Like advertising’s cockroach, informercials have emerged stronger following the internet’s onslaught. José Barbosa suffered through a night of them to bring you this harrowing report. //
It can be argued that, in terms of human dignity, waking up at 1:30 in the morning with the intent to watch infomercials is a plunge into the lowest form of self-abasement. Even the scriptures say: “Consider he who rises early to witness the efficacy of kitchen top blenders, for truly he is cast in the shadow of despair.” This is utter balls: you can always go lower.
It began immediately after I carefully lowered my rump onto the couch in the TV room so as not to dribble coffee from my mug. There was no spill, but truthfully I wouldn’t have noticed anyway. At that moment I was staring at the DVR under the TV which was merrily blinking 00:00 like a driver who’s forgotten to turn off the hazard lights.
This was the DVR I had forgotten I owned. The DVR I could have programmed to record a whole bunch of infomercials which I then could have watched mid-morning after seven hours of sleep instead of the two hours in the bed I had just prised myself from. Grinding my teeth I pressed the power on button on the TV remote. My right eyelid started twitching. At this point it had very rapidly become clear that the survival of my upper brain functions wasn’t a guaranteed outcome.
It’s generally considered that infomercials are the drek of TV programming. They’ve been relentlessly mocked for so long that everyone is hip to the infomercial’s swagger. Yet the format lives and it’s doing pretty damn well, the industry is estimated to be worth between US$200-300 billion. Get to that size and it’s understandable that you might put on airs.
You’re not really supposed to use the term infomercial any more. These days the industry prefers the term Direct Response Marketing. What that means is that the infomercial is constantly trying to get the audience to pick up the phone by creating enough of a call to action that you’ll buy a contraption which creates bowls made of bacon or a miniature putting green you can use to practice your putt while laying cable.
The insomniacs and hyper-intelligent extraterrestrials studying human culture have got the internet now, so the networks have given up. Every weeknight on New Zealand television there’s a block of around six hours where the free to air channels play nothing but infomercials. There’s not even an episode of Mind Your Language thrown in for appearances sake. So what exactly is being broadcast to no one at 2am?
I’m immediately confronted with an intricately observed geopolitical drama about the dangers of unsealed carpet cleaning equipment. It starts with a chummy cockney bloke wearing a cheese cutter and braces. I know he’s cockney because he keeps on saying things like “Oi, what ar’ you playin’ at?” I’m going to call him Farnsley Farthington.
Farnsley is sharing the floor with a group of chirpy American housewives all proudly brandishing what turns out to be the Shark Rotator Liftaway Vacuum Cleaner. They’re telling him how much they love the Shark, but Farnsley will have none of it, his Dyson vacuum cleaner is superior. The gaggle of Shark advocates disagree, one of them chirps in:“It’s changed my life!” Everyone smiles and nods.
Farnsley looks dejected. The single male in the group puts a hand on his shoulder, “you really should get a shark, mate” he says in that extra awkward way Americans say mate. From an overhead shot we see Farnsley walk off camera, dragging the spurned Dyson behind him. His American buddy shrugs as if to say “hey, I tried. You can’t help those who don’t want to be helped.”
That this almost exactly mirrors the power dynamic between the former colony of the USA and the colonising force of England does not escape me. On his best day Aaron Sorkin wishes The West Wing was as good as what I just witnessed.
What follows is the usual informercial fare. I’m treated to a montage of women cleaning their gargantuan American houses with the Shark. “It never occurred to me to clean under my stove,” says one woman dumping what looks like a mound of horse shit on her floor. We’re introduced to Mark Rosen, the CEO of Shark. If you slapped a fez on him, Mark would look exactly like Morocco Mole from Danger Mouse.
He’s so excited about the Shark that when he shifts his weight from one foot to another he gives his hips a little wiggle like he’s trying to hypnotise the audience. All it manages to do is convince me that if he thought there was a sale in it, he would tear his clothes off and rub his crotch on the camera lens.
There’s customer testimonials, a list of all the different attachments, a free gift is offered, more customer testimonials and Mark gives his personal guarantee. 10 minutes flew by. And then it starts all over again: Farnsley, women cleaning their monster houses, Mark threatens to get jiggy, customer testimonials, different attachments, free gift, testimonials again, guarantee. And then its starts again. Half an hour passes before the Shark’s slot is up. The soft rock soundtrack that accompanies the Shark all through its infomercial feels like it’s taken residence in my frontal lobe. I glumly accept the fact I will never be able to listen to Air Supply ever again.
The next product for my consideration is the Nutri Bullet. This is basically a blender, but I’m told it’s not. Apparently the Nutri Bullet is so grunty it has the ability to “pulverise cell walls.” In other words, with this in your pantry you can finally perform rudimentary gene splicing. The guts is that the Nutri Bullet can unlock the every last bit of nutrition from food and turn it into food milkshakes. Just drink one of these everyday and, it’s promised, your health will improve.
