You’ll never look at infomercials the same after reading this post.
Robert Cialdini calls But Wait…There’s More “A wholly fascinating account of a wholly fascinating industry.” If you’re interested in how late night TV infomercials use every psychology trick in the book, you need to read this.
Infomercials are powerful. A thirty-second commercial for Tide doesn’t ask you to do anything. The goal is for you to think about Tide and to associate it with something happy and clean so you’ll pick it up the next time you need washing detergent.
An infomercial, however, requires you take immediate action. One moment you’re sitting on the couch eating potato chips, the next you’ve decided there is really nothing you’d rather have than an ab-machine. How does that happen?
Everything about an infomercial is tested — Whether it’s the price, the number of freebies, the background music, or even the color of the model’s hair — with the sole goal of selling more product. Nothing is left to chance.
Along the way infomercial marketers have picked up an amazing amount of knowledge about how we behave as shoppers and what motivates us to make a purchase.
What can you learn from Ron Popeil, the master infomercial seller?
All the time-tested strategies were on display: he offered bonuses or freebies as incentives, and heightened tensions by warning people that he only had a certain number of units on hand (“supplies are limited!”). He assigned numbers to his customers—”You’re number eight, you’re number nine,” and so on—which gave them the impression that you had to get in line to take advantage of the great deal he was offering up. He employed the classic countdown technique, where he systematically lowered the price as he neared the end of the pitch. and when he was at the very end and started accepting cash, he avoided selling the item to the last batch of eager customers, instead launching into a fresh pitch. To get new people to come over and watch a demonstration, it requires that other people be standing in rapt attention. “Wait, there’s something else i want to show you before you take this home with you,” he might say.
Why does that steak knife cut through a shoe?
Perceived value also comes into play when a demonstrator slices a knife through an old shoe or cement block or uses a pair of shears to cut through a penny. Why would you need your steak knife to cut through a hammer, you ask? You wouldn’t. But in addition to proving to you that the knife is indestructible, it’s raising the perceived value of the product. Somewhere in the recesses of your subconscious, your brain is telling you that if for whatever reason you wanted to cut through a boot, you can rest assured that you have the knife that’s up to the task.
On marketing late at night
One of the early discoveries of infomercials was that they perform better when they were marketed late at night. “Airtime was cheaper, too,” but “viewers defenses started to topple as they grew sleepy.” Boredom also played a role. “When he placed sixty-second commercials during a hit show, the responses were unimpressive. When the programming was lousy, many more people purchased products.”
“He threw in giveaway after giveaway. He suggested that he would only offer the Dehydrator at such a reasonable price point to people who promised to “tell a friend” about the incredible offer—a classic tactic designed to make the audience feel indebted to him for his act of generosity, which, naturally, they could reciprocate by making a purchase.”
What do infomercials sell?
…What all of these half-hour infomercials have in common, of course, is that they all offer some sort of cure. Late-night pitches aren’t in the business of offering us dresses, trash cans, CD players,or cans of roach spray. They’re in the business of presenting serious problems—and providing us with quick, easy, painless solutions. That blender isn’t just designed to make smoothies. It’s going to save you precious minutes everyday and give you more time with your loved ones. Don’t you want to be a decent human being and spend more time with your family?
There’s a good reason products advertised on infomercials are tied to our emotional well-being, our self-image, and our relationships with others. It gives us a powerful reason to pick up the phone and place an order.
One of the biggest problems with long-form shows is getting people to stop their channel changing long enough to tune in … A half-hour show requires you to bypass that episode of Cops, rerun of Seinfeld, … and actively watch someone try to sell you something you probably don’t need. That’s why many infomercials have some sort of hook, something that momentarily distracts views and gets them to move their finger off the up/down dial on their remote control.
Sex usually works. What buying real estate has to do with women with big boobs is unclear, but moneymaking products have long features cleavage-bearing babes.
Research has demonstrated that subtle repetition is highly effective. In fact, studies have shown that because infomercials expose viewers to the sales message for an extended period of time and do not repeat the same message but go back and rehash the same material while making small changes to the script, the repetition is actually much more powerful.
On manufacturing pricing complexity
Infomercials thrive on complicating purchasing decisions for consumers by bundling items with free offers, bonuses, and rewards. A “but wait, there’s more!” suddenly muddles our perceptions and makes it harder to judge the offer that’s just been presented to us.
What about shipping and handling?
Cleverly, shipping and handling costs are often concealed from viewers until they call. … by the time you learn the amount, you’ve already made the mental decision to buy the toaster oven, you called the 800 number, and you’ve just spent five minutes on the phone placing your order. Are you going to hang up because the shipping was a few $ more than you anticipated?
What’s the deal with the host?
What’s most important is that the host communicates authority. It doesn’t have to be real authority, mind you. Just as TV doctors are used to pitch health-related products, it’s merely the perception of authority that matters most. Clothes matter. … A host with an accent isn’t accidental: Americans perceive English accents as more authoritative … Once you find a host for a show, the time-tested formula often requires the presence of a lackey, someone to play off against the pitchman. This is yet another form of social proof.
And every word counts: Greg Renker pointed out that his infomercials always say “when you call,” not “if you call.” The nuance matters. It suggests the viewer will call—it’s merely a matter of time. … Ever hear the line “if the lines are busy, please call back?” … the mere suggestion of a rush of callers sends people scurrying to the phone.
When you think about it, every element of an infomercial is designed to manipulate you into taking action.
But Wait… There’s More. Much More. For the next 15 minutes, Amazon.com is offering an irresistible special price on But Wait … There’s More!. Buy it. Read it.
Read what you’ve been missing. Subscribe to Farnam Street via Email, RSS, or Twitter.