TV inc

Put this in stone: A direct response commercial should be no less than 90 seconds long and 120 seconds is strongly recommended.  Media buyers hate me saying this.  It’s so difficult to buy 120-second time.

But remember this: in the history of direct response, we know of no one step commercial that began as a 60 second, or less, that succeeded. 

There may have been one or two.  But it is a real rarity.  You can sometimes go to a 60 second spot after a 120 or 90 has proven successful.  Infomercials normally start out as ½ hours.  Some are 1 hour.  You may even see a “mini-series” infomercial.  By definition (by the Federal Trade Commission), an infomercial is a program length commercial that is 14 minutes or longer.

UPDATE: I was challenged recently by an advertiser who showed his results from his “out-of-the-gate” 60 second commercial.  His results were excellent.  However, his product, a pillow, was already being advertised by a competitor with a near identical product.  Conclusion: a “60” may be ok as long as you’re doing a knock-off.

Lead generation ads can be 60 seconds.  Tag commercials (“Available at these fine stores…) can be 60 seconds as well.


The infomercial is just the first step.  Regardless of whether your infomercial was to create a specific sale or to create a lead to drive retail, you have done something unique in television advertising.  You have created a customer.  Perhaps under the strictest definition a customer is one who has done business with you at least once and one who thinks highly of your products or services.  However, an infomercial viewer is also a member of the family, even if it’s just de facto.

This person has watched your commercial program for at least 28 minutes, perhaps longer.  He’s seen it at least once, perhaps many times.  You will receive some fan mail.  30 second and 60 second spots do not get the attention and respect of an infomercial.  Recently a motion picture’s release was heralded by an infomercial.  The picture, “Unforgiven” with Clint Eastwood, was shown as an infomercial, “The Making of ‘Unforgiven’”.  Interestingly, the infomercial lasted longer than the movie itself.  The producers found it less expensive and more effective to do an entire 2-hour infomercial than to do a bunch of 30-second trailers.

The bottom line: infomercials make customers.  Once your customer has responded to you either by purchasing or by asking for more information, be ready with other items and be ready to re-market the customer if at all possible.  If your product is a kitchen gadget, you might want to think about sending them information on other kitchen gadgets.  If your product is automotive in nature, find other automotive products.  If you’re dealing in a service, think about cross promotion or list rentals as bonus incomes.

A good back-end response is six orders for every one you sell the first time out.  With other services added in you may expect to increase your revenues and profits exponentially.  Make the effective use of back-end sales a primary goal of your marketing strategy.

Suggestions: catalogs, out bound telemarketing, list rentals, continuity programs, cross-promotions, new product listing, add-ons and inserts, coupons, premium incentives, clubs and membership buying programs, affinity marketing, subscriptions, newsletters, tell-a-friend programs, multi-level marketing, and more.  Your agency or consultant will help you develop these programs.

To my thinking, the effort put into making sales after the first sales are made critically important.  Through effective back-end marketing strategies, you can extend revenue streams practically indefinitely.  A program we ran for a few months in 1989 is still producing sales in excess of $1MM per annum with 6:1 mark-up and no overhead for advertising.  None!

When someone tells you to protect your back-end, he may be giving you profitable rather than precautionary advice.


“The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”……….Damon Runyon

The program coordinator from your company, the agency or your consultant will have the task of making it all work.  He or she will be the producer.  He’ll work with your marketing people, your legal advisor and your accountant.  Pick somebody who knows the ropes and who you can get along with.

The DR scriptwriter is crucial.  He has to tell the story in direct response language.  Even if your commercial is all testimonials, the DR writer will need to create a flow for the editor.

Since people often zap and flip from channel to channel, I like to write in 90 second pockets.  That is, at any one-90 second interval something is happening to keep the audience flipping by to stop.  Take a script.  Turn to any page.  Something needs to be happening to keep the viewer watching.

There are some great DR scriptwriters working for American Telecast, Media Arts, and Marketing Resources Network.  There are some great DR freelance writers too.  A great DR scriptwriter never gets too creative.  He never stops selling.  His focus is always on the product.

