The infomercial is gradually finding its way onto our screens, but you
have to get up early to catch it, writes Karen Fletcher
For most of us, the word ‘infomercial’ conjures up images of presenters
in wobbly studios taking half an hour to flog a can opener or
demonstrating 101 things to do with tinned food to convince viewers to
part with their money.
The infomercial - an extended television advertisement lasting 20
minutes or longer - has its roots in the US, where pitchmen would hold
pavement audiences spellbound with their demonstrations and sales
patter. When they moved on to television, they simply expanded their
audience size from dozens to thousands.
But the down-market image in the US, born out of these origins, has been
cast off. American viewers can see the likes of Cher and Victoria
Principal revealing the wonders of their own jewellery collections and
And with companies investing up to dollars 1m in infomercials, their
production values have risen. Costs are recouped because the ad can be
shown worldwide and its lifetime is frequently much longer than that of
the normal, 30-second ad. Infomercials can run up to a year after they
are made, rather than simply being used for short campaigns.
In the US, infomercials are proving their worth. They move products out
of the warehouse and into consumers’ eager hands at great speed. Ninety
per cent of TV channels in the US carry infomercials and blue-chip
companies, such as Braun and Philips, have become big users. The ability
to demonstrate the products is a huge advantage for electrical consumer
goods manufacturers, especially where the need is to explain complicated
new ideas, as with Philips’s CD-i.
Greater spending on infomercials and on DRTV ads in the US is driving
the industry worldwide. A study in 1995 by Goldman Sachs found that the
global DRTV market was worth dollars 4.6bn, much of it in the US.
In spite of these developments across the Atlantic, your chances of
seeing a half-hour infomercial on UK terrestrial television channels are
slim. First, the Independent Television Commission has regulated heavily
against them, with various restrictions on time and content.
Second, the Broadcast Advertising Copy Clearance rules further restrict
the use of infomercials. The rules have created a situation where many
of the claims made for a product on television would have to be edited
or qualified in some way.
But the fragmentation of broadcast media has created opportunities for
the few determined infomercial pioneers who are using airtime on the
growing number of cable and satellite channels. Companies involved
include Williams Worldwide Television and Regal Shop.
Richard Whinfrey, managing director of Regal Shop, has managed to
overcome the restrictions. ‘There are some companies, such as Regal,
with a broadcast licence from the ITC as home shopping companies,’ he
explains. ‘This means that if, for example, there are several hours of
down time on a particular transponder - most broadcasters only use it
for 18 hours a day - we can take the six hours that they are not using
it and broadcast infomercials.’
And although the programmes are broadcast during off-peak viewing hours,
they are gathering their own audiences. ‘If we broadcast in the hour
before morning programmes begin, we can raise the viewing figures for
that channel’s first show.’
Even so, very few UK companies use infomercials in the strict sense. The
most notable example was Vauxhall’s Vectra launch, when a half-hour ad
for the new model ran in the early morning. Interested consumers set
their videos and watched at their leisure later in the day.
But Roger Randall, media communications executive at CIA Medianetwork,
is cautious: ‘We don’t know how effective infomercials really are. I
haven’t seen any research or feedback as to what the results are: sales
revenue, consumer awareness and so on. They are new and they create a
lot of PR opportunities, but I am not sure they have been used
Clerical Medical used an eight-minute video infomercial targeted at
independent financial advisors. But as Randall points out: ‘As it is a
video, I’m not sure if it falls in the infomercial category.’
The development of infomercials as a viable advertising medium in the UK
took another step forward early in July as European ministers agreed to
change the regulations on advertising.
Previously, infomercials were restricted to one hour a day on
terrestrial television. That has been increased to three hours, which in
theory would allow Channel 4 and ITV to transmit them from midnight to
6am, or to run a home-shopping service.
Home shopping is a growing market, but still only a tiny fraction of
retailing as a whole. As the industry grows we might see more companies
investing in infomercials. But whether they will be shown at peak time -
in the breaks during Coronation Street, for example - is another matter.
And it might be quite a while before blue-chip advertisers in the UK are
persuaded to shift their media buying into any other slot.