There's a common thread that runs through Ron Popeil, Billy Mays, a motor-mouthed gal with a mortifying case of adult acne and a handsome prince whose sidekick is a pooping unicorn.
It's the persuasive personal touch. And it's one of the reasons that the decades-old infomercial—that wee-hours, hard-sell ad format—is suddenly fashionable again, with new twists for the digital era.
The crop of successful long-form ads released recently includes Poo-Pourri's scatological walk through time with the brand's fan-favorite spokeswoman Bethany, the return of Squatty Potty's adorable (and flatulent) mythical creature and a pimply coming-out party for a startup called Nerd Skincare.
"People want to buy from a human who's talking to them and saying, 'You need this product,'" said Travis Chambers, chief media hacker at Chamber.Media, home to Nerd Skincare and NordicTrack videos. "It's no different from my grandpa selling vacuums or my first job hawking cellphones at the mall or the people at Costco selling pots and pans."
But execs behind these super-sized ads don't necessarily consider themselves direct-response marketers in the traditional sense. They prefer to call what they do "scalable social videos," a term coined by Chamber.Media, or branded entertainment with a clear call to action.
"It's sales first, art second, but the two are tied very closely together," said Daniel Harmon of Harmon Brothers, the ad agency responsible for FiberFix, Squatty Potty, Chatbooks, Purple mattresses and other hit videos that borrow elements from classic infomercials. "If you can create a positive brand association, make it funny and appealing, people don't mind being told to take the next step."
In their pure form, infomercials are a much-maligned and often-parodied ad format, perhaps best known for their low production values and high-octane spokesmen. Think of the manic Vince Offer and his ShamWow.
But infomercials have a long and lucrative history. The format has been around since 1949, when salesman W.G. Barnard used black-and-white television to introduce his Vita-Mix blender as "one of the most wonderful machines that was ever invented."
Long-form ads, usually airing for 30 minutes in the pre-dawn hours, took off in the '80s amid relaxed FCC regulations, and now fuel an estimated $250 billion a year in sales of exercise equipment, kitchen gadgets, garden tools and face creams—and, of course, Snuggies.
By contrast, today's videos from Poo-Pourri and the rest rarely run longer than five minutes. Their distribution is strictly digital, often using Facebook and YouTube as launch pads. The goal out of the gate is social sharing; paid media kicks in later. They often use actors and comedians, rather than inventors or celebrities, as spokespeople.
But they retain some of the age-old infomercial shtick: set up the problem, present a solution, show a financial benefit and close the deal.
The current digital ads are also subtler than their predecessors, which repeatedly hammered home their promotional offers, trying to create a sense of urgency, noted George Belch, San Diego State University marketing professor.
"There was always a special deal and a second item thrown in if you bought right away," Belch explained. "The enticement was: 'But wait, there's more!'"
There's another difference, Belch added, in that the new videos are telling stories rather than just demonstrating products, often with edgy humor that "broadcast censors would never allow."
And they're working. Squatty Potty's recent video for its first brand extension, Unicorn Gold bathroom spray, has racked up nearly 14 million views. Sales have already topped 100,000. Nerd Skincare, with more than 6 million views, started moving $50,000 worth of product a day after the November video dropped.
It's just a matter of time until more mainstream brands get in on the action, Chambers said. "The hard sell goes against all the rules of creative advertising, which say you're supposed to start a relationship, and if people like you, maybe they'll buy," he explained. "So it's a risk. But it's a formula that's replicable. It blows me away that more people aren't doing it."
This story first appeared in the December 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.