The program coordinator will have to work with your celebrities.  By the way, Jack King in Hollywood, CA, is probably your best source for celebrities.  He knows who’ll do what for how much.  You can count on Jack.  When you opt for a celebrity, try to pick someone who has something to do with your product.  Advertising researchers have found that a recognizable face that has no association with the product can be counterproductive.  Be prepared to pay a large up-front fee or a percentage of the sale.  Typically, a low up-front cost ($2500-$50000) plus 1% to 5% of the gross goes to the celebrity.  However, everything is negotiable.  Further, don’t forget to consider E&O insurance.  When it comes to celebrities, read the insurance chapters before you proceed.

If you can, try to get to the celebrity without having to deal with the agent.  I know I’m going to get yelled at for printing this, but it’s the truth.  Agents have killed more deals for me and those I know than anything.  REPAIR. One superstar did a commercial for 1/10th the cost the agent quoted, and with the percentage, ended up with lots more than the agent wanted.  Another agreed to do a spot until the agent blew the client out of the water with huge fees.  The job went to an equally popular celebrity who took a smaller up-front fee.

A word on voice over talent.  This is a job that is too often taken for granted.  Some hire radio disc jockeys for $50 a throw.  Too many times they sound just like what they are.  Top voice talents know how to tune their voices to your product.  If you can, spend a few extra dollars and get a pro.  Have you noticed how many TV spots are using voice-overs of famous personalities and never acknowledging them?  A top-notch voice over person can help you sell more product.  Once again, choose a voice that fits your product.  Much more about this area in “Celebrity Endorsements” chapter.

Your video/film crew, lighting people, make-up person, and sound crew should be familiar with DR commercials.  I can’t tell you how many DR commercials have been ruined because the crew was either totally unfamiliar with commercials in general or with DR specifically.  Just because a production crew unit owns a $100,000 camera does not mean they know how to use it for what you want.

Your editor is critical.  An editor can save you a lot of money.  But bear in mind that an editor is typically a highly trained technician with an artist’s eye.  He is not a salesman.  He is not a marketing person.  Rely on your editor for advice, not direction.  There are a number of editing suites featuring all kinds of state-of-the-art equipment.  I recommend that you look more closely at what the editor has done himself (not what the company has done.)

In the Tampa, Florida market, there is a production – editing facility that’ll knock your socks off with equipment and pizzazz.  However, they’ve never produced anything that’s worked.  Two other smaller houses get the majority of the work because they’re simply better craftsman.  If you’re on a tight budget, there are good production companies that will shoot and edit your commercial entirely on spec.

When you edit an infomercial, try to make a multiple master of (1) the program itself, (2) the internal commercials, (3) the testimonials, (4) the disclaimers, and (5) the animation & CG’s (character generated materials and copy.)  This will allow you to re-edit, change pricing, and adjust claims & testimonials very inexpensively.  This is especially true when you’re ready to air your infomercial in foreign markets.  You’ve taken steps now that will save you thousands of dollars in re-editing!

Should you use BetaCam SP, 35mm film, D2 or D3 editing equipment?  Can you get away with Super VHS, ¾”, 16mm film and analog editing equipment?  The quality of the program is important.  As time goes by, the importance of higher quality will increase.  However, for the most part, the quality of your production and editing is at the bottom of the budget.  If you’re in the business, I can hear the shouting.  Okay, Okay.  There are some products and programs that require six and seven figure budgets.  But those are few and far between.  Direct response does not work on glitz.  Glitz may help, but glitz will not in itself or by itself make up for a weak product or weak script.  THE PRODUCT IS THE STAR!   

After your commercial is completed, you’ll need to do the sound editing.  Again, look to a house that is experienced in direct response.  Shop dub houses for your videos.  It’s a really competitive arena.  You can make exceptional deals by looking around.  Hint: look to Korea for massive quantities and low prices.

Be leery of television stations that offer package deals.  Too many times they just want to sell you air time.  Read the chapter on media.  You do not need cheap production and high frequency with DR.  Anyone pitching you on frequency or household or population demographics has no idea what he’s talking about.  With any commercial and with DR in particular, go with a DR pro. 



You’ve heard the hypothesis:

“Take an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time.  Sooner or later you’ll end up with every book ever written.”

Not only is this bunk, it’s meaningless.  Just as meaningless as handing someone like me an instruction book on painting compiled to include the knowledge of all the world’s masters, and expecting from me anything more than mediocrity.

Unless I put something of myself into the work, it’s just….. a job.  There’s no art in it.  There’s no MAGIC.  How many years did it take Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?  Mel Brooks pointed out that Hitler could have done it in a week, two coats.

