You probably don’t consider yourself a “sucker,” yet perhaps you’ve fallen for one of those long form infomercial pitches. Don’t feel bad, these commercials are DESIGNED to make you buy. In this article we dissect the science, economics, and downright manipulative elements behind them and what draws people to call the number on the screen.

Infomercial 101

First, a little bit o’ history. Selling products on television goes back to July 1, 1941 where an ad for Bulva watches ran before a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies (ah, dose were da days!) And in 1949 the world’s first half-hour infomercial aired on WEWS-TV in Cleveland for the Vitamix Blender, hosted by its inventor/founder William G. “Papa” Barnard:

And in many ways, not much has changed since: infomercials still use a persuasive pitchman with a compelling story and product demonstration tempting you with a special offer if you act now.

Why Infomercials Work

Because the “As Seen On TV” industry is a billion dollar business ($170 billion in 2009 and growing) there is also an art as well as a science as to why they get so many people to pick up the phone and pull out their wallet.

First, you may be tired

Many of these infomercials run late at night, not only because rates are cheaper, but perhaps because you are more susceptible to their influence. CBS News reported about a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research that showed advertisers have a better chance of convincing you to buy when you are fatigued. They called this “regularly depletion” which makes us feel like we’ve thought things through more carefully than we really have.

While some some of these ads do run during daylight hours you may be still be so bombarded with stimuli that you suffer from decision fatigue. A New York Times article investigating the phenomena concluded this may occur in part due to low blood sugar and the cumulative effect of making decisions and resisting temptation all day. (A simple example is when you grab a candy bar at the supermarket checkout – you’ve made so many decisions in the store that you are now more vulnerable at the end.)

Second, they psychologically manipulate you into feeling good

A 2010 article in Consumer Reports asserted that infomercials are carefully scripted to raise dopamine levels in the brain. First they show you a “problem” (usually in black and white) and then offer their product (in color) as the “solution” with happy music and pump it up with special offers (…but wait, there’s MORE!) According to the article, these dopamine levels drop after 5 or 6 minutes. “That’s why infomercials ask you to buy in the next 3 minutes,” concluded advertising expert Martin Lindstrom.

Third, they “wow” you with the celebrity factor or charming pitchman

Everybody likes a familiar face, especially on television when they’re alone or it’s late. They may seem like an old friend and/or someone you can trust. A Harvard Business School study examining the impact celebrity endorsements had on products generally concluded it positively impacted a company’s profits by 4% or $10 million.

A famous example is the George Foreman Grill, a barbecue that initially didn’t have anything to do with former heavyweight champ. But merely merely stamping his name on it helped the company, Salton, sell $200 million worth of grills.

Finally, they make you feel like you’ll be one of the crowd

Nobody likes to be left out, especially if they sense there’s a fantastic bargain and everyone is already in on it. An NPR episode examining the persuasive power of advertising focused on Colleen Szot, who was credited for changing the wording on an infomercial from “operators are waiting, please call now” to “if operators are busy, please call again.” That tweak created the implication that there was heavy demand for the product, which caused sales to skyrocket.

How To Avoid Being Taken In

Now that you see more clearly how they design the infomercial process to reduce your willpower, here are a few important things to keep in mind.

  • It’s never a good idea to purchase anything while half-asleep or an empty stomach. Sleep on it or have yourself a bite to eat, and then re-evaluate.
  • When re-evaluating, examine their claims. Does it seem “too good to be true” especially at such a (seemingly) low price? Hint: if it does, it probably is.
  • Do your research. Is whatever they are selling available elsewhere for cheaper, or even free? What are consumers saying,?
  • A great place to look is right here on! We are always non-partisan and not affiliated with any brands. (Also see our series on The Seven Deadly Sins of As Seen On TV Products: EXPOSED.)
  • Don’t be persuaded just because a celebrity is endorsing the product or the spokesperson is charismatic. And remember even testimonials from supposedly real people are sometimes paid actors.

We hope these suggestions help open your eyes to the hypnotic power of the infomercial. If you would like to learn more on the subject, may we suggest The Economics of Infomercials by John Nathanson.  

Also, be sure to check out this Dateline: NBC segment, where they investigate the world of the infomercial by going undercover and creating a fake product.

Let us know what you think below!