But Wait…There’s More
by Remy Stern
Operators Are Standing By
Many people probably find the idea of an infomercial screenwriter a joke, much like the idea of an infomercial awards show. (Yes, there really is one. It’s held every fall in Las Vegas.) Yet the words that are used can be critically important to an infomercial’s success. Good scripts can sell lousy products, but even an appealing product may have trouble finding customers if the sales pitch hasn’t been formulated properly. And every word counts: Greg Renker pointed out that his infomercials always say “when you call,” not “if you call.” The nuance matters. It suggests the viewer will call—it’s merely a matter of time.
When I meet Colleen Szot, I’m instantly reminded of Frances McDormand’s character in the 1996 movie Fargo. There’s the accent: Colleen is from Minnesota. And she’s unfailingly polite and cheerful. But just like McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, don’t let the kindly exterior fool you into thinking she’s a pushover—she’s a shark. One of the most popular infomercial screenwriters, Colleen knows just what to say to manipulate drowsy, impressionable Americans to get off the couch and head to the phone.
Ever hear the line “If the lines are busy, please call back”? Then you’re familiar with Colleen’s work. Amusingly, she didn’t come up with the line because, in fact, the lines were actually busy. She just knew that the mere suggestion of a rush of callers would send people scurrying to the phone. But she also can play with the heartstrings, too. One of her other famous TV phrases is “Make the call that can make the difference,” which has stirred the guilty conscious of more than a few Americans.
Colleen has a big grin on her face when we meet, although I’d soon discover she’s incapable of not smiling. That’s just the sort of cheery person she is. She looks like a mom you’d find in any small town in America: she’s in her fifties and dressed in a colorful embroidered shirt, and when we meet, she takes a moment to introduce me to her husband, a high school teacher.
So how does one become an infomercial screenwriter, I ask as we sit down to chat. Colleen spent her early career as an ad copywriter in Chicago before moving back to the Twin Cities. It was in the late 1970s when she started writing direct response pitches, penning ads for Oral Roberts’s evangelical ministry, which was a surprisingly good place to learn the ropes. Before 1984, televangelists were exempt from the restrictions on paid programming and had developed savvy tactics to solicit contributions. After infomercials reemerged from their twenty-year hiatus, Colleen cut her teeth penning infomercials for the NordicTrack exercise machine in the 1990s, which remains one of the most successful campaigns of all time. Since then, she’s crafted the scripts for the George Foreman Grill, Tony Little’s Gazelle Glider, Turtle Wax, Hooked on Phonics, and many, many more.
As Colleen explains it, an infomercial has to build momentum right up to the “call to action” (or CTA), the moment when viewers are directed to the phone. Much like the live pitch of a generation ago, it has to build to a crescendo. Unlike a county fair, though, Colleen is fighting inertia. It’s two o’clock in the morning. People are tired. She has to generate the sort of language that will inspire a person to leap off the couch and head to the phone. It’s no easy task.
Colleen’s first step, though, is familiarizing herself with the product. “I write for me,” she tells me, explaining that if she can’t really understand or relate to the product, she turns down the work. She’s avoided working on infomercials for stock trading programs and real estate courses. And she steers clear of products that seem suspicious. When a company asked her to write the script for a powder that you were supposed to sprinkle over your food to reduce the food’s caloric content, she told them the product was “bullshit.”
When she does take on a project, she crafts the all-important call to action first. She then works on the rest of the script, fine tuning it to eliminate any language that might invite doubt or suspicion, and eliminating what she calls “ear stumblers,” phrases that might encourage a viewer to stop for a moment and think. She’s reeling a customer into a dreamlike world. Pick the wrong word or phrase and it’s tantamount to a shockingly loud noise when you’re sleeping peacefully. It can instantly turn a viewer off
Glamorous work it is not, but Colleen earns satisfaction from knowing precisely how she performed. When Colleen worked for an ad agency, she had no idea how she did. Someone who writes a thirty-second Pepsi commercial has no idea if the ad he or she created influenced anyone to pick up one soft drink or another. Colleen can tell almost instantly if her work paid off. “It feels really good when the phones ring and the orders come rushing in,” she says. Of course, the tidy paychecks don’t hurt either. Colleen charges a cool $15,000 to write up a half-hour infomercial. And if you want her to make revisions or stand on the set during the shoot and help the hosts deliver their lines, you’ll pay thousands more. But she’s quick to point out that she’s worth every penny. She takes credit for honing Tony Little’s sales pitch for QVC in the late 1990s when he ended up breaking the network’s record at the time, ringing up $50,000 a minute in sales.