For those insomniacs who've found themselves sitting in front of the television at 3 a.m. on more than one occasion, infomercials are entertainment staples. Even if you regularly sleep through the night, you're sure to have caught one of these half-hour or hour-long sales pitches at one time or another.
Who can forget hawkers like Billy Mays (OxiClean), Ron Popeil (Showtime Rotisserie), Matthew Lesko (Free Money) and Billy Blanks (Tae Bo) trying to sell us a cleaner home or a more toned body? These infomercial stars have become celebrities of sorts, as recognizable as the actors in TV shows.
And who can forget those famous pitch lines? "But wait! There's more!" "Call right now and we'll double your order!" Infomercials may make us chuckle, but they bring in some serious bucks -- an estimated $91 billion in sales each year [source: Larson].
HowStuffWorks has compiled a list of the 10 most memorable (and sometimes most outrageous) infomercials of all time. (To be honest, some of these are more like long commercials, but the lines have blurred so much these days it's hard to tell the difference.)
So have your credit card ready, and read now!
Ginsu Steak Knives
When the Ginsu infomercial premiered in the late '70s, audiences were entranced by the miraculous Japanese knife that could cut through a tin can then slice through a ripe tomato like butter. But Ginsu wasn't miraculous. It wasn't even Japanese. It was instead the brainchild of marketing whizzes Ed Valenti and Barry Becher, who were trying to increase sales of an ordinary kitchen knife called Eversharp. They changed the name to "Ginsu," added a Japanese chef to the infomercial and launched a television icon. Years later, Valenti proclaimed Ginsu his "greatest advertising success" [source: Associated Press]. The Ginsu infomercial was even parodied in John Belushi's Samurai Deli on "Saturday Night Live."
Jack LaLanne Power Juicer
When an eternally youthful fitness guru promises that you'll look and feel younger just by squeezing some fruits and vegetables into a glass -- you listen. After all, this is Jack LaLanne, the guy who launched the fitness movement in the United States by flexing his carefully toned pecs on the very first TV workout show in the 1950s. This is also the guy who, to celebrate his 70th birthday, swam a mile (1.6 kilometers) while pulling 70 boats carrying 70 people [source: NNDB]. Now in his 90s, he's still active -- at least on late-night TV. Proving that he's still got it, LaLanne has sold more than 1 million of his Power Juicers [Business Week].
Who hasn't grappled with the baffling question of how to keep warm while watching TV, yet still keep one's hands free to man the remote? Thank goodness an oversized fleece blanket with sleeves came along in 2008 to solve this perplexing problem. (Actually, another company put out a similar product called the Slanket in 1998, but it never garnered the same cult following.) Never mind that everyone in the commercial looks like red-cloaked monks, the Snuggie is selling like hotcakes. It has become something of a pop culture phenomenon -- the fodder of Internet blogs, YouTube parodies and late-night TV comedy routines. Even the "Today" show's Al Roker, Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira cozied up for the camera in their Snuggies. All of this attention has helped sell 4 million of the blankets [source: Salkin]. That should keep the Snuggie's manufacturer warm for years to come.
Miss Cleo's Psychic Hotline
The questionable psychic with the dubious Jamaican accent was queen of the infomercial circuit back in the late 1990s, when she enticed viewers to call her 900 number and pay $4.99 a minute for a glimpse of their future. Her seemingly exotic persona and offers of a "free readin'" generated plenty of calls, until the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Florida's attorney general cracked down on the hotline's owner, Access Resource Services, for making false advertising claims. After paying $500 million back to customers and forking over a $5 million fine to the FTC, the psychic hotline was out of business. But who was Miss Cleo really? Investigators uncovered a birth certificate revealing that this supposed shaman from the Caribbean was actually actress Youree Dell Harris, born in the far less exotic locale of Los Angeles, Calif. [source: The Smoking Gun]. Wonder whether Miss Cleo ever predicted how far she'd fall?
Sweating to the Oldies
Workout guru Richard Simmons was a formerly overweight kid who lost more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) and decided to use his success to cheerlead the rest of the country into its skinny jeans. In the mid-1980s, he capitalized on the idea that many big-boned Americans were sick of seeing waiflike models in their exercise videos and were tired of trying to keep up with grueling workout regimens. So Simmons donned his signature tank top and short shorts, surrounded himself with a group of zaftig exercisers and created a program that was both easy to follow and featured songs grandma could dance to. He sweated his way straight to infomercial gold, selling more than 20 million copies of his workout videos [source: Richard Simmons.com].
Tony Little's Gazelle
The sight of muscle-bound, ponytailed fitness pro Tony Little trotting away on his Gazelle and screaming about how much he was working his "but-tocks!" in this 2001 infomercial definitely raised some eyebrows. But when Tony mounted the Gazelle behind Darla Haun and started riding with her to prove the machine could hold both their weights, this infomercial started to look a lot like a soft-core porn video. The close-up shots of women's behinds in tight workout shorts and men's naked torsos only added to the image. Whether it was because of the sexy come-on, or the screaming chants of "Yeah baby," Tony had our attention.
You've got to love the storyline of the Magic Bullet infomercial: A couple, Mick and Mimi, invite a few friends over for a party. The next morning, they all gather in the kitchen (which looks suspiciously like a television studio) for breakfast. Their friend Berman staggers in hungover, wearing last night's clothes. A frumpy woman in a housedress named Hazel shuffles in with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.
