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Infomercial biz 'Proactiv'-ly reinvents itself in digital age

Tuesday - 7/29/2014, 4:23am  ET

Snuggie (snuggie)
The infomercial industry is morphing, to continue introducing viewers to products including The Snuggie, (Snuggie)

WASHINGTON -- Rest assured -- it will be possible to buy the Snuggie, Proactiv, and the Perfect Bacon Bowl even as the infomercial industry reinvents itself.

In the early days of infomercials, viewers who just had to buy a blender or other product demonstrated by enthusiastic salespeople had only one choice -- pick up the phone.

Things have changed dramatically, says Julie Coons, president of the Electronic Retailing Association, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association for companies that sell goods and services on television, online and on the radio.

"Many consumer do pick up the phone, but increasingly it's through Internet ordering," says Coons.

While customers may first see the product on TV, they are now more inclined to take action by typing, rather than dialing.

"We see our members report anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of their sales are now coming from Internet e-tailing, if you will," says Coons.

In The Economics of Infomercials, Priceonomics says the infomercial industry could be worth $250 billion, while the worth of the entire U.S. network and cable industry was estimated at $97 billion in 2013.

Do infomercials have to be true?

Do ShamWow, Ped Egg, and The Hawaii Chair have to live up to the claims made by their energetic and charismatic pitchmen and pitchwomen?

"They most certainly have to be true," says Coons. "They must be based upon sound claims, and sound science and sound research."

Coons says advertisers have the right to create content in an entertaining way, but the ads will be scrutinized.

"Advertising across the board is a self-regulated industry, with oversight by the Federal Trade Commission, and where there are health claims, by the Federal Drug Administration," says Coons.

An infomercial that doesn't pass the sniff test can't expect to remain on the air, she says.

She points to advertisements that promise permanent weight loss without exercise or diet changes.

"As the industry regulatory agencies scan the marketplace, they will inquire if they see something that they think is just not possible," says Coons.

Competing, cooperating with social media

Despite advertisers increasing their presence online, Coons says television's reach and influence remain strong.

"I would say the members of the Electronic Retailing Association still believe the power of television is enormous, so I do believe the role of television advertising will continue," says Coons.

Yet, the infomercial industry is complementing its broadcast message with online and social media engagement.

"Our members are certainly following and accelerating those trends, in terms of meeting the consumers where they are," says Coons.

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