It's a good bet you've seen at least part of an infomercial and probably parts of more infomercials than you care to remember.
Referred to simply as "paid programming" in TV listings, the half-hour shows come in many formats, often with a celebrity host and studio audience, and typically laced with real-people testimonials.
Though you may never have actually watched an infomercial in its entirety or even considered making a phone order to that 800 number flashing on the TV screen, you've glimpsed what some industry insiders say is the wave of the marketing future.
One thing's for sure: Any infomercial that makes it on the air has been crafted, produced and thoroughly test-marketed with one goal in mind -- to induce you to buy.
And many people do.
An estimated $860 million was spent on infomercial products and services in 1992, and that's just money generated from direct phone and mail orders, not retail sales that may have resulted from infomercials.
An infomercial is designed to fuel your buying impulse, which often runs independently of reason.
"That's why so many infomercial products are similar in category," said Greg Renker, co-president of Guthy-Renker Corp., a California infomercial maker. "Weight loss pushes emotional buttons. So do cosmetics and skin care."
Another factor at work is that infomercials usually air at off-hours when there are few distractions for viewers and "their defenses are down. You can almost hypnotize them," Mr. Renker said.
Infomercial makers are generally careful with their claims, but they never lose sight of their goal, which is to sell. They use familiar entertainment formats, which often includes celebrities -- "channel stoppers" as they're known in the trade -- because they want to hold your interest. They get real people to use products and give testimonials.
Then again, an advertiser isn't going to show you someone who doesn't like the product. Celebrities are well compensated for their appearances. And those enthusiastic audience members you see likely have been paid and fed for their services. The "Amazing Discoveries" infomercials that pitch a variety of products get their audiences from a casting service.
All this doesn't mean that what's being pitched isn't worthy of consideration. Just don't forget the basic rules of shopping: Avoid buying on impulse. Be skeptical of outlandish claims. Ask yourself if you really need the product or service.
If you want more information about the product, the National Infomercial Marketing Association (NIMA) suggests requesting written material from the company when you call the 800 number. For any product costing more than $15, you can request a copy of its warranty, so you can make a determination before ordering the product itself.
If you're getting into a "continuity program" where the company is going to continue sending you products, such as cosmetics or vitamins, be sure to find out if you're obligated to buy a certain amount, and that you fully understand how you can cancel participation.
Responsible infomercial makers, and there are many, would agree with such cautions. Aware of the need to improve their image, most have coalesced under the 3-year-old NIMA. About 90 percent of the infomercials on TV are made by NIMA members, executive director Helene Blake says.
Ms. Blake suggested that viewers unsure about any infomercial can contact NIMA at 1201 New York Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005, or call (202) 962-8342. The watchdog group will disclose if the infomercial maker is a NIMA member and follows its guidelines.
NIMA guidelines require that the infomercial identify itself as paid programming before and after the show, and before any display of an 800 number asking you to order. It strongly suggests a money-back guarantee offer, typically a 30-day period during which you can return the product and get your money back, less shipping and handling.
Industry insiders say the vast majority of products and services pitched on infomercials are high quality and high value. The business was spawned by a 1984 FCC ruling that lifted the 12-minute-per-hour limit on TV commercials.
"We feel we've come a long way," said NIMA's Ms. Blake. She said in the last six months she has received calls from "every major advertising agency in the country" expressing interest in the medium.
Barry Cutler, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection for the Federal Trade Commission, agreed that the quality of infomercials has improved greatly in the past few years, though "there are still some troublesome infomercials out there, and we're going after them."
In April the FTC charged that David Del Dotto's "Cash Flow System" infomercials misrepresented themselves as
independent programs rather than paid advertising and that several claims made within the shows were false or misleading. In March the FTC cited four other infomercials, "including one purporting to cure breast cancer and another that supposedly eliminates cellulite."
Mr. Cutler said the jury is still out on whether the infomercial will move into the marketing mainstream.
Steve Dworman, publisher of the Los Angeles-based Infomercial Marketing Report, said infomercials defy traditional logic. "Even infomercials with good ratings don't necessarily generate big orders. A 'Playboy Secrets of Making Love' infomercial ran opposite Arsenio Hall and beat him with a 17 share. It resulted in no more orders than when it aired the following night at 3 in the morning with virtually no audience."
TOP 10 INFOMERCIALS
1. "Stop the Insanity"; Susan Powter; diet & fitness tapes; $80.
2. "Target Training System"; Mike Levey and Tony Little, Amazing Discoveries"; fitness videos; $40.
3. "Psychic Friends"; Dionne Warwick; 900 number; $3.95 per minute.
4. "Beauty Breakthroughs"; Lori Davis and Cher; Hair-care products; $40.
5. "Putt To Win"; Fran Tarkenton; stand-up golf putter and instructional video; $90.
6. "Personal Power No. 4"; Tony Robbins; audio tape self-improvement course; $180.
7. "Firmflex"; Jake Steinfeld; exercise machine; $150.
8. "McDougall Plan"; Dr. John McDougall; audio-video tape self-improvement course; $150.
9. "ProForm Crosswalk"; Peggy Fleming; exercise machine; $600.
10. "Flying Lure"; Jim Caldwell; fishing lures; $40.
Source: Infomercial Marketing Report, measured by number of airings, week of April 25, 1993. Prices are approximate.