NEW YORK — The stature of a star is no guarantee of success in the infomercials game. In some cases, the bigger the star, the steeper the fall.
Who would have thought Dolly Parton would need a redo? Or that Burt Reynolds would not automatically get those telephones ringing?
While a few celebrities, such as Victoria Principal and Cher, have spawned thriving direct-response cottage industries, for every success story there are many stars whose infomercial track record is a flop.
Although experts are divided over the industry’s success rate — some say one in seven infomercials succeeds, and others say it’s closer to one in 30 — no one denies the high-risk nature of the business.
“It’s a magical formula when it works,” said Steven Dworman, publisher of the Infomercial Marketing Report, an industry newsletter. “There have been hundreds of programs with top-level celebrities that haven’t worked. Celebrities are not the answer.”
“A celebrity creates instant awareness and attention for products that have been newly invented,” said John Ripper, president of Tyee, a production company in Portland, Ore. “Products that have a lot of brand recognition may not need a celebrity.”
Although stars are still considered an essential ingredient for beauty infomercials, even here there can be failures. When U.S.A. Direct produced an infomercial for California Contour Systems, an anti-cellulite product, it spent lavishly on the production. Joan Rivers and Farrah Fawcett were featured — and the infomercial didn’t work. Experts said there was a credibility gap: Neither star was ever shown using the product.
The first rule of advertising is that the product is king, and infomercials are no different. But the danger in using stars is that they sometimes steal the spotlight.
Dworman said an infomercial for Beautiful Skin showed too much Raquel Welch and too little product.
While stars can be channel-stoppers, they have to establish a connection with the audience. Dworman said Revlon’s Beauty Confidence with Dolly Parton was an unfortunate pairing of celebrity and product. The infomercial was revised to include more makeup demonstrations on a variety of women, but Dworman doesn’t think it will ever be a blockbuster.
When Loni Anderson appeared in an infomercial for Loni Facial Systems wearing an evening dress, she distanced herself from the average American woman. And the icy Faye Dunaway never connected with audiences in Jose Ebert’s infomercial for Secret Color.
“I think the common thread of the successful shows is that the star has a credible relationship to the product and does not appear to be just a hired gun,” said John Kogler, publisher of the Jordan Whitney Report, which tracks infomercials.
Another pitfall is a host who doesn’t evidence genuine enthusiasm for the product.
“We spent a lot of time and money on an infomercial with Joan Collins for Bioflora, a skin care product,” said Kevin Harrington, executive vice president of National Media. “It taught us that it’s difficult just putting a celebrity’s name on something if the person is not wholeheartedly behind the product. Just having them show up for the show and host it, typically has not worked for us.”
Many of the bombs are never seen by most people because they are quickly whisked off the air. It usually takes no more than a weekend to determine whether an infomercial will fly. Buying the air time for a test can cost from $5,000 to $30,000. Most firms must recoup twice the amount of their expenditure to continue.
Other failures include Primage, a treatment line, hosted by Linda Evans; Danielo cosmetics, hosted by Jennifer O’Neil and Derma Pure with Susan Blakely.
There was also the Donna Mills Beauty Magazine and Stephanie Powers’s Health Glow cosmetics. Morgan Brittany appeared in a short-lived infomercial for the Incredible Cover Kit and Jane Seymour unsuccessfully pitched the Tyra skin care system. An infomercial for Desert Beauty cosmetics hosted by Jill St. John didn’t work until the firm reshot it without her.
National Media produced a low-budget infomercial for the kitchen appliance Daily Mixer, which went on to do $75 million in sales.
“The show was still working, but it was slowing down a bit,” said National Media’s Harrington. “We wanted to beef it up with a celebrity and we chose Susan Anton. It did about half the sales when we were expecting our sales to double. Susan Anton didn’t do a great job. She wasn’t into it.” Sometimes a product simply reaches the end of its life cycle. Where There’s a Will There’s an A, an educational tool, had a strong run when hosted by John Ritter and Michael Landon. When a version with Burt Reynolds aired, sales fell off, but Kogler said that the universe of buyers may have already been tapped and that Reynolds was not the cause.
Jack King, a celebrity broker, said stars are too often made the scapegoats for an infomercial’s failure.
“If a show works well, it’s because a celebrity drew attention to the campaign,” he said, “but it’s just as important that the call to action — the actual pitch — is strong and the offer is perceived as a good value.”
Failures have not dampened interest on the part of infomercial producers or Hollywood stars.
“A lot of people want in,” said Andrew Steinberg, who packages infomercials at International Creative Management, a talent agency. “Everybody wants to get rich. It’s another avenue of revenue and people are taking it much more seriously. There’s less of a stigma.”
Steinberg said national advertisers such as Chrysler, Revlon, Sears Roebuck, Philips and Target Stores are luring more prominent stars to infomercials.
Lesser stars are paid from $30,000 to $100,000, plus a percentage of sales, while bigger names can command $1 million advances with 1 to 2 percent of the gross sale, according to King.
“As more traditional advertisers get into the marketplace, you’re going to see more better-known stars doing infomercials,” said Kogler. “National advertisers are used to paying the salaries they command. They also have a broader strategy where they don’t need to make money on every infomercial, but can use infomercials to drive retail sales and create brand awareness.”
Not everybody is star-struck. For its first infomercial for Origins Natural Resources, Estee Lauder hired a relative unknown, Keely Shaye Smith, a former Elite model, who was the environmental reporter on the “Home Show.”
“Her background fits exactly with what Origins is all about,” said Sharon LeVan, senior vice president of creative marketing development for Estee Lauder Cos. “We didn’t want some unrelated celebrity that would overshadow the Origins story.”