Here at BrightReviews, we watch a LOT of commercials (hey, it’s our job!) and it seems to us no matter what they’re trying to sell you, they all use the same basic formula. In the spirit of our last article about the anatomy of a nutrional supplement page, we present… Anatomy of an “As Seen On TV” Commercial!

#1 – They Show You “The Problem”

This is usually done in black-and-white to make it look old-fashioned and/or depressing. Frustrated men and women of all ages, doing something “wrong” – maybe it’s toasting toast, putting on mascara, or even washing the dog. 

What you should know: This “old” way of doing something may be perfectly legitimate, but the inconvenience is heightened by the actors, who are paid to make it look that way. 

#2 – The show you the “Solution” (aka Their Product)

Suddenly, it switches to color and the music gets more upbeat. The sad/angry/confused people from the black-and-white part are now HAPPY! They use the product in the intended way and are amazed by the results!

What you should know: The happy music and people are there to raise the dopamine levels in your brain. According to an article from Consumer Reports, the pace of these commercials are designed to take you on an “emotional roller coaster ride” whose end result is you picking up the phone or clicking “buy” on a website. 

Director Collette Litano, considered Queen of the Infomercial admits “it’s really hard to get someone to take their credit card out in one minute. There’s an art to it.” Ms. Litano has made a career of directing thousands of infomercials, probably including the one you just saw. 

#3 – The Testimonials

Then they’ll cut to a video testimonial of supposedly real customers or people who have tried it in a mall. Sometimes if it’s a health-related product they will get a quote or endorsement from an actual doctor.

What you should know: These testimonials are from people who are either paid for their appearance or given free products. Put it this way: if you were walking in a mall and somebody offered you a chance to be on TV just for trying a new product, do you think you’d have the guts to say you didn’t like it? (The negatives always end up on the cutting room floor.) 

Also, when it comes to doctor’s testimonials, look at the credentials: rarely is it an M.D., or Medical Doctor, a person that has spent many years in medical school and received a degree. Usually, it’s a D.C., or Doctor of Chiropractic, a vocation that is considered “alternative medicine” and requires much less training.

#4 – The Fine Print

It may be only there for a second or two, but almost every infomercial has some form of small print at the bottom of the screen. 

What you should know. This is very likely the most truthful stuff in the whole darn commercial! It probably contains statements like “participants were compensated for their appearance” or “actual results may vary.” It’s there for legal reasons so in case you try to sue them for fraud, they can say they alerted you.*

*you should have read the tiny print.

#5 – The “Special Limited Offer!”

Now that your dopamine levels are up, they try to tempt you to act right away with a Special Offer – there is often a countdown clock ticking away to the supposed expiration urging you to call now and keep trying if the line is busy!

What you should know: Using the limited time tactic is designed to not just put pressure on you (resulting in an impulse buy) but also to take advantage of what is called FOMO – fear of missing out. A famous example (at least in the world of infomercial lore) is when writer Colleen Szot coined the phrase “if operators are busy, please call back,” causing sales of products using it to skyrocket. 

What You Can Do

Now that we’ve exposed the sales tactics behind your standard “As Seen On TV” commercial, this will hopefully allow you to step back and get a clearer picture of what they are selling.

  1. First, wait at least 10 minutes. The dopamine “high” only lasts about 6. That way, the initial excitement has worn off.
  2. Then ask yourself “do I really need this?”
  3. Look for online reviews from reputable sites (like BrightReviews!)
  4. Read the fine print on their website (or freeze-frame the commercial if you can).

Finally, many of these products are available from the “As Seen On TV” section of your local Walgreens or other retailer. Many of them are also available online from Walmart or Amazon, often at a cheaper price. This way you can avoid some of the tactics used like sneaky pricing, aggressive upselling, or auto-ship programs

But according to The Complete Guide to Infomercial Marketing, that’s all part of the plan. “Millions of infomercial viewers will see a product on television for $59.95 and won’t buy it. But if they see it at their local Kmart for $49.95, they snap it up,” author Timothy R. Hawthorne says.

Thanks for reading. You may also like: The Science of Infomercials Why You Buy

And let us know what you think below!