This claim is backed up by customer testimonials in front of a green screen image of floating Nutri Bullet logos. However it doesn’t just have internal, unseen benefits. One woman says “My husband says that since starting the Nutri Bullet programme I look pretty.” Another woman is staunch in her advocacy of the Nutri bullet, “I’m not going to stop! You can’t take this away from me,” she say. This hints at a Footloose-esque backstory where the forces of society are oppressing her passion for emulsifying. I hope she finds her Kevin Bacon.
But my favourite is a married couple who a peppered through the infomercial to give their thoughts on the Nutri Bullet. Everytime they pop up the polo shirt wearing husband looks like he’s about to say something but is cut off by his wife. Eventually he ends up spending their little cameos staring at the ground. In their last spot however she turns to him and makes a statement in the form of a question, “We’re not going to stop, are we Booth?” Finally Booth has the floor: “Nup.”
Between all this there’s plenty of blending going on. Everytime they blend something red my thoughts conjure up a scenario where a murderer breaks into the house and feeds me to the Nutri Bullet. I get up and lock the door leading out to the deck. I’m only 40 minutes in.
The next two hours are a kaleidoscope montage of Americans, bull-headed graphics and scenes of people struggling with inferior products. I come to see this a cavalcade of cautionary tales: my unsightly bikini line will only get worse if I continue to not use the Pearl hair remover.
For thirty minutes I’m told that if I’m serious about losing weight, my only way forward is to order a pair of Hot Shapers. Hot Shapers appear to be wetsuit type pants that come up over your stomach and you can wear under your normal clothes. The Hot Shapers make you perspire like a pig even if you’re sitting down, yet, it’s claimed, the sweat never leaks through the fabric. It basically turns office workers into supermarket hot chickens, stewing in their own juices.
Up till now I’ve been maintaining whatever loose semblance of cognition I’ve managed to hang onto. I’m even beginning to appreciate the infomercials that are executed a little better than usual. There’s an art to pulling in information about your product and making it, at least, seem like the thing might actually do what it says it does. That’s the trick with infomercials, you only have to get to that point where everything seems like it’s the real deal before people will pick up the phone. It’s a small bracket to be aiming for, but the personal rewards for hitting it square on are immense.
It’s 3am and the turn is about to happen. I’m on TV3 and suddenly I’m confronted with an old acquaintance, the Shark Rotator Liftaway Vacuum Cleaner. Hell no, I’ve done my time. I flick it to TVONE, it’s the Shark Rotator Liftaway Vacuum Cleaner. Farnsley barely has time to tip his cheesecutter before I jump to FOUR.
It’s the Shark Rotator Liftaway Vacuum Cleaner. The urge to scream rises like an inflating bubble of tar and hot sick. I’ve nowhere to go. I briefly consider piledriving my head through the TV screen when I suddenly remember something. The Shopping Channel! “Why didn’t I think of it before?” I say to the drapes.
I’m instantly calmed. Staring back at me is the glowing face of the mother of the nation: Suzanne Paul. Wonderful, plucky Suzanne who lost all her money in a very public way and then fought her way back to where she belongs. The sudden dose of familiarity is like being dropped in a pool of warmed artisan chocolate milk.
Suzanne could very well be in heaven. The set is pure white. Perhaps she’s in a loading programme waiting to download products to show me? She starts talking so I listen. She’s talking about something called Aero Pilates. I think it’s stretches you can do with an Aero bar. Then she starts talking about a “Ninja Mega System.” I truthfully have no idea what shes talking about.
It dawns on me that this is all one shot and she’s simplifying talking to camera listing products that she claims to like. I briefly have a vision of the Shopping Channel producers trying to come up with new slot ideas and throwing up their hands saying “bugger it. They can pay us five bucks to have Suzanne just sort of talk for a bit”.
At this point there’s a cut and suddenly Suzanne is out of sync. Her mouth is now about two seconds behind her voice but she won’t stop talking and it’s freaking the sleep deprived wees out of me. I turn off the TV and then the lights. I sit for a bit.
I stub my toe on the bedside table trying to get into bed. My girlfriend stirs and asks if I’m okay. “I’m not,” I reply. “It was horrific. Horrific.”
“You’re okay now,” she soothes. “You’re going to be OK.”
Maybe. But I’m just lying there not falling asleep. In my head Farnsley is cradling his Dyson vacuum, Mark Rosen is unzipping his fly, Booth pours the Janola into a Nutri Bullet smoothie and Suzanne’s mouth chases her voice in a race it will never win.