The return of the infomercial

Thanks to the irony and the Internet, cheesy advertising is back in style.

The past three years were a rotten time to be an autoworker, carpenter or investment banker. But if you happened to manufacture oscillating barbells, business boomed. The creators of Shake Weight, the exercise tool with the oddly sexual infomercial, recently announced they sold two million units in less than a year, garnering $40 million in revenue. Other products pitched by direct response ads, or infomercials, had similar success. The Snuggie, a fleece blanket with sleeves, sold four million units in just five months, more than 50 million ShamWow cloths have sold since 2007, and TeleBrands, makers of the PedEgg callus remover, saw their profits increase by 30% during the recession.

Cheap advertising rates, expansion into retail stores and the products’ oddball appeal all contributed to “As seen on TV” success. “Our products solve everyday problems in a fun way, in a way where they become a conversation piece,” says A. J. Khubani, the CEO of TeleBrands. “Just like the movie industry does well in a bad economy, our products do well because they’re cheap entertainment.”

The infomercials for items like the Better Marriage Blanket, which traps flatulence, and the Shake Weight are incredibly popular online thanks to their comic value. Spots for the Shake Weight have been viewed more than a million times on YouTube, thanks largely to the suggestive way that women in the infomercial hold — and shake — the weight.

The same innuendo led the Shake Weight to be featured on The View and Ellen as well as parodied on Saturday Night Live. The device’s manufacturers noticed its erotic qualities during the development stage, according to Johann Verheem, CEO of Fitness IQ, which makes the Shake Weight. “But it wasn’t like we hoped its suggestive nature would catapult it,” he says. “If anything, we were trying to underplay it.”

That said, the company happily capitalized on its online notoriety. “We’re always looking for things that will stop the channel,” Verheem says.

Reaching customers became easier during the recession as the cost of advertising time dropped, meaning companies could buy more ads. “When the economy is doing well and people are shopping, we do well because people are shopping,” Verheem says. “When the economy is down, we do well because media prices come down.” There was an 18% increase in the number of infomercials on the air since 2007, according to Nielsen, a market research firm. The average U.S. household now watches 32 infomercials each week.

The increased publicity has boosted demand for the products in traditional retailers. Once only available by ordering directly from the company, over 90% of the items hawked in informercials are now sold through stores like Walmart and Bed, Bath and Beyond. Out of the 35 million PedEggs sold, for example, only two million were sold through phone and Internet orders, according to Khubani.

Direct marketers do still contend with the perceptions that they sell snake oil via a 1-800 number. It’s a view that is partly warranted: Consumer Reports tested 15 infomercial products earlier this year and found only two delivered their advertised benefits. But even as they increase in credibility and in sales, it is unlikely the low-rent aesthetics of infomercials themselves will change. “It’s not like we can’t afford slicker commercials,” says Khubani. “We’ve tested those, but people respond better to the ones that are campy and over-the-top.”