo's Turkish Taffy. It is claimed that the first infomercial 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 its manufacturer, or from Waring Blenders, as claimed in various online sources. Eventually, limits imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the amount of advertising that could appear during an hour of television did away with these programs, forcing sponsors into the background; however, a 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 to run in North America was on San Diego-area television station XETV, which during the 1970s ran a one-hour 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 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.
Credited for coining the word "infomercial" was Don Lewis of the Don Lewis Agency in Burbank, CA. The first infomercial to air with a product as it is well known was informercial pioneer Kurt Wolfe with his fitness gym that sold for $395 in 1979. Kurt Wolfe went on to sell 7 different products running for a six-year span on national TV, he also wrote, produced, and starred in over 10 informercials, selling fitness products to the viewing audience. The 2nd entrepreneur to air an informercial was Robert E. Murphy, Jr., looking to market "New Generation", a hair growth treatment, reached out to a Chicago ad agency where he met Frank Cannella, who convinced broadcast stations and cable networks to sell time for this format. The show was such a hit that other companies quickly began purchasing program-length commercial time as well.
The Federal Communications Commission lifted the prohibition on program-length advertisements on radio in 1981.
Infomercials proliferated in the United States after 1984 when the Federal Communications Commission eliminated regulations that were established in the 1950s and 1960s to govern the commercial content of television. Infomercials particularly exploded in the mid-1990s with motivational and personal development products, and "get-rich-quick scheme"s 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.
When they first appeared, infomercials were most often scheduled in the United States and Canada during late-night/early morning hours. As stations have found value in airing them at other times, a large portion of infomercial spending occurs in the early morning, daytime, early prime and even prime time periods. There are also all-infomercial networks (such as cable channels Corner Store TV, Access Television Network and GRTV) that yield revenue for cable and satellite providers who carry them or fill local programming voids. In the past, these channels were allowed in cable carriage contracts to overlay the paid programming of national cable networks until around 2006. A notable incident occurred when a quadruple-overtime 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs game on Versus was interrupted in many areas by cable operator-programmed infomercials after 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. EDT, causing vehement fan reaction that led to Versus removing this allotment from their carriage agreement, as did most other networks.CNBC, which airs only two hours of infomercials nightly during the business week, sometimes airs nearly 30 hours of infomercials on weekends; from the September-October 2008 financial crisis to early 2017, CNBC had inserted a "paid programming" bug at the top right corner of the screen during all airings of infomercials. In contrast, sister network CNBC World airs international programming rather than any paid programming.
A comparison of television listings from 2007 with 1987 verifies that many North American broadcasters now air infomercials in lieu of syndicated television series reruns and movies, which were formerly staples during the more common hours infomercials are broadcast (such as the overnight hours). Infomercials were previously a near-permanent staple of Ion Television's daytime and overnight schedules, but the channel now only carries infomercials in the traditional 3:00-8:00 a.m ET/PT timeslot emulated by most cable networks. Multichannel providers such as DirecTV had objected to carrying Ion feeds consisting largely of paid programming, though the satellite service does carry several infomercial-only channels.
As with other advertising, content is supervised by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and regulated by Ofcom. Advertising rules are written and maintained by the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), working closely with the ASA and Ofcom.
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. Until 2009, the UK permitted neither paid infomercials nor teleshopping on broadcast television. However, in 2009, Ofcom allowed up to three hours of infomercials per day on any channel.
Airtime for political messages, known as Party Political Broadcasts, is allocated free of charge to political parties according to a formula approved by Parliament, and is available only on broadcast television and radio channels. The Communications Act 2003 prohibits political advertising. Television advertising of pharmacy-only and prescription drugs is also prohibited.
Some U.S. televangelists such as Robert Tilton and Peter Popoff buy television time from infomercial brokers representing television stations around the U.S., and even some widely 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 (which fully replaced the direct-response variety of infomercials on the channel in 1997). The vast majority of religious programming in the United States is distributed through paid infomercial time; the fees that televangelists pay for coverage on most religious stations are a major revenue stream for those stations, in addition to programming the networks produce themselves.
TiVo formerly used paid programming time weekly on the Discovery Channel on early Thursday mornings and Ion Television on early Wednesday mornings to record interactive and video content to be presented to subscribers in a form of linear datacasting without the need to interfere with a subscriber's internet bandwidth (or lack thereof if they solely used the machine's dialup connection for updating). The program was listed as Teleworld Paid Program, named for TiVo's corporate name at its founding.Teleworld Paid Program was quietly discontinued at the start of the 2016-17 television season as the company's install base had mostly transitioned to broadband and newer TiVo devices no longer included a dialup option.
During the financial crisis that lasted from 2007 to 2010, many struggling individual television stations began to devote more of their programming schedules to infomercials, thereby reducing syndication contracts for regular programming. Some stations found that the revenue from infomercial-time sales were higher than those possible through 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 station.
A feature-length documentary that chronicles the history of the infomercial is Pitch People.
In 2008,Tribune Media Services and Gemstar-TV Guide/Rovi 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 (though phone numbers or website addresses may be disallowed) to the listings providers.
