The Infomercial’s Ancestor
Interestingly, that character was actually based on a real life Texas governor with the same name who also had a flour company, Hillbilly Flour, that sponsored a radio program. As if the frequent mention of the sponsor’s name wasn’t enough, the real Pappy O’Daniel ensured that even his performers reminded people of the product, so he even helped form a band known as the Light Crust Doughboys (the Hillbilly Band in the video was created after the Doughboys broke up). Sure it was still not quite an infomercial, but I’m sure you can see that sponsored programming is certainly nothing new.
The first real infomercial appeared around 1950 and was for a blender, although there is a heated debate as to whether it was for a VitaMix or a Waring blender.
It wasn’t long before the FCC caught wind of the schemes and started cracking down on advertising on television by restricting the amount of ads that could appear during a regular hour of television to only 18 minutes.
The first modern-styled infomercial ran in the seventies on San Diego’s XETV and promoted local homes available for purchase. Because the station was broadcast and licensed out of Tijuana, the FCC’s ad regulations had no jurisdiction over their programming.
Opening New Doors
While there were certainly a few exceptions to the FCC’s rule, like the program ran on XETV, it’s Frank Cannella who is considered the father of infomercials. That’s because when the young ad man was asked to market a new hair growth treatment in 1982, he thought, ‘why not advertise it in a half-hour block?’ Somehow he managed to convince networks to buy the program-length ad despite the ban on these types of ads and the commercial was shown late at night in place of the test patterns and static the networks would otherwise show after their programming ended. The inventor of New Generation hair products soon became a millionaire and Cannella became an advertising legend.
Of course, restrictions remain and vary from country to country. For example, in the UK, mainstream networks couldn’t broadcast infomercials until 2009 and now they can show up to three hours of infomercials per day. In the early nineties in Canada, infomercials could only consist of photographs, not moving video, a restriction that has long since been removed.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of shady businesses and get-rich-quick schemes jumped on the opportunity to advertise through infomercials. Since the 90’s federal and state consumer protection agencies have seemed to be constantly suing one infomercial company or pitchman or another. Fortunately, the ads are becoming at least a little less sketchy, in 2006, the first ever third-party testimonial verification company was launched to validate the testimonials used in commercials and infomercials. It’s not a huge difference yet, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Infomercials started out as an exclusively late night offering. I’m sure many of you even remember seeing them come on and then reminding yourself, ‘I guess it’s time for bed.’ In more modern times though, late night TV has become increasingly popular, leaving infomercials to sneak their way into daytime programming as well. As more soaps and game shows were cancelled, mid-day infomercials became increasingly common, but these days it’s not uncommon to see infomercials airing on certain cable networks during prime time. Heck, there are even stations dedicated exclusively to playing infomercials.
Since the recession, infomercials have become even more popular as networks have started seeing fewer traditional ad dollars heading through the door. Rather than making or syndicating actual shows that don’t have enough ad money, stations have increasingly turned to infomercials to fill in the gaps in their programming. Most notably, Fox cancelled its Saturday morning cartoon block after a dispute with provider 4KidsEntertainment and has now replaced the programming with a two hour block of infomercials –won’t someone think of the children!
Personally, I never buy anything I see on infomercials because I just don’t trust them, but I have watched a few, if for no other reason than the fact that they were just so darn ridiculous –did you know there’s a blender that can whip water? What about you guys? Do you ever watch paid programming? And if so, have you ever actually ordered anything from an infomercial?
Sources: Wikipedia #1,#2, #3, USA Today, Direct Marketing Magazine and Response Magazine