Turn on the television at 2:30 a.m., and you’ll probably pass by a few infomercials as you try to find something decent to watch.

If you’re especially bored, you might take your finger off the button and watch one or three, laughing to yourself as bad actors try to explain the “incredible features” of a cheap blender or 10-minute workout system.

 

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By all means, laugh, but infomercials are big business. Products like ShamWow, Snuggie, and the P90X workout system form the backbone of a $250 billion industry.

And while infomercials might appear cheap and thrown together, there’s a lot of money flowing behind the scenes. We spoke with a few consumer analysts and one infomercial actor to find out how paid programming really works.

They’re on late at night for a couple of reasons.

One of those reasons is pretty practical. The other is slightly unsettling.

“Obviously, part of why they do this is having a lower cost than during primetime,” Vassilis Dalakas, PhD, marketing professor at California State University in San Marcos, tells Urbo.

 

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“But from a consumer psychology standpoint,” Dalakas notes, “the key advantage is that the people watching them late at night are more likely to be tired.”

If you’ve never studied consumer psychology, you might think that an alert audience is more likely to purchase a product. That’s not exactly the case.

“Fatigue causes what we call ‘regulatory depletion,'” Dalakas explains. “Consumer research has established that a state of regulatory depletion increases people’s certainty in their attitudes, which makes them more vulnerable into thinking a product is a good purchase.”

“In other words, while a non-fatigued person is more likely to be critical of the usefulness of many products offered in infomercials, a fatigued one is more likely to see them as good purchases.”

Without getting too technical, regulatory depletion affects something called “attitude certainty,” basically turning astute consumers into impressionable drones. That’s why that ab workout chair seems like such a steal at $29.99—you’re not awake enough to realize that you’ll only use it once.

Those product demonstrations are incredibly corny—by design.

Watch enough infomercials, and you’ll start to notice patterns. Most follow a fairly strict formula to maximize their influence on viewers.

“A 30 minute infomercial [has] considerable time to send subliminal messages to the viewer,” says Bob Schott, author of Entrepreneur’s Secret Weapon for TV Air Time Buying. “[Advertisers] slam the opening with a ‘grabbing’ delivery to tease and motivate the viewer’s attention throughout.”

That might mean writing a corny, impractical intro featuring hackneyed lines like “There’s got to be a better way,” or “How many times has this happened to you?” That section of the infomercial often provides plenty of meme-ready scenes with mediocre acting. You’ll stop switching channels to laugh at the actor—but the point is that you keep watching.

“The real impact comes from the actual content of the message delivery itself, and great content can achieve a higher [return on investment] with less airtime than a boring written spot with low quality,” says Schott. “They’re the masters of hype.”

Successful infomercials will make quick, repetitive calls-to-action while noting that offers only exist “for a limited time.” This scarcity—or, rather, the illusion of scarcity—helps to compel viewers to act fast.

And while the production may seem amateurish to the average viewer, they’re carefully controlled sets. After all, there’s quite a bit at stake; a national infomercial spot can cost $11,000 to $12,000 per second in production costs, reported Jon Nathanson of The Week.

 

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To make the most of that time, casting directors look for actors who will appeal to their target audience, regardless of whether they can actually act.

“They’re looking for regular people, they’re actually not looking for actors,” says Zondra Wilson, an actress who has appeared in various infomercials, including spots for NutriBullet and Beachbody.

“An infomercial [casting call] is much more specific than a typical commercial casting call. They might say, ‘we want an African-American person with short hair, and she can’t use chemicals in her hair.’ Typical commercials will just accept head shots and call people in, but infomercials basically hire people before they’re cast.”

Wilson has developed her own cosmetics company, and she says that her experience in infomercial advertising changed her perspective on marketing.

“They realize that, in order to sell their products, they have to show results,” Wilson says. “You’ve got to constantly show results to keep people interested.”

Not everyone in an infomercial is being paid to promote the product.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s endorsement guides specifically prohibit actors from endorsing products for pay—unless, of course, the infomercial puts “paid actor” or something similar on screen. Most advertisers don’t want to do that, so they come up with creative solutions.

