Is it the Product, or the Producer?

By Bridget McCrea, Response Magazine

Marketers look for salvation in creative, but can high production values cover up flawed merchandise?

Colleen Szot recently found herself at home, sitting down to watch an infomercial she had scripted. Produced by Randy Argue, the 30-minute show was for First Bank of Marin's "Take Charge" program, a customized, secured credit card that also helps users take charge of their finances and get back on track financially. As Szot, president of Colleen Szot Wonderful Writer, LLC, Minneapolis, Minn., watched the fruits of her labors come to life on the TV screen, her husband walked in, took in an eyeful of the show, then turned to her and said, "What is this? A TV special about credit?" His comment made Szot's day. "I was so happy to hear him say that because we'd written the show to look just like a TV show, and it was filled with information," says Szot. "Here was my husband saying we had succeeded at our goal."

Tracking an increasingly educated consumer

While not every infomercial these days is neatly cloaked in an information-packed wrapper, marketers and producers are taking new and different tacks to get through to a world full of consumers who are becoming more and more immune to advertising by the day.

An increasing number of marketers are turning to short-form spots, then they're using that feedback to structure their long form, according to Szot.

"People aren't as ready to jump in headfirst to DRTV like in years past," she says. "More of them are doing their homework first, and that's a good thing." According to Szot, the viewers themselves are more discriminating now than in years past. "They've seen it all, so you have to add new bells and whistles to get their attention and to get the phones to ring," she says. Barbara Kerry, chairman of Santa Ana, California-based Script to Screen, says that although infomercial production costs haven't escalated too much in recent years, there are not as many high-end infomercials in the $400,000 to $500,000 range being made as there were a few years ago.

"At the same time, we're not seeing as many inexpensive shows either," she adds. "Overall, people are realizing that it takes a bit more money to present their products in the kind of quality arena that they want it to be seen in."

Quantity, not quality?

According to Joan Renfrow, president of Los Angeles-based Onyx Productions Inc., more marketers who "come out of the woodwork" are seeking financing for their products.

"There are many who have products, but no financing, and who go out underfunded with very little media money," she says. "They don't have enough media; they forget what the word 'test' means; and they think products are going to get on the air for a week or two and generate enough profits to finance the rest of the media campaign. It doesn't work that way. The most successful products are the ones with a lot of media money behind them."

These marketers, Renfrow adds, spend a lot of money developing their product, but when it comes time to give it to the producer who will get it "out there" for them visually, the "scrunching" commences. As a cheaper alternative, marketers are turning to non-qualified, first-time infomercial producers.

"It's a struggle enough to get a product successful when you know all of the elements of a successful infomercial," she says. "What chance do you have when you [depend on] people who really don't understand the world of direct response and think you can just put a toll-free number on something to make it move?"

Renfrow adds that although airtime prices have come down in the last year, too many companies even the major ones don't put the money into a direct response infomercial that they would put into their 30-second ad. In fact, she's currently dealing with two companies that have spent oodles on print and image marketing but are now looking to squeeze in the DRTV category.

"They still don't believe in the medium, and I attribute this to their use of non-direct response ad agencies, which don't perceive DRTV as creative or as a medium that they really want to get involved in. Ad agencies make their money on media, and [most] don't even know how to buy DRTV media. To do it correctly they usually have to farm it out or form their own direct divisions, and most don't really want to do either."

Another of Renfrow's peeves is over-promising to consumers an issue that product marketers pick up on when returns start flowing in. Rick Petry, vice president of media for The Tyee Group, Portland, Ore., adds: "Many marketers are over-promising and under-delivering to consumers. They're making absolutely ridiculous claims as in the weight-loss and fitness categoryand are setting themselves up [for criticism] by news-magazine shows, for example. What easier industry to pick off than the infomercial industry, which continues to make assertions that people, for example, can lose weight in five minutes?"

OK, but are they effective?

Renfrow has a cousin in New York with a beautiful home, impeccable taste in furniture and a roomful of unused DRTV products. "You and your infomercials," says her cousin's husband, who took a confused Renfrow upstairs to get an eyeful of a room full of infomercial products from a variety of categories. "I was completely shocked, but from my involvement with the American Advertising Federation, I've found that people either love infomercials, or they hate them," says Renfrow. "The least likely people say they love them, and the people who I feel would really like them, hate them."

During infomercial production, the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle works, according to Denise Dubarry-Hay, president of Xebec Productions of La Quinta, Calif., a wholly owned subsidiary of Thane International Inc. "Every time we do an infomercial we try to twist things just a bit to make it more artistic, but I've found that every time we've tried to make it too artistic and Madison Avenue-like it's been disastrous," she laments. "This is not art. We are selling here."

When it comes to boosting brand awareness, infomercials continue to prove themselves as a suitable medium for imprinting brands in the minds of consumers. "This is an area that has not yet realized its full potential in direct response," says Szot, adding that she'd like to see more brands like new cars, computers and home appliances use direct response to create excitement for their products, then drive the consumer to a showroom or retail store. "It can be an invaluable aid."