Infomercials that work not only follow all the principles included here, they have something else.  They have MAGIC.  It’s impossible to quantify the specific concoction, the formula, the brew, the recipe one needs to create that MAGIC and, even more importantly, to make that MAGIC leap off the tube and grab the viewer.

This point now becomes almost metaphysical, but stay with me.  Just as it is impossible for anyone to define and describe the Creator, True Love or Joy, it’s impossible to define and describe MAGIC required to make an infomercial work.

But I know what MAGIC isn’t.  After you’ve read this portion, you’ll be better able to spot red flags.  The more of them you see, the more likely you’ve got some or all of the ingredients of a loser.  MAGIC starts by holding the product, even if it’s just an idea.  Hold it in your hand.  Touch it.  Smell it.  Sleep with it next to the bed.  Does it make you feel good?  Inside?  Deep down?

Talk to yourself about it.  As you begin to describe it, what it does, why it’s important (not how much it costs – that comes later).  What are you feeling?  Talk aloud, makes no difference.  No one’s around.  What I want you to do is listen to yourself with your STOMACH.STOMACH.  Your stomach muscles will tighten when it hears something that sounds off key.  Don’t try to sell yourself on the product.  You can.  You can talk yourself into anything.  Don’t do it.

“The first sign of failure is believing your own publicity.” 

William M. Thompson

Think back to a recent first meeting with someone.  How did you feel right at that moment you met them?  Did you feel like throwing your arms around them and giving them a big hug?  Leo Buscaglia would be proud.  Or did you feel like dropping everything and running the opposite direction as fast as you could?  Like most of us, you probably either failed to recognize that sixth sense that told you what to do or you started selling yourself: Big Mistake.  Kunta Kente ended up a slave.  We’re all capable of being fooled, but we mostly fool ourselves.

When you felt like throwing your arms around the person you just met, my guess is you withheld the urge.  But everything that person said or did had a positive effect on you.  Even if you weren’t that impressed with his product, you felt a warmth, a trust, a feeling that just maybe you might be developing a friendship.  A product that you’ve just seen for the first time will cause the same effect.

Or, if the first meeting or first impression of the product made you feel uneasy or queasy, you noticed it first in your stomach; the soft underbelly.  It’s our body’s most vulnerable point.  Over the eons nature has instilled an automatic protective reflex to protect the abdomen.  The stomach muscles tighten.  It’s physiological.  A loud noise may cause you to close your eyes suddenly and tightly.  Irritating particles in the air will make you sneeze.  Eminent harm sends blood to the brain, releases adrenalin, tightens the scrotum, and hardens the breasts.  You have no control over it.  The same thing can happen, but on a much milder level.  When you see something or meet someone for the first time that your mind interprets as odd, incongruous, disharmonious, or even potentially dangerous.  Unfortunately, most of us fail to recognize it or act on it.  But it’s there.  We all have the instinct.  Develop it.

The next time you meet someone for the first time, hear a new pitch, see a new product, and let your stomach do the listening.  Then as the project develops, continue to listen abdominally.  When you start fantasizing about the profits you’re going to make, about the impact you’ll have on your co-workers, you’re in trouble.  When your stomach is crying “foul”, but your logic is reminding you of your checkbook’s balance, you’ll start trying to convince yourself.  Sell everybody else.  But don’t try to sell something to yourself.

Feel the script, the talent, the story.  When you get a twinge down below that says, “wait a minute.  STOP!!!”  I promise you, you will make a difference and your work will show it.

You can even talk yourself into pricing a product logically rather than emotionally.  If you start off with, <It costs me $10.  Therefore, to cover my SG&A costs, media, residuals, and order capture expenses, I’ve got to get $30,>  you’re in trouble.  The price of a product is always established by the market, by the people who will reach into their pockets and willingly hand you their money.

