Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Back when I was in Los Angeles studying to be an on-camera host, I watched a lot of infomercials. I even attended a few live tapings. Fellow actors treated audience work like the dregs, but as an aspiring host, I considered it a golden opportunity to watch working presenters and evaluate their delivery.
Once, after waiting seven hours to get to set, the host turned out to be a famous movie actress from the ’90s. Boredom turned to fan-girl elation. She spoke to us like we were her best friends. A warm demeanor and careful elocution were sewn into every word. I’ll buy two face creams plus a backup, I thought, hypnotized, skin problems or not.
The Electronic Retailing Association’s Direct to Consumer convention — D2C for short — is the major annual gathering of the infomercial industry, and Wynn Las Vegas hosted it Sept. 13-15. Under one roof were celebrity spokespeople, product inventors and the executives who turn their work into commercial wonders such as the Shake Weight and Pajama Jeans.
First, I met John Abdo, inventor of the Ab-Doer. A former Olympic coach, Abdo designed a series of infomercial releases, from “The Science of Getting Lean and Strong” to “Make Your Body a Fat-Burning Machine.”
As an expert developing his own products, Abdo reflects a growing trend in the industry: “real” people who genuinely enjoy the product and believe in its benefits. “I’m not the guy on TV saying, ‘Pick up your phone now and call this number.’ I’m the guy saying, ‘Here’s what you need to do,’ ” Abdo said. “I just want to be myself. ... I want to be known for educating and motivating people.”
Abdo sells many of his products in traditional retail settings such as Target and Wal-Mart, but maintains that the infomercial is what creates awareness and lends credibility.
“People know it’s expensive to get and keep a product on TV,” he said. “The Ab-Doer will be on TV 20 years in January, and that’s how they know it’s the real deal.”
Most D2C attendees agreed that television presence cements audience trust, including Poonam Khubani, vice president of TeleBrands International. TeleBrands develops TV spots for everything in the As Seen On TV stores, such as My Pillow, the Ped-Egg and Furniture Feet. Khubani said the company has sold products in 130 countries. While the web might be vital for the Amazons of the retail world, she sees it as an add-on.
“We are in the problem-solving business, finding solutions for everyday problems in household, auto or any category,” Khubani said. “The internet is a space where the consumer can check out the benefits of the product. First they say, ‘OK, I’ve seen this on TV,’ then, ‘I’m going to do some research before I buy.’ ”
But has the internet hurt television sales?
“This year’s conference is one of the least-attended in history,” local infomercial producer Ben Kalb said. “Maybe more people are buying through the internet.”
I asked if he was discerning about the types of projects he produces.
“If it’s just outrageous, yes. One guy wanted to do a ‘Reservation in Heaven,’ a lithograph with a number on it. That’s when you say, ‘Sorry, I’m not the guy for that.’ I love putting these shows together, and I have a really good sense of which products have a shot.”
With fitness products, Kalb said he can’t sell them based only on an improved heart rate or the promise of improving strength. “None of that counts. We have to cater to the viewer, and the viewer wants to lose weight, or inches.”
So does that crazy ab belt actually work?
“An ab belt will help tone your abs a little bit,” Kalb said. “If you expect to lose weight from an ab belt … not a chance in the world unless you incorporate a diet plan.”