Infomercials Still Tell, And Sell, Product Stories

The infomercial industry is predicted to hit $250 billion — 1 percent of U.S. GDP. Host Scott Simon speaks with business writer Jon Nathanson about the economics and enduring strength of infomercials.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Shopping on Black Friday has become almost dangerous - people waiting in line all night to slug it out for doorbuster deals. This Thanksgiving, several shoppers were arrested for brawling. One ended up in the hospital with knife wounds. Another was shot over a television set. Yet, there are easier ways to shop. Not the Internet - think back further, much further.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISING COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tired of all that chopping and slicing? It's such hard work and takes forever.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, now there's a faster, better way with Slice-O-Matic.

SIMON: Jon Nathanson, a former marketer for Wal-Mart, who's now a business writer, says that our love for infomercial products persists. He joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

JON NATHANSON: Scott, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: You write on the PriceONomics.com blog that the infomercial industry is soon going to hit $250 billion - that's 1 percent of U.S. GDP. How does that happen in this day and age?

NATHANSON: Well, very few people actually buy these products on infomercials themselves between the hours of 1 and 6 a.m. In fact, the infomercials themselves are essentially a psychological tactic. Their goal is to make you aware of an interesting product to establish a context for something you wouldn't have considered otherwise. The Slice-O-Matic thing, a fantastic example. And their ultimate goal is to drive you into stores. And once you're there, you will be prime to have remembered what you heard about and that's where you'll find it on the store shelves.

SIMON: We want to play a few seconds of something I guess I can safely call a vintage spot - 1949, William Bernard, the Vitamix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISING COMMERCIAL)

WILLIAM BERNARD: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to give you a demonstration of one of the most wonderful machines that was ever invented, the Vitamix machine, and I'm going to talk to you on the most vital subject that concerns you and your family, and that is health.

SIMON: This is advertising in the classic sense, it strikes me.

NATHANSON: It is. This is advertising telling a story. This is advertising its original form, which has survived throughout the decades, and essentially this is getting your attention, presenting a very interesting context, presenting a problem that they are then solving, and oftentimes it's a problem you didn't realize you had.

SIMON: We're talking about a form of advertising that has been, well, that has been around longer than a lot of other things we've seen come and go.

NATHANSON: That's right. The first television was invented in the late '20s, and it wasn't really until after World War II that televisions became a mass consumer product, right around '48 or so. And, you know, a year later the first infomercial was born. So, we're talking about a medium that's been around essentially as long as consumer television has.

SIMON: Jon Nathanson, a business development writer. Thanks so much for being with us.

NATHANSON: Thanks again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPERATORS ARE STANDING BY")

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: (Singing) Operators are standing by, pass round the picture of a Mobius...

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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