Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
I have a bad history with salesmen. When I was a freshman in college, I went to a cookware demonstration in a friend’s dorm, looking for free food, and by the end of the night I’d spent almost $200 on pots and pans. A few years later, I accompanied a buddy when he went to take a quick look at a car and ended up sitting for over an hour inside the dealership while my friend explained repeatedly that he couldn’t afford to buy anything and the salesman ignored him and kept “crunching the numbers.” Over the years, I’ve become so resistant to any kind of sales pressure that whenever I call about work we need done on our house, I always make it clear that all I want is a list of options and a price-quote. If anybody in a suit walks in and starts asking questions like, “Mr. Murray, if you could save 15 percent on your heating bills, wouldn’t you agree that was a good deal?” I shake his hand and show him to the door. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve done that at least twice just in the past five years.
And yet if I watch even one minute of an infomercial on TV, I tend to watch it all the way through. Intently, too. Infomercials aren’t neutral programming to me. They’re not something I can keep on in the background for white noise while I get some work done. As soon as I hear some schmoe-on-the-street talking about how he turned his life around thanks to a new diet program, or no-money-down real estate, or the porcelain kitty-cat figurines he sells at county fairs, I can’t help myself. I stick around for the payoff.
I’m not alone in this, I know. Whether we watch infomercials because we’re genuinely interested in the product or because we think it’s funny to see how shameless advertisers can be, the hook of the program itself remains the same. There’s a rhythm and a style to infomercials that can make a half-hour pitch go by in an eye-blink. Semi-celebrities and veteran hawkers alike use methods honed on the boardwalks and in the mercantile districts during the early industrial age, when salesmen first learned the art of the demonstration, the limited supply, the one-time-only special offer, and “the turn,” where they go from making their product sound indispensable to asking for the crowd to open their pocketbooks.
Remy Stern’s 2009 book But Wait… There’s More! covers the history of the infomercial, from the 1984 deregulation that allowed TV stations to sell blocks of airtime to advertisers to the outsized personalities both behind and in front of the cameras (and, inevitably, to the series of scandals that has at times threatened to shut the whole circus down). Stern opens with a pivotal figure: Ron Popeil, the scion of a whole family of inventors/salesmen, who first came to prominence in the ’60s with his commercials for the Veg-O-Matic. Popeil later took advantage of the infomercial age to sell his Showtime Rotisserie countertop cooker with ads that had him showing a studio audience all the different ways that this machine could cook a worry-free meal. All users had to do was pop in their roast, set the timer, and go on about their day. “Set it, and forget it.”
Stern also writes in But Wait about the infomercial industry’s habit of cannibalizing itself. When one company comes up with a successful product and/or pitch, other companies look for something similar that they can rush to market, to siphon off customers. And so the dead hours of the night and early morning are filled with competing ads for sleeved blankets, spot-removers, and decorating kits.
Out of all the infomercials I’ve seen over the years, the ones I’ve most often stuck around to watch are the pitches for the cookers: the Showtime Rotisserie, the Turbo Cooker, the FlavorWave Oven. I find get-rich-quick and get-thin-quick ads too depressing. (Though I did enjoy the “stop being a lame-o and start puttering around in motorboats with sexy ladies” spiel of Tom Vu in the early ’90s). Cooker ads, on the other hand, are more benign. Following the concept popularized by Popeil, the typical 30-minute ad for a kitchen gadget has two people standing around a crowded countertop, cooking meal after meal with a level of ease and creativity that’s entertaining in and of itself. It’s like watching a Food Network show on hyperdrive. Rather than Rachael Ray preparing three dishes in a half-hour, we see two relative unknowns preparing 15 or 20 dishes, rarely pausing to catch a breath.
Ron Popeil’s rotisserie infomercial began airing in 1998, and the Showtime Rotisserie quickly became one of the best-selling products in the history of televised marketing. In 2000, infomercial producers Stanley Jacobs Productions hooked up with the GT Merchandising & Licensing Corporation and chef/inventor Randall Cornfeld to pitch the Turbo Cooker, a device that can “steam-fry” a three-course meal in minutes, primarily by following the basic principles of a pressure-cooker and adding stackable trays. In 2002, the same team returned—represented again by infomercial host Joe Fowler and homey cook Cathy Mitchell—to sell the Turbo Cooker Plus, which added another tray and a portable timer. Their slogan? “When you turbo-time it, you don’t have to mind it.” Sound familiar?