According to Darrell Williams, creative director for The Tyee Group, consumers are more apt to purchase a product that they know more about whether it's directly from TV or from retail shelves. "The 'I' in infomercial is really what makes it work," he says. "The more information they have about a product, the more likely they are to make the purchase."

Take Ron Popeil for example. Not only is his pasta maker show still on the air after five years and doing well but he has just come out with a new product: a rotisserie. The original show, which was produced about five years ago, was produced by Onyx Productions for what Renfrow calls very little money.

"His brand has a following. He's careful with his production dollars and knows what works and what doesn't and hasn't tried to change it," says Renfrow. "When he comes out with a new product, he puts enough media money behind it to make it do extremely well."

"The consensus in the traditional DRTV industry is that the business has been flat for infomercials, and to some degree, there's truth in that," says Tyee's Petry. "The old promise of 'make a lot of money on TV' has shifted, and there are now multiple objectives. It isn't strictly about a sales to media ratio, and the cost of media makes it hard to make that concept work anymore."

Petry says he thinks the industry itself has shifted and that today it's more about branding, educating consumers and informing them so that they're pre-educated and pre-sold before going into the retail environment, which is no longer as consumer-friendly as it used to be. He adds: "It's no longer, 'Hey, for every dollar you spend on media we're going to make you four bucks on TV.'"

On the other side of the coin, Szot says she's doing fewer and fewer lead generation shows these days. "I used to do them all the time in the days of NordicTrack, but now only a handful of marketers are doing lead generation, and they may be business opportunity shows," she says. "Lead generating direct response is much more like traditional advertising, and I think people are a little more wary of sharing their personal information name, address, phone numbers out of fear that information will be sold to someone else."

The Components

According to Darrell Williams, creative director for Tyee, special features like celebrities attract attention, but TV viewers are keen to the fact that they don't all use the products they've endorsing.

"A celebrity is certainly not a guarantee of success. It's just one of the formulas. Enough intelligent consumers are aware of the fact that you can buy people," says Williams, who used Spike Lee in the Philips Magnavox DVD show in winter 1997. "He was wonderful and interesting, but he wasn't the host of the show. We were using celebrity of the product category with him, and it worked well."

Celebrities play a part in the production process, says Renfrow, but there isn't always enough justification to have one onboard.

Often, a good announcer or host can get you far more mileage than a very recognizable celebrity. When hiring talent, passion and believability are the two main factors Renfrow looks for. "If you have doctors or other people in the show for credibility, you really have to have a believable, passionate host to interact with them," she advises.

Generally, most producers agree that original music is essential for a 30-minute show. Renfrow uses both stock and original music but says that for long form, original scores are preferred. She recently bid on a project and had to review six shows for a like product. It didn't take long for her to notice that the shows with the music moved along and kept the interest and energy going. The ones without were noticeably lacking. "If you can afford it, original music is the way to go," she adds.

Merging with the Web

In 1998, the world saw a marked increase in Internet usage by both consumers and businesses. The DRTV community was not immune to this increase, and nearly all interviewees for this article mentioned the World Wide Web as either a present or future strategy for their businesses.

From the creative angle, Szot says she'd like to see more infomercials that have corresponding web sites and an advertisement for that site several times during the show. "If DRTV drives sales to the Internet, it will be a win-win situation for everyone, including the consumer," she says.

Everyone in the industry acknowledges that the Internet is going to make a cluttered environment even more cluttered, says Petry. "As a marketer, you need content and something engaging," he says. "With the Internet and instantly downloadable free streaming video we'll no longer be confined to 28 minutes and 30 seconds, 60 seconds or two minutes. The length of the message will be whatever is appropriate for that message."

When it comes to shelling out money for production, producers agree that there are several different cost levels, and overall expense must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with some unarguably cheaper to produce than others.

"Brad Richdale and Kevin Trudeau's shows are pretty inexpensive and always do well," says Szot.

She adds, "Denise DuBarry at Thane International produced BioSlim on a pretty slim budget, but it has been enormously successful. Chad Murdock produced Body Flex for HSN, and it's basically just Greer Childers talking with some testimonials thrown in, but Childers is so compelling, and so believable, you just have to watch, and soon you're dialing the number and ordering the product. It was very inexpensive to shoot, but it's been a huge hit."

Overall, the consensus is that the cornerstone of good infomercial production is a quality, saleable product. "If I could paraphrase a sentence to go on a bumper sticker to sum up my feelings about infomercial production, I could do it in four words," says Williams. "It would say: It's The Product, Stupid."

Warner Home Video's Cold War DocumentaryAn infomercial for Warner Home Video's Cold War collection offers 12 two-hour videos documenting relations between East and West in the 20th century. Video collections offer unique creative challenges because, unlike other infomercials, the producer can't cut away to shots of people using equipment or commenting on the efficacy of a particular device. They rely heavily on footage from the videos, and, in this case, focus group input contributed to the choice of footage shown. The infomercial was produced by The Direct Network, New York, and written by Colleen Szot.