Low End Theory

Infomercialious


By Brendan I. Koerner

In the polite company of suit-and-tied intellectuals and moneymen, I usually state that my hobbies include croquet, falconry, and reading Wittgenstein. The sad reality, however, is that I'm clumsy with both mallets and birds of prey, and that I have trouble reading anything that doesn't involve basketball and/or Robotech. (Wittgenstein's Tractatus, alas, is lacking on both counts.) Instead, I spend what little free time I have watching TV—quite a neat trick, considering that I don't have cable, and don't like the network pabulum. In practice, that means lots of Judge Judy (to the point that I actually flew to Los Angeles to meet the bailiff) and public access.

On the whole, none of this is particularly healthy for my brain, which was decaying as it is thanks to mom feeding me too much Jack in the Box as a kid. But on the plus side, watching bad local TV does give me occasion to catch up with some of the finest As Seen on TV gadgets, from classics like the Clapper to Johnny-come-latelys such as the Drum Set Alarm Clock.

It didn't occur to me that these craptacular items might be Low End Theory fodder, however, until a very sharp, possibly Canadian reader named Tara alerted me to her fascination with Just-A-Trim (warning: annoying embedded video). That got me thinking about other noteworthy products hawked in the wee hours on Channel 55, in between segments of a heavily edited version of Hell Comes to Frogtown. After the jump, some highlights from the As Seen on TV boneyard for your reading pleasure. Click now, operators are standing by.

First, though, some secrets of the infomercial industry, which insiders refer to as direct response television (DRTV). The rules of a successful DRTV campaign are expertly broken down in this 2002 news-you-can-use bit from Entrepreneur magazine. The best piece of advice the author may offer is that $19.95 is the precise price that seems to elicit a Pavlovian response from viewers. $29.95? Too expensive, as it's difficult to "create value in the customer's mind in 60 seconds." $9.95? Too cheap—peeps will just assume it's junk that'll break in the first two minutes it's out of the box.

Obviously, everyone knows about old As Seen on TV standbys in the electronics sector—the aforementioned Clapper being the most famous example, but also a variety of set-it-and-forget-it vacuums (e.g. the RoboMaid) and the Bow Lingual dog translator. The common thread, of course, is that infomercial gadgetry is pitched on the same level as that Radio Shack end cab with the talking meat thermometers—that is, for folks who may respect the power of technology, but sure do feel uncomfortable with anything that reeks of uppity geekdom.

One of my favorite As Seen on TV classics is the Roll-Up Piano (pictured above), a 37-key instrument that's advertised as turning you, the typical wallflower, into the life of the party. I always laughed at that notion, since there's no one more likely to get slugged in the face than the desperate-for-attention cat who starts pounding out "Heart and Soul" while everyone's getting lit on the porch. But there is something ingenious about making the piano pliable—eat your heart out, all you engineering bigwigs working on smart fabrics and wearable electronics. Also, the general look reminds me of those tuxedo t-shirts that were big around the time of Operation Urgent Fury.

A source no less august than Reader's Digest actually gave the Roll-Up Piano two-and-a-half stars in its annual round-up of As Seen on TV products—not a bad score, putting it only half-a-star behind the Chocolate Fondue Fountain. Also clocking in at three stars was the Optical Wallet Light, known to its pals as the OWL. True, it violates one of the cardinal As Seen on TV rules by retailing for ten bucks even, but you've got to give it props for helping the hard-of-seeing who like to dine out and check their bills. I also like how they expertly planned the acronym, a bit o' marketing that didn't dawn on me until just this second. The folks behind the OWL certainly must be commended for their ornithological acuity.

Low End Theory

Another vision-centric product worth nothing, if only for its exquisite lameness, is the Bil-Lite. Perhaps I'm being too harsh with my summary assessment, as I only know one person who ever had owned a product along these lines. But I do recall that he complained nonstop about the $19.95 he blew on it, seeing as how he couldn't get it to actually shine on the circuit boards he was working on— when he tilted it at the necessary angle, it dangled annoyingly atop his field of vision. I also question the pitch that the Bil-Lite can be used "for reading at night without spooking your spouse." Um, does anyone out there really wear hats to bed? Anyone?

No As Seen on TV offering, however, has given me more of a smile than the Racquet Zapper, if only for its fantastic packaging copy: "Is it a sports racquet or a bug zapper? YES!" I just spent all of last night pondering that koan-like come-on, and I still can't quite wrap my mind around it. I'm also quite enamored of the accompanying picture, in which a lady spends a lazy summer day drinking diet cola and killing insects with a fury befitting Michael Dudikoff in American Ninja 2: The Confrontation.

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I could, of course, go on and on about As Seen on TV dreck, starting with "Nubby Lover" attachment that comes free with your purchase of the 5X FingerVibe Massager. But I'll spare you, and instead follow my usual weekly routine of, um, opening the floor to questions of a sort. Know of an As Seen on TV product that's worthy of some Low End love? Electronic gadgets only, please—yes, I'm a fan of the entire low-budget Party Girls U.S.A. series (as well as its spinoff Party Girls U.S.A. GOING WILD), but that's not what we're here for. Keep your mind on the geekiest schwag in infomercial-land, and clue me in. I'm only one man, so I can only watch so much TV every day—five, six hours, tops. Maybe seven on a good day.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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