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Infomercials: still treating consumers like morons

As winter draws in down under, it’s tempting to spend more time in front of the TV. The downside is that you’ll find yourself subjected to a worrying trend: the rise of the infomercial.

While infomercials are hardly  a new concept, in recent months, they seem to be interrupting prime-time breaks with alarming frequency.

This arguably stems from a wider trend of marketers shifting budget from brand-building activity to more tactical, sales-led initiatives. At the same time, while it is declining media spend that has been grabbing the headlines, advertising production budgets are also coming under far greater scrutiny – and it shows.

In 2008 the Australian infomercial market was estimated to be worth around $50m per year, much of this being divided up between two major players: ‘What’s New’ producers Now Screen and Buchanon Group, makers of ‘Brand Power’, ‘MediFacts’ and ‘InfoTalk’.

Such is the scale of opportunity (or increasing desperation of traditional media owners) that the broadcasters have started muscling in. Seven is launching a new infomercial brand, ‘Infocus’, even poaching ‘Brand Power’ presenter Sally Williams in an attempt to gain consumer credibility.

I don’t doubt that if you run them often enough, infomercials may increase awareness and, in the short-term, sales. However, the assumption that today’s consumers see infomercial presenters as credible sources of information is troubling.

From impartial sounding names such as ‘MediFacts’ to the identikit family-friendly presenters, the infomercial format is constructed specifically to mislead viewers into thinking they are watching an independent product review rather than a paid-for ad.

“The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife.”

David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1963

Nearly fifty years after Ogilvy’s warning, consumers are savvier than ever, yet it seems that those commissioning infomercials still haven’t got the message.

By positioning themselves as informative rather than promotional content, infomercials demonstrate no understanding of the context in which they are viewed, or the level of intelligence of today’s viewers.

At a time when consumers are increasingly choosing to fast-forward ads or reject traditional media altogether, excessively patronising infomercials run the risk of alienating them further and eroding trust in the brands they are designed to promote.

Telstra’s decision to commission the recent ‘InfoTalk’ infomercials seems particularly bizarre given that it had already aired a series of creative TVCs communicating the proposition that NextG ‘works better in more places’ (see above). It’s a genuinely strong proposition, however subsequently seeing the same message in an ‘Infotalk’ infomercial immediately made me question its credibility.

Companies like Wal-Mart have been widely condemned for the practice of astroturfing, where they secretly pay bloggers to set up apparently independent sites evangelising their brand. Aren’t infomercials just a less subtle execution of the same idea?



Good to see a new post – on the subject of infomercials, someone I know actually set up a ‘direct response’ ad network i.e. an infomerical ad network. Apparently online these awful ads may still have legs due to the instant response advantages of the web environment…

Ben de Castella

Thanks Nic, I can believe that.

I think the key issue around infomercials is context and transparency. While it makes fairly tedious viewing, I can understand advertisers wanting to sell features and benefits. This is particularly true in low-engagement categories like FMCG – if you’re selling bug spray, the consumer’s primary interest is that it kills bugs, fair enough.

Furthermore, I can certainly see opportunity online for direct response, particularly in terms of encouraging people to sign up to receive free samples etc. However, it needs to be clear to the audience that this is ad content and not an impartial product review.

Where the danger lies is in positioning these ads as factual rather than promotional. As I alluded to with the Wal-Mart astroturfing scandal, if you position brand-funded content as independently authored you are likely to mislead consumers or alienate those who see through it – this is where the trouble starts.