Mention the NutriBullet, the Transforma ladder or Thin Lizzy in conversation, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Kiwi who isn’t aware of at least one of these products. Such is the enduring power of the infomercials, which continue to grace our free-to-air screens during off-peak viewing times, that these brands have essentially been embedded into the Kiwi psyche through brute force.
At a time when buzzphrases such as ‘transmedia storytelling’, ‘digital disruption’ and ‘omnichannel marketing’ are habitually thrown around conversation, the infomercial is made to seem anachronistic, a living fossil of a bygone era on the verge of extinction.
But this isn’t the case at all.
Look at Nielsen’s ad spend figures from 2015 and you’ll notice the presence of Brand Developers in sixth position, behind the big-spending retail giants Progressive, The Warehouse, Harvey Norman and Foodstuffs.
An organisation that specialises in 30-minute infomercials, Brand Developers spent in excess of $50 million on advertising over the course of last year.
So is the company making enough to cover this huge annual media bill?
“We live and die by it,” says Brand Developers managing director Paul Meier.
“If we don’t get enough calls to cover the cost of advertising, we don’t run the product. The only exception would be if there’s a different strategy along with it focusing on building the brand, but generally we try to cover our advertising cost. Sometimes we run at a small loss, but not that often.”
All industries have felt the brunt of digital disruption, and infomercials are no different, but Meier says the impact is often exaggerated.
“A lot of the time, this disruption isn’t as bad as people think it is. Normally, the people who are making these claims are the same ones pushing their own products to show how big the digital age is without much substantiation.”
Meier also chuckles as he points out that the effectiveness of TV is evident in the fact that many digitally native companies—like app and mobile game developers—are investing heavily in television advertising.
“It’s funny, because over Christmas I looked at a lot of the shorter ads for TV, and I saw a lot of apps on there. And some people might say, ‘Who would be dumb enough to advertise an app on TV?’ especially when everything is apparently happening online. The reality is that you’ve got to advertise where the people are.”
Brand Developers has been in the New Zealand market for over 11 years, and Meier has seen the business grow into a significant local employer.
“Across Australia and New Zealand we have over 800 employees, and the bulk of that staff is in New Zealand, with over 600 here,” he says.
Much of the staff is spread across phone services and retail distribution, but Brand Developers also has a significant contingent working on marketing, production and internal product development.
While the company does develop its own products, Meier says his team is always “on the lookout of interesting products” to acquire.
“We do prefer to take them over and then pay a royalty to the brand or product owner, because then we can handle everything in-house. When someone does bring a product that interests us, we normally cut a deal in such a way that we can take it over and manage it.”
One example of this is the Thin Lizzy range, which Meier says has grown into the number two facial cosmetics brand in New Zealand, behind only Revlon.
“We bought the [Thin Lizzy] manufacturer and product developer and folded them into Brand Developers quite early,” Meier says.
Other successful brands Meier points to are Bambillo, the Nutri Infusion (which is similar to the NutriBullet) and the Transforma Ladder. And he says the success of each of this is directly attributable to the effectiveness of infomercials in delivering product information.
“The infomercial lends itself to new product development that nobody else would have a shot at,” he says.
“It allows you to craft a 30-minute commercial that extolls the benefits of whatever that product is. And the end of 30 minutes you get a response and you see whether there’s enough interest from the public to cover the advertising.”
The fact that consumers call in during the infomercial and immediately afterwards gives the medium a level of measurability that isn’t often seen in television advertising.
“You judge it by call volume,” says Meier. “If you don’t get a lot of calls, you don’t want to leave it on there too long.”
He also says this can give a product sufficient credibility for retailers to put it onto the shelf.
“We can make an infomercial for something. Test it to see if it works and then we go onto the retailers and say ‘there were peak purchases at XYZ’. Then they would put it into retail, whereas they wouldn’t otherwise. If it doesn’t generate calls on TV, it’s good bet that it isn’t going to generate foot traffic at a store level.”
In addition to supporting the launch of smaller products into the market, infomercials also play an important role for TV networks.
“Infomercials allow us to monetise non-traditional areas of our schedule and some industry players suggest that the long-form is essential in the building of a brand,” says TVNZ general manager of direct and regional sales Glen McGahan.
When the primetime hours have passed, TVNZ hands its schedule over to Brand Developers and the infomercials start rolling in.
Filling TV schedules with programming isn’t cheap. And by giving Brand Developers access to its off-peak slots, TV networks are able to generate revenue during a time that conventional advertisers are uninterested in.
Despite appearing at times when the mass audiences aren't tuned into their favourite shows, infomercials tend to be very good at hammering products into the viewers’ memory banks. And this does seem to indicate that advertising doesn’t necessarily have to be creative for it to be good.
“There is a genuine craft skill required with the need to hone in on audience insight in terms of motivating purchase behaviour,” says McGahan.
“Infomercials perform well for certain products with a direct to consumer sell. They are structured to create clear value proposition for the audience with that value reinforced throughout the messaging.”
DDB chief creative officer Damon Stapleton believes the reason why infomercials are so effective is because of the way they present information about a product.
“If you say NutriBullet 8,000 times, it will get into people’s consciousness,” Stapleton says.
From an early stage, humans tend to learn by repetition. And in the same way that children familiarise themselves with words used by their parents, so too do infomercials succeed in settling into the recesses of the mind.
But Stapleton adds that another thing infomercials do really well is provide information on how the product works, what makes it better and why consumers might need it.
“It creates awareness,” says Stapleton.
So if infomercials are so effective at doing this, why is the industry so fixated on creativity?
Stapleton says it’s important to distinguish infomercials from a standard TV ad.
“I have to do the job in 30 seconds,” he says.
Stapleton says that there’s a big difference between using a brand ad to sell a feeling—as DDB did with Lotto’s Pop’s Gift—and telling consumers about a product for over 30 minutes.
He says that infomercials function more as TV programmes and this approach isn’t feasible when running an ad during the short—and much more expensive—primetime slots.
But things are changing. And with product integration becoming increasingly common, some of the elements deployed in infomercials are now also being incorporated into mainstream shows.
“Isn’t Gordon Ramsey an infomercial in some ways? And what about Jamie Oliver? Those guys cook in one scene and then tell viewers to buy a pen or pot in the next.”
And while this type of programming doesn’t follow the well-worn path of showing actors finding it incredibly difficult to complete everyday tasks, it does show that even in a changing media landscape there’s still room for the shameless flogging of pots, pans, knives or adjustable ladders.