The Science Behind TV infomercials
Ever watch those TV infomercials late at night when you’re bored and can’t sleep? Of course you do. And you’re likely to buy things you don’t really need as well.
The most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time, ‘But Wait… There’s More,’ explains the science behind infomercials. Virtually every element of an infomercial is based on scientific research and designed to manipulate you into taking action. For example, infomercials have a higher return on investment when they air late at night, not just because airtime is less expensive, but because
“viewers defenses started to topple as they grew sleepy. When the [surrounding] programming was lousy, many more people purchased products.”
Ron Popeil, often described as the father of the infomercial, popularized the countdown technique, in which he warned people he only had a certain number of units (“supplies are limited!”) and lowered the quantity displayed as the end of the pitch neared. Before time ran out, he stopped selling the last few items and switched to a new product. Frustrated buyers would be less likely to let future offers get away.
The more complicated the pricing scheme, the better. The “but wait, there’s more!” makes it harder to judge the value of the offer and the preponderance of add-on freebies creates the appearance of a good deal. Shipping and handling fees are almost always concealed until after the purchase decision has been made. Once you’ve made the emotional decision to purchase the ab roller to improve your health, you are unlikely to hang up just because you have to spend a few more dollars.
And, of course, words matter (my mantra!). The pitches always say “when you call,” not “if you call” which subtly encourages you to do it. The host typically asks the viewers to “tell a friend” about the incredible offer so they feel indebted for his act of generosity and reciprocate by making a purchase. And of course, the classic “if the lines are busy, please call back” creates a sense of panic in viewers that they may miss out on the deal that everyone else is getting.
The ‘But Wait… There’s More’ book also settled a multi-decade mystery for me. Why do commercials show knives cutting through such odd objects? Shoes, wood, and even a coin. I’ve never understood the psychology of that display. The answer is distressingly simple: if the knife can cut through a cement block, it clearly can stand up to whatever task you have for it in your own kitchen. This raises the perceived value in your mind, allowing the manufacturer to charge more.
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