Mick and Mimi are surprisingly perky, considering the state of their guests. They proceed to entertain their friends with the wonders of a tiny, bullet-shaped food processor called the Magic Bullet. While the guests look on in utter amazement and delight, the Magic Bullet whips smoothies, grinds coffee, mixes muffins and scrambles omelets -- and that's just the appetizer. Every dish is perfectly prepared in just 10 seconds or less. Sounds too good to be true, but millions bought the message. The $60 Magic Bullet brought in nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in sales in just over a year. The infomercial has been translated into dozens of languages and has been sold in 60 different countries [source: Hopkins].
Stop the Insanity!
With her blonde hair cut shorter than a drill sergeant's, and her throaty yell urging everyone to "Stop the insanity!" Susan Powter became an infomercial icon. Dubbed the "Lenny Bruce of Wellness," Powter ranted against the ills of dieting and urged us that there were no fat people -- just unfit people who maybe had a little extra around the middle. After her reign in the early 1990s, Susan disappeared from the radar, but today this diet and fitness guru is back. She's still got the spiky do, but the message has been toned down a bit. Instead of stopping the insanity, now Powter just wants us to "Eat, breathe, move and think." Sounds pretty easy.
After five years of playing the ditzy Chrissy Snow on "Three's Company," followed by a few lesser-known roles, it looked like Suzanne Somers' career had come to a crashing halt. Then along came the infamous infomercial with the famous shot of Somers sitting on a couch, squeezing a butterfly-shaped exercise device between her thighs. The spot had men salivating and women reaching for their purses. Though the ThighMaster became major fodder for late-night talk show hosts (David Letterman featured it on one of his "Top 10" lists), Somers had the last laugh, selling some 10 million ThighMasters in 120 countries around the world [sources: Piccalo and McGinn]. She turned her infomercial run into a veritable empire, churning out 300 different products, including jewelry, skin care items and clothing. Who knew Chrissy would turn out to be such a brilliant businesswoman?
Ronco GLH Formula #9 Spray-on Hair
There's nothing funny about going bald (as anyone who's experienced it will probably attest), but when the hair replacement comes out of a spray can, things get downright hilarious. Infomercial king Ron Popeil (who also brought us such notable products as the Pocket Fisherman and Veg-O-Matic) hosted this spot for GLH Formula #9, which supposedly restores the appearance of a full head of hair with just a few quick sprays. To prove it, Popeil pulled a few hair-impaired people randomly from the audience, and suddenly their bald spots were -- well, covered in spray paint. Is it really a surprise that Popeil's former company, Ronco, went bankrupt in 2007?
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More Great Links
- Christian, Margena A. "Where Is…Miss Cleo?" Jet. Jan. 7, 2008. Volume 112, Issue 26, pgs. 38-39.
- Christopher, Kevin. "'Miss Cleo' Settles with the Federal Trade Commission." The Skeptical Inquirer, Mar/Apr 2003, Vol. 27, Iss. 2, pg. 8.
- "Does Magic Bullet Live Up To Its Infomercial?" The Denver Channel. Feb. 25, 2005. http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/4234089/detail.html
- Ginsu Steak Knife ad. YouTube.com. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abLB7aTmnE4
- Hopkins, Brent. "Blending Up an Infomercial Success." Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. Nov. 8, 2005, pg. 1.
- Jack LaLanne Power Juicer ad. YouTube.com http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMqemXx1e9M
- Hyman, Mark. "Think You Could Do This at 89?; Granddaddy of Fitness Jack LaLanne is Flexing for a Whole New Audience." BusinessWeek May 31, 2004, pg. 88.
- Larsen, John. "From the Inside Out." MSNBC. Sept. 15, 2006. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14856571/
- Lipka, Mitch. "'Jamaican' Miss Cleo is really from Los Angeles, state claims." Sun Sentinel. March 14, 2002. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/palmbeach/sfl-031402-miss-cleo-psychic,0,6105488.story
- Magic Bullet infomercial. YouTube.com http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtpKjgwi4Sc
- McGinn, Dan. "How We Did It: Building a one-woman market niche." Boston. March 2006, Volume 28, Issue 3, pgs. 108-111.
- Newman, Andrew Adam. "Snuggie Rode Silly Ads to Stardom Over Rivals." The New York Times. Feb. 27, 2009, pg. B.6.
- NNDB. Jack LaLanne. http://www.nndb.com/people/697/000022631/
- Piccalo, Gina. "The Unsinkable Suzanne Somers." Los Angeles Times. Feb. 4, 2007, pg. I.12.
- "Rhode Island May Honor Ginsu Knife with Roadway." Associated Press. Feb. 22, 2008. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,331888,00.html
- Richardsimmons.com. "A Biography of Richard Simmons." http://www.richardsimmons.com/j15/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=15&Itemid=35
- Salkin, Allen. "Snuggie on the Street: Watch Your Back." The New York Times. Feb. 27, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/01/fashion/01snuggie.html
- Scott, Julia M. "Ronco, of infomercial fame, going bankrupt." Knight Ridder Tribune BusinessNews. June 19, 2007, pg. 1
- The Snuggie ad. YouTube.com. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xZp-GLMMJ0
- "Susan Powter. The Politics of Stupid: The Cure for Obesity." PR Newswire. April 15, 2008.