That Was Then, This Is Now

by Rick Petry on Nov 24, 2014 8:00:00 PM ER Magazine, DRTV

That Was Then, This Is NowInfomercial buyers are insomniac little old ladies who live in trailer parks and shop while wearing oversized hair curlers and eating bonbons, right? Not according to an independent study of infomercial buyers conducted by Cannella Response Television, Script to Screen, and M2 Marketing & Management Services. A survey of more than 1,500 infomercial buyer and nonbuyer respondents suggests that today’s infomercial purchasers skew younger than their TV-viewing, nonbuying counterparts, have higher household incomes, are more ethnically diverse, and are no more or less likely to be female. Which got me to wondering: Why is there a disparity between the prevailing stereotype and the reality portrayed in this study?

The modern-day infomercial was born in 1984, when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated television airtime. As the genre celebrates 30 years, it’s easy to forget that an entire generation of shoppers has grown up with paid programming as a television staple. These Millennials likely have no frame of reference for Saturday Night Live’s Super Bass-o-Matic ’76, Tom Vu and his sunbathing, bikini-clad babes, or the Sports Illustrated Sneaker Phone. Instead, they have fed off a steady diet of reality television and followed shameless, self-monetized celebutantes such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. If this demographic even knows what an infomercial is, it would probably reference the likes of P90X or Proactiv—successful, direct-marketed category leaders that know their consumers, enjoy strong word-of-mouth, and have reputations that equal any mainline advertised product.

This contrast is worth mentioning, because for those of us who have been around since the beginning, it’s easy to think that the rest of the world thinks like we do. “As an ad guy who worked on blue-chip brands prior to joining Cannella, I had the same bias a lot of people do,” Cannella President Tony Besasie admits. But the study has opened his eyes. “I realized that these consumers—who actually have higher household incomes than the average—have been buying on TV and online their entire lives. For them, it’s just another channel. They don’t have the fears about executing a transaction online, for example, that an older generation might have.”

And the data seems to bolster his position. Take, for example, the notion that infomercials are the domain of schlocky products. More than half of infomercial buyers surveyed (54 percent) indicated they were very satisfied with their purchase, and even more (57 percent) indicated they were satisfied with the purchase experience. This is significant, because with second screens at the ready, consumers are in a position not only to shop, but also to spread the word about their experiences via social media. Infomercial purchasers’ smartphone ownership stands at 80 percent penetration compared to 58 percent for nonpurchasers, and tablet ownership for “As Seen On TV” buyers is a robust 65 percent, compared to an anemic 40 percent for nonbuyers. Some 27 percent of purchasers report they share their product experiences via social media; it’s just 18 percent among nonbuyers. As for the idea that word-of-mouth is the best advertising, the study gives good support as to why the adage has endured: 75 percent of buyers indicate they weigh in on their experience through conversation.

The conclusion? It’s time the industry knocks the chip off its shoulder and stands tall. As my mother once said to me, “When I tell people what you do for a living, well, they don’t like infomercials.” This was hardly a news flash, Ma, even when you said it 15 years ago. But that was then, and this is now. Infomercials have matured and become more sophisticated. Bad actors are getting pushed to the margins by negative online reviews that accelerate across the Web with a speed and Darwinist effect that no regulatory body can keep up with. Brand marketers dabbling in the genre should recognize that today’s buyer is the same youthful, affluent buyer they seek. Combine the infomercial format’s ability to educate consumers with remnant-like media rates, and you have an unbeatable combination. Why should we let a poor, outdated self-image hold our industry back? Especially when what is staring us in the mirror is a thing of beauty. I haven’t worn oversized curlers in years, and apparently neither has the typical infomercial buyer. Who knew?

Rick Petry is a freelance writer who specializes in direct marketing and is a past chairman of ERA. Note: This article also appears in the November issue of Electronic Retailer magazine.

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