In his 1970 advertising-world exposé Down The Tube, one-time ad-man Terry Galanoy describes the different psychological principles that the makers of TV commercials have banked on in the past, including the none-too-subtle appeal of the direct address:
Bill the Bartender would talk directly to the camera; the director was employing what is known as subjective camera technique, which is based on the assumption that the viewer will feel more involved if the action is directed straight at him with no middle man to get in the way. (The theory stinks. The technique was used by Robert Montgomery in Lady In The Lake, and it made the plot and the audience disappear.)
Over the years, infomercial producers have tried different gimmicks to hook viewers, usually by making their ads look like real TV programs: a fake talk show, a fake call-in show, a show about “amazing inventions,” et cetera. The Turbo Cooker Plus ad looks like a cooking show. After Joe Fowler and Cathy Mitchell greet each other like old friends, Joe asks Cathy what she’s going to be making for us today, and she launches into her whirlwind Turbo-Cooking session. The viewing audience at home gets a nod up top and occasionally in passing, but mainly we’re made to feel as if were peeking in at two acquaintances who haven’t seen each other since the Turbo Cooker commercial, and who are now catching up with each other via the latest recipes and cooking techniques. Unlike the Showtime Rotisserie ads, which feature a studio audience, Joe and Cathy only have each other and a brief cameo by “Chef Randall.” It’s all so intimate.
Throughout the demonstration, Joe and Cathy never mention the price of the product. Instead, following the typical structure of a cooking show, they break periodically for a commercial, which just happens to be an ad for the Turbo Cooker Plus. The commercial repeats almost verbatim throughout the half-hour, though it adds some detail and information each time. We learn more about how the steam cooks the food…
… and we find out about the bonus recipe cards and racks that will be coming our way if we order now. (This doesn’t happen in the Turbo Cooker Plus ad, but with other infomercials, the throw-in items are often products that used to be featured in their own infomercials. Et tu, Miracle Chopper?) Finally, the announcer explains that we can get the Turbo Cooker Plus for three easy payments of $29.95, but that if we order in the next hour, we’ll only have to make two payments. In Remy Stern’s But Wait, he tries to get to the bottom of the pricing and timing of infomercial “special offers,” and as you’d probably expect, none of these deals really expire after one hour, and none of these products costs more than the price of that first payment.
In between the Joe and Cathy segments and the commercial segments, the Turbo Cooker Plus ad fills space with testimonials from satisfied customers. Almost as much as the food, it’s the testimonials that draw me into ads like these. Either the casting agents and location scouts at Stanley Jacobs Productions are exceptionally good at their jobs, or they’ve tracked down actual Turbo Cooker fans. But the commercial’s little glimpses into ordinary people’s lives—even fake ordinary people—helps sell the story that this is a product that works. Does it work? I’ve read as many customer reviews as I could find of the Turbo Cooker and the Turbo Cooker Plus, and found them about evenly split between “This does what it promises!” “This is a cheap piece of crap that broke the first time I used it!” and “This works pretty well but you have to a lot more pre-cooking than they say in the commercial.” Whatever the truth, it makes for a convincing anecdote when a husband and wife tell the story of how he insisted on broiling his steak while she turbo-cooked hers.
The real question, though—more than whether the ad is persuasive or accurate—is whether it’s entertaining. In Down The Tube, Galnoy writes, “It used to take a minute to do a commercial successfully, then 40 seconds. Today, the average commercial with a full story is 30 seconds, and, before long, the 10-second commercial will be the complete communication.” He wasn’t wrong about that; ads are more compressed in some time-slots, and some ads are even designed so that a 30-second spot can reach someone who’s fast-forwarding through it in less than five seconds. And yet people still sit through half-hour infomercials, even when they have no intention of buying. Why?
In the case of the Turbo Cooker Plus ad, a large part of the appeal is the fantasy of owning a device that will allow a busy head-of-household to make a wide variety of healthy, delicious meals with a minimum of preparation. It’s like one of those old cartoons that imagined what “the home of the future” would be like. Now here, at last: our own foodarackacycle.
