If you live under a bridge or don't own a television, you probably don't know what an informercial is. An infomercial is a form of television commercial, which generally includes a phone number or website. Most often used as a form of direct response television, long-form infomercials are typically 28:30 or 58:30 minutes in length. Like many other things, because the term “infomerical” has negative connotations in some people's minds, sponsors like to call them “paid programming”, of if you live in Europe “teleshopping.”
In the United States, back in the old days, they were usually shown between 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., but by 2009 most infomercials were being shown during the early morning, daytime and evening hours. If you subscribe to cable TV there are entire channels devoted to nothing else. Infomercials often resemble standard television programs or talk shows. Sometimes the products are sold in retail stores while other items are advertised as "not sold in stores." Sometimes though drug stores have a “As Seen on TV” section that sells the product, but you won't get two products or for the price of one nor do they throw in any extra “free” products. Of course you don't have yo “just pay the shipping” charge either which more that enough to pay for the extra junk.
Many traditional infomercial producers make use of flashy catchphrases, repeat basic ideas, or employ scientist-like characters or celebrities as hosts in their ad and frequently offers are for a limited time and the claim is that if you don't buy NOW, you'll miss out. If you do, don't worry though; they will repeat the same ad after a brief time interval.
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.
It is claimed that the first infomercial appeared in 1949 or 1950, for a blender. Accounts vary on whether this was for a VitaMix blender as claimed by Vitamix or from Waring Blenders as claimed in various online sources.
Eventually, limits imposed by the Federal Communications Commission on the amount of advertising that could appear during an hour of television forced sponsors to curtail their use. Infomercials proliferated like rabbits after 1984 when the FCC eliminated regulations that were established in the 1950s and 1960s to govern the commercial content of television. They exploded in the mid-1990s with motivational and personal development products, and get-rich-quick schemes which claimed you could quickly become wealthy by either selling anything through classified ads or through real estate sales. 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.
Some religious snake oil salesmen have also jumped on the bandwagon and began hawking their “religion” by buying time from infomercial brokers. In fact, the vast majority of religious programming in the United States is distributed through paid infomercial time. The fees that televangelists pay are a major revenue stream for both the stations and the televangelists who tell folks, “Send me your money and God will make you rich.” Because infomercials often make outlandish claims, most stations run disclaimers stating that the program is a paid advertisement and they are not responsible for viewers getting fleeced. I wish they would do the same for televangelists. Political candidates are not adverse to purchasing prime-time slots for their own take on infomercials either. Like all infomercials they content is often full of outlandish claims. Children's programs also are disguised infomercials where kids are targeted in an attempt to get them to pester parents to but products. Infomercials sometimes appear as talk shows that target stay-at-home female audiences and try to entice them to buy products, services, stuff related to health issues, etc.
So, what are the best selling infomercials ever? I remember early TV programming that promised you could get rich raising chinchillas in you garage. See my post Raising Chinchillas for Fun and Profit.
And, of course, who can forget Wham-O toys and Ron Popiel's amazing products?
The best-selling infomercial products aren't any of that stuff. It appears to be the best sellers are products that will get you fit with a great looking body in only minutes a day. So, what are they? Here's the list of the top ten:
1. Proactiv — Annual Revenue: $1 billion.
This stuff gets rid of pimples. The celebrities who endorse this stuff are reportedly paid $2 million-plus. I'd do it for half that!
2. P90X — Annual Revenue: $400 million.
This contraption is a body builder...mostly for your abs, I think.
3. Total Gym — Total Sales: $1 billion.
Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley really love theirs. The price is steep, but the company offers an easy payment plan and if it doesn't make you look like Chuck or Christie, they have a money back guarantee.
4. George Foreman Grill — Annual Revenue: $202 million.
Former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman invented this. Seriously, I doubt that...I think he let them use his name. OK, I admit it...I have one. It works pretty good, too, except with all the grease draining off as things cooked it left stuff dry as a bone. Healthy, but not much taste. It got hidden away in a kitchen cabinet somewhere. At least I think it's still there.
5. Bowflex — Annual Revenue: $193.9 million.
This thing has been around since 1986 so 2.5 million Americans have one sitting in their basements or garages. There are no statistics on how many of those 2.5 million people actually use theirs.
6. Showtime Rotisserie — Total Sales: $1.2 billion.
This item roasts chickens and other meats for a perfect, delicious and healthy meal. They allow all the fat to drain off or something. Probably purchased by the same health nuts who bought a Bowflex or, possibly, by those who upgraded from a George Foreman.
7. Ped Egg — Total Sales: Approximately $450 million.
40 million people bought this foot grinder which is something like a cheese grater that scrapes the dead skin off of your feet.
8. Snuggie — Total Sales: Approximately $400 million.
This is a body bag that keeps you warm while watching infomercials on TV. At our house we just use a blanket that stays folded up on the back of the couch.
9. Sweatin’ to the Oldies — Total Sales: Approximately $200 million.
Richard Simmons sold 20 million copies of this aerobics program “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.”
10. ThighMaster — Total Sales: $100 million.
Marketed by tobacco fortune heir Joshua Reynolds this product's infomercials featured Suzanne Somers and was a real marvel. You could tone your hips, thighs, butt, arms, and chest by squeezing this thing between your knees, elbows, etc. all while watching television.