Pitchmen of portent

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directresponse_small.jpgADOTAS — Discovery Channel has been a friend to direct response advertising for over two decades.

It has been a consistently valuable outlet for DRTV programming, and was the first cable network to sign an exclusive media contract for overnight long form avails with a direct response agency (my own, as it happened) back in 1985.

With the debut of Pitchmen a week ago Wednesday night, the relationship is cozier than ever. The program shadows the industry’s most prominent personalities—Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan—for a behind-the-scenes look at direct response television. To the uninitiated, it offers enlightening glimpses into the process of transforming ideas into products that sell. First and foremost an entertainment program, Pitchmen ramps up the drama from the start. In documentary style, it follows the fates of two inventors, who pitch their ideas to DRTV’s Dynamic Duo. The hope is that the medium can make their new products as ubiquitous as Oxi-Clean (whose ads aired twice in the hour-long episode).

We learn quickly that few products likely have what it takes. Even useful ones—like a clever baby bottle holder that helps 5- to 10-month-old babies feed themselves—aren’t likely to flourish. As Telebrands’ mastermind A.J. Khubani asserts, “the market is just too small.”

When the creator of the GPS Pal presents a simple container for relocating GPS units from windshields to cupholders, “Sully” (now that Anthony’s a dramatic protagonist, he shares the warm, fuzzy nickname industry insiders have known for years) remarks that “we look for products that solve a common problem.” Quite right. But Billy is concerned that it lacks a “wow” factor. He similarly inquires of the other featured product—shoe insoles made with shock-absorbent “Impact Gel—“is it demonstrable?” All of this comes straight from page one of any DRTV playbook. But once Matt the inventor smashes his gel-protected hand with a big honking hammer, Billy’s question is answered, demonstrably and affirmatively.

We see many scenes common to the DRTV process: strategy meetings, rudimentary market research (“real people giving real opinions,” as Sullivan describes it); testing creatives by airing polished spots; and the determining importance of value-laden offers. This point provides the show’s best dramatic conflict, with the insole inventor reluctant to drop price points, and Billy insisting that all products he sells go for $19.95. Those “but wait, there’s more” moments have purpose: “we lump ‘em up … we really give ‘em a value.”

As Pitchmen concludes, we see the hallmark of DRTV in plain view: checking call center data to see how many sales the two-minute spots drove. The narrator makes the stakes clear: “this information will tell them the future of Impact Gel.” Happily for Matt, the spots earned 4 to 1 MER (media efficiency ration) returning four thousand dollars in sales for every one thousand spent upon media time. Basically, a gold mine.

Pitchmen’s real significance is what it reveals about contemporary marketing trends. First, it confirms that DRTV is more mainstreamed than ever. If you’re reading this, you’d likely already find Pitchmen quite interesting. But Discovery isn’t targeting the Ad Pro niche. In one respect, DRTV and TV itself are two sides of one coin: a primary goal is to appeal to the masses. Infomercials, their 1- and 2-minute short form cousins, and DRTV “celebrity” hosts are familiar and of interest to millions. It’s no stretch to identify Billy Mays as a star—which Pitchmen confirms in a car show scene where he wanders around signing autographs.

The second trend Pitchmen illustrates is the ongoing merging of entertainment and advertising. We all know our nomenclature is purposefully backward. The ads are the real programs; the “entertainment” is an envelope to enable the ad views. As consumers catch on to this and rebel with their skip buttons, advertisers are aggressively blurring old divisions. In Pitchmen, the blurring has multiple layers. The show is not only an advertising wrapper, it promotes advertising itself. It promotes the GPS Pal and Impact Gel insoles. It promotes Billy, and Anthony, and Telebrands, whose brands will all benefit from exposure that’s basically free.

Got an idea, John Q? Forget calling your local ad agency… call a cable network programming VP!

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