Those of us who were around then remember certain skits pretty vividly. And for those of you who didn’t see Dan Aykroyd puree fish in the Bass-O-Matic, there’s Hulu.
That’s the first DRTV parody I remember seeing, the granddaddy of a phenomenon that grows bigger each year. Look up “infomercial parody” on YouTube, and you’ll get 1,400 links. Search “infomercials” for nearly 17,000 options. You can waste devote a whole day browsing DRTV takeoffs, and you’ll spend equal time smiling and scowling. The bad thing about many of these advertising paeans is that “users” aren’t as funny or creative as they think. The good thing is that they tell us a lot about consumers views on products and advertising.”
So here is your starter set of “Lessons To Be Gleaned Watching Direct Response Television Knockoffs Online:”
1) Sincerity doesn’t matter—imitation’s still flattery.
Pick ten random YouTube infomercial send-ups, and you conclude pretty quickly the creators think the format is dumb. (Of course, none of these clips run 28½ minutes, so they aren’t infomercials at all, they’re “spots” … but enough know-it-all lecturing.) Our amateur auteurs think the format is dumb, the hosts are dumb, and the products are dumb. And that anybody who buys what they’re selling is dumb. With a clever creative, they imply, you can talk people into buying a brick. Me? I look at these cynics like an 11-year-old boy who keeps punching a girl on her shoulder every recess. Though his attention doesn’t take the best form, the attention is constant because he really kind of likes her. He just hasn’t learned to express himself well.
2) Copycat commercials prove direct response works because they are a direct response. Ironic, isn’t it? DRTV’s purpose is to inspire viewers to take action. Admittedly, it’s better when they pick up the phone, but picking up a camera is revealing as well. Thousands are so entranced by undisguised direct selling that they’re seemingly compelled to try one themselves. Anyone can do this stuff, right?
3) DRTV isn’t as easy as it looks. It’s hardly industry snobbery to imply that many of these spoofs are unwatchable (I’ll spare you the links, because they’re not hard to find). This is inevitable when two teenagers shoot film in their kitchens without scripts. What is surprising is how often the performance and production values are actually passable, when the content decisions are deplorably sophomoric (click at your own risk). While rude language and crude topics are an oft-repeating oeuvre for young males, the spoofs would be funnier if they walked the line of taste with more subtlety. Not that SNL or Mad TV parodies are exactly sophisticated, but they do prove professionals are better suited to the task. The very best takeoffs, unsurprisingly, come from people who create real spots for a living. In other cases—like Father Vic for Soul Wow—they are real spots.
4) Never underestimate the power of personality. Of the most popular infomercial parodies, about half feature a faux Billy Mays, the other half a wannabe “Shamwow Vince” Offer. And, as Yogi Berra might say, the remaining third feature a product. Of course, being famous for being a commercial spokesperson isn’t new. Remember John Cameron Swayze keep on ticking for Timex? Anita Bryant and her Florida Sunshine Tree? Marlin Perkins for Mutual of Omaha? Fabio for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter? (Okay, just kidding about that one.) The point is that on YouTube at least, more people play at being Billy Mays than at being Albert Pujols, Tom Brokaw, and Will Smith put together. The pitchman is clearly a resonant character.
5) DRTV is as mainstream as America gets. Today it’s Billy, Vince, and the Snuggie. A generation ago, it was Popeil, Robbins, and Ginsu Knives. Just say the names, and people know what you’re talking about. In an era where so many crave their Famous Fifteen, direct response is the strongest of the TV reality genres—a survivor that will outlast Survivor. It’s so ingrained, in fact, that mainstreaming’s chief institution—the high school—embraces infomercials as teaching tools. You can find hundreds of class assignments now posted on YouTube, where the task was to create an infomercial. Camcordered recitations of iambic pentameter?
Well, it is YouTube, so you’ll find some—but not nearly so many. Contemporary students don’t want to read Shakespeare, or any Homer that isn’t a Simpson. The closest that most students ever come to Charles Dickens is Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. So teachers turn to accessible infomercials to teach cultural analysis and critical thinking. Students not only complete these assignments, they share them online and thus join the cultural conversation … willingly! Okay, like, I, um, ya know … I know what yer thinkin? But it’s a start.
6) DRTV is a one-stop communications course. Colleges use them too. After only five minutes browsing through .edu sites, you can find a dozen higher learning institutions—including such stalwarts as Princeton, M.I.T. and Indiana—that offer courses asking students to create infomercials. Such a project can teach several things. Foremost are effective ad techniques: eye-popping visuals, attention grabbing copy, the power of demonstrations, and the irresistible persuasiveness of focusing upon benefits (even the brick “infomercial” knew enough to shine its spotlight on those). Ultimately, they feature calls to action, general advertising’s oft-neglected invitations to buy. Perhaps not the most noble topic for many professors who wander through academe’s hallways, but tell it to the folks in the unemployment line. To those hardest hit by our sagging economy, there’s nothing quite so wonderful as buying.
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