My wife cringes when you mention the 80s. Let’s face it, there is much to cringe over. Pinch-rolled pant bottoms, neon shirts from Chess King and Merry-Go-Round, Aqua Net and Mullets…I have to stop. I just gave myself the shivers. Such was the birth time of DRTV. During a time of intentional hokiness and gaudy everything, HSN was the first kid on the block. First it was on a radio station, then local TV, then nationwide. The concept expanded like wild-fire. Infomercials were not far behind with creating some of the legends we all recognize. The Ginsu knife, the Great Wok of China, Tony Little, Billy Mays…our industry was exploding like a wide-eyed child discovering his own fingers for the first time. The possibilities seemed endless.
During this time of glitter and glam, big hair and outrageous fashion, electronic music and commercials with people shouting at the screen, the foundation for infomercials and retail TV was laid. Watching those first infomercials and Home Shopping years is certainly entertaining. The on-air talent looked as though they would jump out of their skin if they could! Leaping toward the camera, pointing at the screen, honking sales horns and shouting at the lens, they were the kings and queens of attention-getting hard-sales. At that time of DRTV’s infancy and embedded into radical 1980s culture, it all worked.
Times are different now. We live in an age of earth tones, organic food, endless channel options, and a universal source of all human knowledge in our pocket. People know they have unlimited shopping options from their laptop or cell phone. They don’t want to feel pressured or yelled at. They want to spend their money at their leisure when they feel best informed. It used to be that if people missed the deal on TV, they might not see it again for a long time…maybe ever! Impulse buying was the DRTV norm. Although that magic $19.99 price point is still a sweet spot for people willing to mindlessly drop a fin-note without much convincing, the number of times a person needs to see a product before committing to purchase has risen. It makes sense. More than 50% of all people using smart-phones research items they are interested in buying while standing in the physical store! Times have changed with technology. If consumers happen to catch you on TV or internet video, a sure way to get them to tune out before you’ve reached them the optimum number of times, is to start shouting at them!
However, there is one point to consider: high-energy, hard-sell tactics historically work in the case of many products. You will probably exhaust your viewer’s mind and emotions and they won’t want to hear you ever again after-the-fact, but you will have a better chance of getting the sale in the moment. It is a short-sighted understanding of TV sales, but if the short term is your biggest concern, then the hard sell approach is an effective one. It causes people to sit up and listen. They engage because they are not used to being addressed with such passion. It has been proven that dopamine levels spike in the human brain during this type of sales tactic. They slack off 3-5 minutes after the sales presentation has ended, but for the time being, viewers are jacked up on mental feel-good juice and ready to take action!
I am a television product presenter…a “pitchman,” as Mr. Mays and Sullivan would call me. I have sold an ever increasing 280+ products on national television here in the states and internationally, on live retail television networks and infomercials. This, I can tell you: There is a fine line talent now walk. We must appease both the concepts of the energetic hard-sell that is historically proven to get people to pick up the phone in the moment, and the conversational “tell me, don’t sell me” desires of our current culture. This is a tough line to walk. Those who are concerned with a short-term, airing-by-airing definition of sales success want the hard-sell. Those who are more concerned with developing a relationship and a core following want the conversational approach. Thus, the difference between infomercials and TV networks. Infomercials = more hard sell and energy, television networks = more conversation and info-tainment. I have seen network management quiver while watching as infomercial talent take to their airwaves, and have seen seasoned TV network talent fail at moving infomercial product.
If there is one certainty, it is this: the world of DRTV talent is not as straight-forward as it was 30 years ago at the dawn of the industry. It is now a delicate balancing act and those who have mastered it are highly sought after. They get results and still have a likable on-camera personality. DRTV talent work is an art. I recently watched a Joan Rivers video clip of her imitating an infomercial talent. The clip is not very old, but Joan could not scream loud enough at the camera. It was absurd (as it was intended to be), but threw into sharp contrast how outdated early DRTV talent tactics are and the stereotype many people still assign to the idea of an infomercial. There is a fine line talent must acknowledge and carefully walk these days.
The 1980s are long gone, thank God, along with parachute pants, shoulder pads, explosive hard sell tactics and other 3-decade old trends!
by Cory Bergeron
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