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The Seedy Business of Infomercials

A review of But Wait...There’s More! by Remy Stern.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

But Wait…There’s More! Tighten Your Abs, Make Millions, and Learn How the $100 Billion Infomercial Industry Sold Us Everything but the Kitchen Sink

By Remy Stern
Collins Business, 2009, 272 pages

Remy Stern, the editor and publisher of the New York–based society-tracking Web site, provides a fascinating look into one industry that thrives by exploiting the weaknesses that behavioral economics reveals. His new book, But Wait…There’s More! Tighten Your Abs, Make Millions, and Learn How the $100 Billion Infomercial Industry Sold Us Everything but the Kitchen Sink, is a highly readable, gossipy history and exposé of the industry. It is a window on entrepreneurial capitalism at its most raw — a no-holds-barred world of largely unregulated activity.

The infomercial industry has its origins in the country fairs of centuries past, where hucksters and snake-oil salesmen plied their trade freely. The first radio infomercials began in the 1920s, but nothing facilitated product demonstrations and the use of a full range of persuasive techniques like television. Pitchmen soon discovered that their audience’s resistance was lower late at night, and with the advent of toll-free telephone numbers, credit cards, and the deregulation of cable TV, the modern era of the infomercial was born.

Infomercials appeal to people’s classic needs — emotional well-being, self-image, and relationships — using the familiar promises of looking better, having more money, and saving time. Marketers bring every psychological pressure to bear, including the use of testimonials from satisfied users, attractive presenters, and celebrity pitchmen. This dubious art is raised to an exact science on the home shopping channels, such as QVC (a U.S. company also operating in the U.K., Japan, and Germany), whose operations the author explores in some detail. The format gives promoters immediate feedback on which products and selling techniques are working and which are not. One time-tested tactic is to build a trusting relationship with viewers using bogus narratives about the product and its origins. Thus frozen crab cakes are represented not as the product of a multinational conglomerate but as the creation of a third-generation fisherman from Maine who is using his grandmother’s recipe.

But Wait…There’s More! shows how government regulation of the industry has been thoroughly compromised in the United States. At the policy level, the Federal Communications Commission has become deferential to the networks it is supposed to govern, and neither they nor their local stations are required to take any responsibility for the integrity of their products. At the transaction level, the Federal Trade Commission is perennially understaffed and under-resourced, and can impose only small fines when it catches bad actors. For the crooks, such fines have become just another cost of doing business. Interestingly, the author argues that the same advances in technology  that brought the industry into being may help to reform it. The advent of Web sites such as, for example, allows for genuine feedback on the merits of many products and services. But be careful not to type a double s in the middle of that URL or you could end up with the bad guys!

Reprint No. 09211

Author profile:

  • David K. Hurst is a contributing editor of strategy+business. His writing has also appeared in the Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, and other leading business publications. Hurst is the author of Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).
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