There are products that are nearly identical that sell for huge differences.  I have a friend who is in New York City’s largest wholesale jewelers.  He sells to retailers.  His products are sold at retail prices varying as much as 1000%.  Some are sold on shop at home television.  Many times the price on TV is less then the price in the retail market place.  Each market at both the demographic and psychographic levels, will justify its price level.  Without getting into a dissertation on market driven economics, the best way to determine the price of your product in advance of test marketing is to watch the person you are telling the price to.  Don’t listen, WATCH THEM.  What happened when you mentioned the price?  Did his eyebrows crunch a bit downward?  If so, bad sign.  They should have jerked up a little.  Did the corners of his mouth go down a touch?  Uh oh.  They should have remained calm or gone up a little, especially the left side.  Did he pull the product toward him for a closer look?  Hopefully yes.  If he asked to buy one right there on the spot, your price is probably too low.  Ideally, you want him to ask how it works.  That’s a good sign that you’re in the ballpark.  Once again, your instincts and his instincts are at work.  Learn to read and interpret these telltale signs.  Instincts are the primary ingredients to MAGIC.

Next comes ENERGY.  Walk on a set where an infomercial is being produced and watch what’s going on around you.  Is there any excitement?  Is everyone focused on their job?  If so, you can feel it.  It’s in the air.  It’s almost electric.  There’s ENERGY in the room.  This same ENERGY must be present in every step of the process. Every step.  If you sense a loss of ENERGY at any point, it’s likely that that link in the chain will fail.  And it’s likely that your stomach sent the first warning to your brain.

ENERGY is contagious.  When it’s in the air, suddenly everyone associated with the project catches it.  ENERGY is also the litmus test for quality personnel.  Anyone who doesn’t catch the ENERGY, get rid of them.  Now. On the spot.  He’s wrong for the project.  Whatever he’s doing will cause a negative impact on that part of the project.

Many times infomercials make use of non-professional on-camera talent; an inventor, people giving testimonials or endorsements, or because of budget constraints, “friends of the family.”  Off camera they might be great.  What enthusiasm.  But when the lights go on and the director calls out, “Action”, forget it.  They turn into limp wet rags.  The message sounds as if it’s being spoken with all the heart and soul of an android trying to set up a folding lawn chair.  Untrained people tend to be overly aware of the fact that their point will be heard perhaps scrutinized.  Instinctively, they speak inwardly toward themselves.  They are actually talking to and carefully listening to themselves.  That comes across to the TV viewer as insincere and mechanical.

ENERGY and the encouragement of a good director will help overcome this phenomenon.  There’s another trick that I find works well.  Be sure your on-camera people “talk through their eyes.”  It works and here’s how.

Viewers watch TV as if the person on the screen was talking to him only.  That means they most commonly watch the speaker’s eyes.  Instinctively, we all do this.  Therefore, to make what you’re saying have more impact, make your words flow from your eyes.  It takes a little practice.  Try this.  Say this sentence aloud to no one special:

The importance of my message is lost unless it is heard, interpreted and acknowledged by the audience.

Unless you are a trained professional, you read the words with your eyes and reported them with your mouth.

Try again, but this time as you read and speak, imagine the words are coming out of your eyes as if they were the outlet for your vocal chords.  Go ahead:

            The importance of my message is lost unless it is heard, interpreted and acknowledged by the audience.

Hear the difference?  If you didn’t, ask someone in the office to come in.  Let them try it.  Then try it again.  Listen and watch.  If you have the opportunity to use a camcorder to record it and playback, all the better.  Since infomercials are predominantly a late-night event, more often than not the speaker is talking to only one person.  Keep in mind that everything you create is for one person.  Other mediums require different projection techniques.  On radio, talk with your hands.  On stage, project through your chest.  In divorce court, I recommend talking through tears.  But ENERGY alone will not cut it.  MAGIC must be there in full force.  Then, and ONLY then, will ENERGY have its effect.


Celebrity may be classified as a recognizable face, voice or sometimes a high profile industry expert.  Sometimes all three.  Celebrity calls attention to your message, inferring a higher level of substantiation and credibility.  Its allure can be deceiving.

Using a celebrity will cost you more, by definition.  How much more?  A top name talent can demand seven figures.  But in the real world of infomercials, top talent receives amounts in the low 5’s.  I am reluctant to disclose specific amounts paid by producers.  The range is wide, even for the same talent.  One infomercial producer paid a top Oscar winning talent $3500 up front plus a 1% back-end on the net sales.  Six months later another producer paid the same talent $50000 up front plus 4%.

