The publicity around the recent death of TV pitchman Billy Mays reminded us of the popularity of the infomercial culture. The rumors that cocaine was involved in May’s death are easily believed in a profession where hyperactivity is a plus. Sure, lots of celebrities have shilled for various products of questionable value on the airwaves. But Mays, like Ron Popiel, Tony Robbins and a handful of others, became celebrities on salesmanship alone. The Rabbit has to wonder how many actors and actresses find something to admire in a huckster’s skill at creating a character and convincing the public that it’s real.
Remy Stern’s look at the infomercial and sales TV, But Wait…There’s More, shares a lot with its subject. It’s upbeat, promises more than it delivers and keeps you intrigued long after you should have changed channels. There’s a great book waiting to be written about the world of the television infomercial and its relation to the long, seamy history of American hucksterism. But Wait isn’t it.
On its behalf, let’s say Stern’s first book is a lively account of a phenomenon–television marketing–that’s been around almost as long as the medium itself. But, like those late-night pitches themselves, it’s tall on enthusiasm and short on substance. Despite 15 pages of “end notes” many of Stern’s claims seemed pulled from thin air. When he says, “It’s also quite clear that the infomercial attracts a higher proportion of disreputable entrepreneurs than other industries,” you can’t help but wonder if that includes the finance or mortgage industries. (Stern tries to validate his claims by pointing on that brokerage firms are required to run background checks on their employees, as if that made a difference.)
Stern introduces the topics that drew us to his book–say, the psychology behind late-night selling–but doesn’t provide much more insight than to say that dreary-eyed viewers are more apt to do something impulsive in the wee hours. He outlines three principles of TV sales–false scarcity, social proof (“follow the leader”) and repetition (plenty of that). But larger explanations escape him. He references Robert Cialdini’s The Psychology of Persuasion without telling us how it applies. One hopes for ties to an American history of sideshow sales and barker pitches but those hopes are as hollow as the promise of extended value if you act now. A single reference to the application of TV sales in political circles, that of Republican adviser Frank Luntz’s skill at labeling issues to the party’s advantage (think “death tax”), is a door that opens to nowhere. There’s a whole other book waiting to be written on the subject.
Yet Stern’s account of pocket fishermen, get-rich schemes and miracle nutritional supplements is smooth, fast-paced and entertaining. He never quite explains why some has-been celebrities are able to re-invent themselves as infomercial hosts while others only make fools of themselves, but it’s obviously clear why they try. Money may be behind everything but the consumers’ gullibility–something Stern brushes over–is the component that makes it all possible. He makes interesting points about how the networks facilitate questionable product pitches (even as they conduct exposes into their practices) and how the internet helps to debunk them. The Rabbit recommends reading But Wait…during the late, sleepless hours when something shallow but fun is required. It beats watching Chuck Norris marvel at the results from the exercise machine he champions.–Cabbage Rabbit