By  on March 29, 1994

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Although the Third Annual Infomercial Conference and Trade Show, held here last week, had more than its share of hucksters and hustlers, one of the major concerns was the rising cost of infomercial air time.

Infomercials have become a victim of their own success. When entrepreneurs created the long-form commercials, media time was relatively cheap. Now Fortune 500 companies are getting into the act and driving prices up because they are willing to pay.

Several speakers talked about the need for an "integrated marketing approach" that uses infomercials to drive sales at the retail level.

"The handwriting is definitely on the wall," said Gene Silverman, vice president of marketing of Hawthorne Communications, an infomercial advertising agency. "A half hour of media time is too expensive for most infomercials. Within a year, the ultimate goal of all infomercials will be to drive retail sales [in addition to on-air sales]."

Jeff Engler, president of U.S.A. Direct, the electronic media division of Fingerhut Companies Inc., said the company has begun focusing on other areas of distribution to augment its infomercial business and defray media costs. These include retail outlets, Fingerhut catalogs and its new 24-hour home shopping channel, S, which was announced during the convention.

Other hot topics at the convention were:

Target Stores is producing half-hour infomercials that discuss the stores in general and do not attempt to sell merchandise. The goal, according to Rod Eaton, director of sales promotion, is to drive retail sales.

Philip Press, vice president of sales and marketing for CBS Television Stations, said the network has developed a package for selling late-night infomercial time augmented by 15- or 30-second commercials aired during the day.

The traditional commercials whet the viewer's appetite, inviting them to get more information by taping the infomercial at night. CBS assigns each infomercial a VCR-Plus number, so viewers with VCR-Plus technology from Gemstar, can set their recorders by entering a code number assigned to the infomercial.

The Los Angeles Times proposed an infomercial concept utilizing Gemstar's VCR-Plus to Barneys New York to promote its recently opened store.

Shuk Rushing, director of business development of Gemstar/I-Plus said Barneys decided not to use the concept for the store opening, but hopes the company will use the infomercial as video catalog to depict some of the merchandise in the store.A Barneys New York spokeswoman confirmed that Bonnie Solomon, director of advertising, has seen the proposal.

Press said he is pitching the idea of video catalogs to several department stores.

"The pot is boiling," he said. "Think about the retail possibilities."

Origins Natural Resources finished filming its long-awaited infomercial in the Los Angeles area and will begin testing it in May. Sharon LeVan, senior vice president of creative marketing development for Estee Lauder Cos., said, "We're selling a skin care kit focussing on our skin care pairs. [Infomercials] are new for the company. The objective is that it will be very positive to the retail business."

Hernand Gonzalez Jr., vice president of merchandising and promotion of Telemundo Network in Hialeah, Fla., said the company hopes to begin airing Spanish-language home shopping programming in late 1994 or early 1995.

The company is talking to Home Shopping Network and Shop-At-Home in Knoxville, Tenn., about developing home shopping for the Hispanic-American market."There's tremendous opportunity for Hispanic home shopping in the U.S.," Gonzales said. "But we realize that you can't just take the concept and translate it."

Barbour/Langley Programs, the creators of the "Cops" and "Code 3" TV series, are developing "Bargain Basement," a late-night talk show with transactional elements. It will sell five to seven products per show. Cliff DeManty, director of merchandising for Barbour/Langley, said, "Johnny Carson brought in singers and held up record albums for years. Here, we'll sell the albums."

DeManty said the program will focus on upscale, name brand products, including apparel. "Bargain Basement" will air on Fox.

Another Barbour/Langley production will be lifestyle oriented, "targeting women in Middle America," said DeManty, who added, "It is partially supported by a major clothing manufacturer." He declined to name the manufacturer.

According to sources, Philip Kingsley, the hair care specialist, is working on an infomercial for a line of hair care products.

Victoria Principal is testing a hair care line through her Principal Secret skin care infomercial.

Hearst Publications is developing a half-hour program centered around Good Housekeeping magazine. The show, which will have a transactional element, will start in late May.Jeff Glickman, president of First Class Marketing in Carlsbad, Calif., is sourcing merchandise for the show, which will air on Lifetime.

First Class Marketing is using books to cross-promote products sold through infomercials. Georgette Mosbacher's book, "The Feminine Force," lists an 800-number for the Feminine Institute, which publishes newsletters on positive thinking and work-related issues. Callers to the institute receive the tip-filled newsletter, which also gives information on ordering Mosbacher's Exclusives cosmetics line, sold through infomercials and on QVC. Mark Kress, president of Joan Rivers Products, spoke candidly about "Can We Shop?" and its first eight weeks on the air. He said the program has sold more than $5 million worth of products so far. Next month, the show will begin giving its programs themes to create a better selling environment for the merchandise.

Kress said finding the right staff has been difficult.

"There's a lack of experienced people," he said. "Where do you find producers who know how to produce and sell products? This is a medium with no rules.

"We had a 1 rating in February sweeps," Kress added. "Selling does not attract an audience. By normal TV standards, our ratings have been disappointing. But sales are building steadily. Over 70 percent of people who've bought from us never bought from QVC, so we're reaching a new audience. The future of 'Can We Shop?' lies in bringing more people into the store."

Kevin Harrington, executive vice president of National Media, the infomercial company that will merge with Value Vision, talked about the difficulties of navigating the international market.

In Germany, for example, there are restrictions on certain ingredients. If a cosmetics product contains a banned ingredient, it must be totally reformulated for the German market.

Earl Greenburg, president of Transactional Media, an infomercial firm in Beverly Hills, said, "Infomercials have moved from the margins of advertising into the mainstream."

They also make some people in the industry uncomfortable, according to one ad man.

"Infomercials are very threatening to advertising agencies," said Jay Margulies, vice president of Ogilvy & Mather.Unlike commercials, where results are hard to quantify, the direct response component of infomercials is "a way of measuring sales that can be used to hold agencies accountable and show them up as not being good brand marketers."

On Wednesday night, the Program Length Advertising Awards were handed out. Tyee Productions, a Portland, Ore., company known for its high quality infomercial productions, swept the awards with five globe-shaped statues, including one for the most effective beauty product infomercial -- "The Thinking Man's Guide to Hair Restoration."

Tyee is the company that produced Avon's Anew infomercial and performed surgery on Revlon's Beauty Confidence infomercial featuring Dolly Parton.

Prior to the ceremony, John Ripper, president of Tyee, said, "Cosmetics and skin care are extremely difficult to sell through infomercials. You need a big corporation or super celebrity behind it. Elizabeth Arden and a number of other people have been looking at infomercials."

The closest thing to Hollywood glamor was supplied by Victoria Jackson, the queen of cosmetics infomercials, who made a brief appearance at the awards, which were hosted by Penn and Teller.

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