 

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“You might get paid a per diem for meals and transportation, or you might get the product for free,” Wilson says. “There’s two types of jobs: If you’re just sitting on a couch in the infomercial’s background, you’re a paid actor. You’re not actually using or participating with the product. But if you use the product and they’re using you for a before-and-after, they’re not paying you for that, because you’re not an actor.”

With that said, these non-actors often receive free products, bonus incentives, and other extras (despite onscreen text declaring that they’re “real people, not actors”). That brings up one of the most contentious issues in infomercial advertising: before-and-after photos.

Those “before-and-after” pictures are real…sort of.

According to NBC’s Dateline, the FTC launched a crackdown on infomercials around 2006, focusing on ads that showed questionable before-and-after photos. It’s not difficult to photoshop an “incredible fitness transformation” or an “amazing acne cure,” but it’s illegal; by law, before-and-after shots must show people who actually used the product in question.

Of course, there’s some grey area. Wilson says that when she participated in one infomercial’s 10-minute exercise program, she really lost a significant amount of weight—thanks to the some trickery by the program’s producers.

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“We were actually doing the exercises, but we didn’t do 10 minutes, we did an hour,” she says. “They provide a trainer and give you all the food you’ll eat. You have to come [into the studio] and exercise, and they take before-and-after pictures and measurements and all that. Then you have to sign an affidavit saying that you really had those results.”

While the workouts certainly contributed to the weight loss, Wilson says that her carefully controlled diet was a much more significant factor. When her photos appeared on the infomercial, they were accompanied by a disclaimer: Results not typical.

“They spend tons and tons of money for this stuff, so they’re going to use the best photos they get,” Wilson says. “And everything doesn’t work for everybody. Some of the ladies, when we did [an exercise commercial], because of their makeup, they didn’t start dropping weight until the last three weeks.”

Those women, Wilson says, didn’t get much airtime.

At another shoot, when she gave a lukewarm review of one product, the producers skipped over her criticisms.

“I did one, I think, that dealt with fingernails. It didn’t do everything that it said it would do,” she recalls. “But it did have some good features. So, what they’ll do—for me, they’ll just use my soundbite with the good features.”

Some infomercials aren’t actually trying to sell products.

Over the past decade, infomercials have played an increasingly large role in driving retail sales. Marketers can try out several different sales approaches for a single product by purchasing paid programming time from a few local television stations, then compare numbers to choose an effective approach.

One company, Telebrands, specializes in this type of marketing. Its products include the Ped Egg, the Red Copper Pan, the Brass Bullet Hose, and the Crank Chop. While those are fairly successful inventions, you won’t see them on television very often; they’re primarily sold through brick-and-mortar retail stores like Walmart.

 

Ped Egg

Telebrands’ CEO, A.J. Khubani, designed the “As Seen On TV” name and logo. The purpose of that label isn’t to get consumers to buy products through infomercials; it’s to get them to recognize Telebrands products when they see them on store shelves.

So, where do those products come from?

In most cases, infomercial products come from independent inventors who partner with companies like Telebrands to sell their inventions to a massive audience. Before you consider sending in your ideas for a self-cleaning toilet paper roll, understand that you probably won’t become a millionaire.

 

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“We make it look easy, I think, because we run so many products,” Telebrands founder A.J. Khubani told ABC News in 2011. “But we test a lot. We test-market hundreds of products before we end up with the ones that we market.”

Khubani says that inventors should prepare a quick pitch for their fully formed ideas; if he can’t understand the product’s purpose within about 10 seconds, he usually passes. While Telebrands’ website claims to offer “fair compensation” for inventors, it doesn’t list specific payment terms.

Inventor resource Invention Partner notes that typical licensing agreements might pay 3 to 6 percent of the wholesale price of the product, which doesn’t sound like much—until you consider that a product sold at a major retail store could easily bring in millions of dollars.

Besides, even if you don’t make a fortune, you’re giving the insomniacs of the world something funny to watch after midnight.