And then there’s the food itself, which Joe and Cathy transform in classic cooking-show fashion. They toss dry pasta, frozen meatballs, jarred sauce, and a tray of cold peas into one cooker; then they throw a raw fish into a cooker with a pan of brownie-batter; then they drop biscuit dough into cream-of-chicken soup. And then, minutes later, the big reveal: The brownies don’t taste like fish! The dumplings are fully cooked! (“And these were frozen! And this was frozen!” Joe says. “You’re breaking all the rules!”) If the average cooking show traffics in “food porn,” then the succession of low-cost, back-of-the-pantry meals unveiled in the Turbo Cooker Plus ad are like three copies of Juggs bundled together in a Valu-Pak.
As for the hosts, watching them carry themselves as though we should already know who they are—and then later watching them bring out Chef Randall for hearty congratulations, as though the whole world were talking about his latest invention—is disconcerting. Granted, both Fowler and Mitchell are quasi-familiar faces from other infomercials, but it’s an odd experience to have them presented to us as actual famous folk. The gambit of designing a commercial to be like a cooking show keeps the viewer on familiar ground, but the framing of the hosts piques our curiosity. Who are these people? If they’re behaving as though I already know them, then maybe I should know them.
Once we’re intrigued, all Cathy has to do is to keep talking nonstop about the meals she makes in the Turbo Cooker for her own family, and all Joe has to do is interrupt occasionally to taste the food and moan orgasmically while acting genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of recipe cards, healthy living, and flavor. (“I love spices!” he yelps.)
Frankly, it doesn’t take that much to overcome our skepticism. Most Americans have been wired by our culture to consume. As much as we may decry the commercialism of Christmas and complain about the hassles of shopping for distant cousins, most of us do still like to buy. That’s how salesmen find their way in. They ask the questions we can’t say “no” to, and make it easier for us to do what they know we enjoy: spending money. “Steam-frying,” you say? Less fat than the rotisserie? Saves space? Easy to clean? It makes so much sense! And look at everything it can do, from making breakfast to keeping desserts warm. As Stern writes in But Wait, “Demonstrating multiple uses of the same product raises the ‘perceived value’ of the product as you internalize all the ways you could possibly put the item to use.” Part of the fun of watching infomercials is seeing how far the ads travel in that direction. What’s the maximum amount of extras they can toss in? And how low can they drop the price?
Sure, it’s just an act. But knowing that a presentation has been designed to sway us doesn’t diminish the pleasure of being swayed. As Stern also writes, by way of describing the craft and legacy of pitchmen, “In the end, it’s just amusing to watch Chef Tony toss a pineapple in the air and then slice it in two with a Miracle Blade knife. People in Asbury Park gathered around to watch Arnold Morris cut into a cement block, too. We enjoy being sold to.”
It’s hard to quibble with that. Pitching is a kind of performing art, like stand-up comedy or dramatic recitation, and though its actual value to society may be minimal (or even detrimental), the skill itself is admirable. And it’s not the same as being pressured by a car salesman or Pampered Chef hostess, because there’s a distance between the seller and us. We can feel free to enjoy the show.
A few months ago, I was watching Turner Classic Movies on a late weekend night when the channel aired “Delicious Dishes,” a short film that ran in selected theaters in 1950. The film was designed to explain a promotion the theaters were running at the time: giving away one piece of cutlery each week to the ladies in attendance, and a complete set to ladies who showed up for 12 weeks straight.
What I found remarkable when I watched “Delicious Dishes” was how indistinguishable in structure and thrust in is from any modern “new kitchen breakthrough” infomercial. Yes, there’s an anachronistic “how to please your husband” tone, and yes, our host has a nasal voice not unlike a carnival barker. But as he’s working magic with potatoes, making suggestions for meals, and talking about how certain vegetable cuts “will not absorb the fat,” he’s not so different from any other pitchman making his product line look so innovative and reasonable that we’d be fools not to buy. After all, his knives are versatile, handy, and easy to clean. (They can probably even core a apple.) There’s comfort in that kind of cultural continuity. People in 1950 surely hated the hard sell as much as people do in 2010. And yet it’s hard to resist when a man with a table, a knife, and a stack of food hollers, “Step right up.”
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… The Tonight Show, 3/6/69