No Extra Charge

The dubious art of infomercials.

One day last week, pulling a late shift in front of the screen, I journeyed to the bottom of the night to watch half-hour infomercials bait and coax and rally. My guide was Remy Stern’s But Wait … There’s More!, a new book, modest but worthy, subtitled Tighten Your Abs, Make Millions, and Learn How the $100 Billion Infomerical Industry Sold Us Everything But the Kitchen Sink. My hope was to sight a salesman half as deft as Billy Mays, the co-star of Pitchmen (Discovery, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET), a catchy new reality show about direct-response marketing. At 4 a.m. the TV set pulsed like a bazaar. They begged telling me not to touch that dial, but I couldn’t keep my hands off it.

A pair of blondes guaranteed outright that I could get rich quick in real estate, leaving implicit the promise that I could then gain admittance to the pool party from which they reported. An Argenus air sterilizer, like J. Crew pants, came in blue, khaki, and espresso. Christie Brinkley’s smile tugged her toned body in one direction and Total Gym’s Resistance Workout product stretched it in another. On a talk-show set plagiarized from Larry King sat a spokesman for Supple, a vitamin-rich snack beverage described as a remedy for all human misery; required by the FDA to provide some disclosure, the spokesman held up his fingers to put air quotes around the words research and studies, continuing, “The medical community does not accept it as ‘legitimate.’ ” An ad placed on the Golf Channel sold a putter that, in a schematic illustration, looked like a cross between a five-blade razor and a Volvo C70.

The most repellent ad found a Christian-Jewish alliance asking for $25, ostensibly to alleviate epic suffering in Uzbekistan. Depicting a wailing toothless granny, it implored me to buy her a Passover meal complete with unleavened bread, a bottle of wine, and a family-sized bottle of vegetable oil (for latkes). The presentation, what with the file footage of Nazis and all, was epically cynical and exploitative, but that’s not all. Most horrifying was the realization that the infomercials people were threatening to make the Uzbeks—already distressed—endure the further agony of the mouth-feel of gefilte fish.

Most of these infomercials were labeled “Paid Programming” in the cable guide, but a Spanish-language ad for an ESL product popped up as “Programa Pagado.” “¡Es muy fácil!” The product will teach you how to make appropriate dinner conversation with a special new friend:

A (male): Do you like french fries?
B (female): I love them.
A: Do you like tomato?
B: I don’t like tomato.
A: What do you prefer?
B: I prefer black beans.
A: I pay the bill today.
B: OK, Bob, thank you.

Some of the infomercials had actual titles, the better to foster the misimpression that they were actual entertainment, as opposed to advertising-as-entertainment. There’s a Relieve Back Pain, a Look Thinner Instantly. The best title is the perfectly circular Is Colon Detox Hype? That’s exactly the wrong question. The special hype of the infomercial is the whole reason the audience is here.

Diagramming the business in But Wait … There’s More, Stern toggles between writing as a dispassionate historian and as a zealous aficionado. On the one hand, he details how American history and direct-response TV have shaped each other, noting that the FCC opened the door to half-hour commercials in 1984 by abolishing a rule preventing broadcasters from scheduling more than 16 minutes of advertising per hour. While the fact of Reagan-era deregulation should surprise no one, Stern does perk up the eyebrows by mentioning that Al Eicoff—a founding father of the industry, a pioneer in appealing to half-conscious consumers in the wee hours—worked with AT&T to invent the 800 number.

Beyond presenting a profile-o-matic of Ron Popeil and insightfully loitering around the studio of a home-shopping network, Stern sketches such industry figures as Colleen Szot, who has written half-hour ads for the George Foreman Grill, NordicTrack, and Turtle Wax and who will write one for you, too, if you can cough up $15,000. But we meet the likes of Szot and actress Forbes Riley—”described as ‘the Julia Roberts of the infomercial industry’ “—all too briefly, leading me to hope that Stern will be shipping readers an expanded edition at no additional charge.

In his role as a fan, Stern appreciates both the canned camp of a sales pitch and the performance art of the shill. His introductory confession of a youthful purchase of a Ronco Automatic Pasta Maker melts with his cultural analysis a couple of chapters later. “We enjoy being sold to,” he writes. When the average infomercial shopper (who earns $51,000 a year) picks up that phone, he is choosing a Slanket over a Snuggie, yes, but also, maybe even half-consciously, voting for the sales routine itself, as if the Slanket ad were an endearing American Idol contestant.

This is a component of consumer psychology that Pitchmen amusingly reflects and exploits. The show is partly a behind-the-scenes documentary, partly a reality-TV competition, partly a promotion for hosts Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan. Those parts are indivisible and indistinguishable, as befits a tribute to an artifact that reconstructs advertising as entertainment, treats all viewing as browsing, and sees development and marketing as a unified process.

Pitchmen, like every infomercial product, is selling self-actualization. In the pilot, Mays (the bristly face and whamming voice of OxiClean) and Sullivan (of Swivel Sweeper fame) share management duties and production responsibilities—and get a cut of the profits—as two likeable people bring their gadgets from the garage to the airwaves. The frenetic one, Matt, literally bets his house on the success of shock-absorbent shoe insoles. The even-tempered oldster, two-time cancer survivor James, yearns to test the marketability of a plastic muglike device designed to make mounting a GPS screen less annoying.

In considering these projects, Mays and Sullivan place above all the importance of “the wow demo”—a product demonstration to excite the eyes and knock off the socks. As you might imagine, it is, spoiler alert, difficult to make plastic mug look sexy. James gets a dignified trip back over the horizon, and a choked-up Matt wraps the episode up by reminding viewers, “You can never ever quit.” The self-actualized twinkle in his eye was a pure product of a special place where everyone’s always selling himself.