Celebrities are a business unto themselves.  They are concerned about their image as well as their income.  Their agenda is different from the producer’s.  You can save a fortune in up front money by putting together a contract with a very limited area (several markets) and a very limited time (say 2 weeks) with a 1-year option.  This means that if your program is not successful, you can cut your losses.  If it is successful, then you’re paying the celebrity out of “known” profits.  There are other pitfalls.  Since any claims that may arise can be directed toward the celebrity as well as the producer and principals, celebrities often require E&O (errors and omissions) insurance.  More about that in the chapter on insurance.

Most celebrities belong to unions (SAG/AFTRA, et al.) which regulate what they are to be paid and how.  Some states support unions more than others.  This can mean the entire project becomes a union project.  At the risk of being blackballed, try your hardest not to get involved with unions.  Our experience with unions has been less than cordial.  In one shoot where SAG talent was required, one actor on camera and in writing said she was SAG eligible and, if she got the part, would join SAG.  She was SAG eligible.  She got the part.  She got paid.  She refused to join SAG.  By law, the producers could not force her to join but SAG did fine the producers.  It ended up in a legal mess.

Notice how many studies are moving to Florida.  Ever wonder why?  I promise you it’s not the climate.  Florida is a “right to work state.”  Unions cannot force themselves on producers.  In respect to unions, I’ve heard celebrities who often give unions a bad shake.  They reportedly agree to do the job non-union as long as they are paid under union terms.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.  Right to work states permit you to use a combination of union and non-union members.  So check it out thoroughly.  But the big questions are: (1) “Do I need to use a celebrity at all?” (2) “What’s the best way to find one?” (3)  “What do I pay?”

A celebrity is helpful with a product line that is over marketed (that is, there is a real need to separate your product from the competition) or whose story is a bit weak.  If your product is truly unique or if your story is very strong, you can probably do just as well without a celebrity, certainly for a first run or test.  If you decide to opt for a celebrity, determine the celebrity’s purpose: endorse, recommend, draw attention to, and/or add credibility to the product.  Whichever of these you and your agency decide upon, be certain your choice fits the product.  Celebrity for the sake of celebrity is not only useless, it’s counterproductive.

MAXIM: The star of the show is the product.  First, last and always!!

Bear in mind that all people run into personal problems.  Should your celebrity become involved in a scandal, it will reflect on you and your product.  You may want to have protection in your contract.

While you probably will not be able to get exclusive use of the celebrity due to the enormous costs often associated with these sorts of contracts and due to the limited run of direct response advertising, just by using him in a specific arena, you have some generic exclusivity.  For him to endorse a similar product would be detrimental to everyone.  While this may happen from time to time, I am not familiar with a case having to do with an infomercial.

To find a celebrity there are a couple of good houses.  Look in Response TV for a list of agencies, talk to your ad agency, or see if there is a friend of a friend who knows someone.  Jack King (310-652-5700) in Los Angeles is a celebrity broker.  He works for the producer.  It’s his job to obtain talent at the lowest price.  Most of all, try to deal direct.  Here I go again getting into more trouble.  In my opinion agents kill more deals than they make.  There are two occasions in 1992 where both celebrity and the sponsor were in full agreement.  The agent stepped in telling the celebrity he could wrangle more money out of the sponsor and lost both deals.

Typically you may expect to pay a celebrity from $2500-$10000 for a two day shoot plus a percentage of the net sales, from 0.025% to 4%.  Net is defined as the amount of money the producer receives less returns, less fulfillment, less sales tax.  A straight buy-out could be $25000 or much more.  Then the frequency of the program airings and the media (cable or broadcast, local or national) comes into play.  Your ad agency or celebrity search company will outline the details.  In addition to the up front monies, you will have to cover transportation, lodging, meals, and dry cleaning if he brings his own wardrobe.  Also, these guys do not travel on Greyhound and stay at Motel 6.  Sometimes, though rarely, they travel with an assistant.  The assistant’s costs must be covered as well.

Sometimes it’s cheaper to go to the celebrity or the endorser directly and shoot the video near where he lives.  Who’s available?  Just about everybody.  With the reports of how much money was paid to Richard Simmons, Robert Vaughn, Cher, George Hamilton, Kenny Rogers, John Ritter, Bernie Kopell, Sally Struthers, the late Michael Landon, and others, celebrities are interested if not outright anxious to get involved.  My best advice when dealing with celebrities is to use your consultant’s or agency’s experience and contacts and to deal with a celebrity search company who does this sort of thing everyday.