In November 2008, the Fox Network announced that beginning in January 2009 it would discontinue its Saturday morning children's programming block 4Kids TV after a dispute with provider 4Kids Entertainment over compensation and issues with distribution. The network opted to replace part of 4Kids TV with a two-hour block of infomercials under the title of Weekend Marketplace (though two additional hours were given back to Fox's stations). This made Fox the first major broadcast network to carry a schedule of paid programming. However, many local stations already utilize Saturday morning slots to air locally oriented paid programming that typically sells used cars or real estate. Though Fox hoped the move would result in unique and exclusive paid programming made exclusively for them, the five-year block was generally disdained by viewers and Fox affiliates alike; revenue was not shared with affiliates, and no local time for commercials between programs was offered. Furthermore, no Fox-exclusive infomercials were aired; 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 were shown earlier). Other stations refused Weekend Marketplace outright. and it went unaired in several markets, or otherwise buried in other time slots clearly listed as generic paid programming. In September 2014, Weekend Marketplace was replaced in some markets for the E/I-focused Xploration Nation programming block, but continues under the same format as it did at the start.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (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 ("following program") and end ("preceding program") of the advertisement and before ordering instructions are displayed.
Because infomercials may sometimes take a sensational tone, and because some of the products and services sold may be of a questionable nature, consumer advocates recommend careful investigation of the sponsor, the product and the claims before making a purchase. To that end, some stations and networks normally run their own disclaimers before, during or after infomercials, stating that in addition to the program being a paid advertisement, the broadcaster bears no responsibility or liability for the infomercial's content (the legality of a station or network attempting to absolve itself of liability for a program it airs, while profiting from the same program, has never been tested in court). A few stations also encourage 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 (until early 2017), Fox Business Network (which has stopped doing so) and Bloomberg Television include a "paid programming" bug in a corner of the screen during infomercials, which is especially important for financial products to avoid an exploitation of an "as seen on" claim of endorsement by the network. Other channels, particularly smaller networks such as RFD-TV, have publicly disavowed infomercials and refused to air them (RFD-TV has since lifted its ban but only airs infomercials in graveyard slots).
Considerable FTC scrutiny is also given to results claims like those in diet/weight loss advertisements. They especially focus on testimonial claims, considering them to be as intentional a scripted, written claim. The rules controlling endorsements are modified from time to time to increase consumer protection and fill loopholes. Industry organizations such as the Electronic Retailing Association, which represents infomercial marketers, often try to minimize the impact of these rule changes. Additionally, the FTC has been enforcing laws regarding testimonials and has filed suits against several companies for publishing "non-typical" and "completely fabricated" customer testimonials to support their claims within the infomercials. In 2006, the first third-party testimonial verification company was launched, and now independently validates the consumer testimonials used in many infomercials.
Since the 1990s, federal and state consumer protection agencies have either successfully sued or been critical of several prominent infomercial pitchmen, including Kevin Trudeau, Donald Barrett and, to a lesser extent, Matthew Lesko. Don Lapre, a salesman notorious for his get-rich-quick schemes, committed an apparent suicide while in federal custody awaiting a trial for several dozen counts of fraud.
The Infomercial format has been widely parodied:
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.
Hillary Clinton bought an hour of primetime programming on the Hallmark Channel in 2008 before the Super Tuesday primary elections, and on Texas-based regional sports network FSN Southwest before that state's primary to present a town hall-like program. Fellow presidential candidate Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign used infomercials extensively. including running a 24-hour channel on Dish Network. One week before the 2008 general election, Obama purchased a 30-minute slot at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time 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 the 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 (in addition to standard program promotions and promotions for other Disney products) instead of commercials, while only going as far as promoting DVD and CD versions of those programs, while competitor Discovery Family (the former Hub Network) is a consortium between Discovery Communications and toymaker Hasbro, which airs many shows based on their properties on the network, an arrangement that would be impossible on broadcast television. Nickelodeon often brokers time to Mattel on Sunday mornings for their series of children's films promoting their line of Barbie dolls, which promote the release on DVD of those films.
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 television stations (especially those affiliated with NBC and Fox, where NBC gave up the most programming time; Fox has no daytime programming per se) saw network time on weekday mornings after 9 a.m. 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-owned station WFLA-TV in Tampa, Florida in the early 2000s, a new format came into use; these programs used the structure of a traditional locally produced daytime show with its usual format of light talk, health features, beauty tips and recipe segments (which were popular from the early 1970s up to the early 1990s, when expanding local newscasts became a much less expensive, more dependable form of revenue). Some of these shows, such as ABC affiliate WKBW-TV's long-running 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 stay-at-home female audience, followed by presentations of various 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; a chiropractor (or other medical professional) might discuss back pain or other health-related issues, and provide contact information for his/her practice. 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 30-second pre-recorded commercial, or the minute-long slots which have a short demonstration of the product and an offer prevalent during early evening programming.
Although 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 (while still familiar with the station's viewers) 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.
Other broadcasters as have adopted the model are:
Traditional infomercial marketers (for example, Guthy-Renker, Beachbody, and Telebrands) 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. Telebrands's process of bringing a product to the air and to market was seen in the 2009 Discovery Channel series PitchMen, which featured Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan, along with the top executives of Telebrands.
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.
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 or 120 seconds; five minutes; or 28 minutes and 30 seconds). Infomercials have spread to other countries from the U.S. 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 United States have been taken into international distribution on television. In addition, 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, 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.
Research has been conducted on consumer perceptions of infomercials. Agee and Martin (2001) found that infomercial purchases involved some degree of planning rather than being purely impulse purchases. Aspects of advertising content also influenced whether the purchase decision was impulsive or planned. Martin, Bhimy and Agee (2002) studied the use of advertising content such as the use of testimonials and consumer characteristics. Based on a survey of 878 people who had bought products after viewing infomercials, they found that infomercials were more effective if they used expert comments, testimonials, product demonstrations, and other approaches. Consumer age and product type also influenced perceived effectiveness.
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