Wait a second. What's this? CashPoint, an outfit that makes quick-fix loans, is advertising in . . . prime time? On some of TV's most popular programs?
Well, yes: "Need caa-aash?!" asks a shrieking announcer in one of several commercials for the three-year-old Alexandria company. "Take your car title to CashPoint and get cash!"
Back when, ads for the likes of CashPoint wouldn't have made it out of TV's late-night infomercial ghetto, a neighborhood also populated by the PedEgg, the ShamWow and the Snuggie ("The blanket that has sleeves"). They were all but absent from TV's Gold Coast, the 8-to-11 p.m. period that is the most watched, most prestigious and typically most expensive time period for advertisers.
Not anymore. In recent weeks, CashPoint's spots have appeared on prime-time telecasts of championship college football bowl games and evening newscasts on Washington stations. The company has even popped up in local-market broadcasts of two of the highest-rated programs on TV, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "American Idol."
'Ugly feet in sexy sandals'
Likewise, rat-ta-tat commercials for the PedEgg — a little device for scraping calluses off your feet — are appearing on CNN during breaks in solemn panel discussions and news reports about layoffs and financial calamity. The ads, which carry the guaranteed gross-out image of tiny skin shavings being poured from the product's handy container, ask: "Are you embarrassed by ugly feet in sexy sandals?"
It won't make most economists' radar screens, but the rise of such ads might be a leading economic indicator. A combination of the traditional post-holidays sales lull and a tanking economy has sent prices for airtime plummeting on local stations and some networks. The result is that peddlers of $19.95 gimcracks ("Act now!") and other 800-number come-ons have become some of TV's most prominent sponsors.
More than a few viewers, for instance, have recently become acquainted with Vince Offer, the headset-wearing huckster for ShamWow, a dishrag that "holds 20 times its weight in liquid." Offer's two-minute spot has been on and off the air for the better part of a year; it's now a classic, with YouTube parodies and untold numbers of fans. But Offer seems as relentless as rain now, and just as inescapable. Morning until night, you can watch him mopping up spills with the confident demeanor and rapid-fire patter of a carnival barker: "Dis is for da house, da car," he says in his distinctive New Yawk accent. "Are you gettin' dis, camera guy?"
Offer and ShamWow are ubiquitous because it's affordable: Ad time on the Super Bowl might still be going for record prices (some 30-second spots have sold for $3 million), but just about everything else has become dirt cheap.
With big-spending banks, financial advertisers, automakers and car dealers virtually absent from the airwaves this month, the commercial supply-and-demand balance has tipped decidedly in ad buyers' favor. Jeff Order, whose Baltimore company, Order Productions, created CashPoint's ad campaign, says some stations have offered him the equivalent of three free spots for every 10 he buys. "I've been getting unbelievable exposure for all our" clients, he brags.
Some of the unknown, and perhaps unknowable, aspects about such "direct-response" advertising are whether it will last long, and what effect it might have on viewers. Just as fashionable magazines court fashionable advertisers, TV networks and stations prefer "quality" advertisers on their marquee programs, says Steve Hall, the editor of Adrants.com, which tracks the ad industry.
"There's a feeling that quality should be associated with quality," he says. When lower-quality commercials appear, "there's a subtle disconnect for the viewer. [Broadcasters] are loath to allow these ads to appear. But what are they going to do? They need the money."
Direct-response advertisers are in a particularly advantageous position these days because many have "remnant" contracts with TV stations. Such agreements commit stations to plugging in an advertiser's ad at highly discounted prices whenever the station hasn't sold the airtime.
And right now, "there's a lot more unsold time than in previous years," says A.J. Khubani, president of TeleBrands, a company based in Fairfield, N.J., that markets an array of as-seen-on-TV products, including the heavily advertised PedEgg, the stretchy EZ Comb and a pet nail-clipper called Pedi Paws. Khubani says a spot that might have sold for $20,000 a year ago might cost $5,000 now.
'Doing quite well'
If he can't nail down prime-time ad slots, Khubani says, direct marketers like their ads to run in the middle of the afternoon. "Our products tend to sell better with the people who are at home then — the housewife," he says. "You don't reach housewives late at night. That's more of the 'Girls Gone Wild' crowd."
Khubani says business is strong because his products are getting wider exposure during a month when people typically watch a lot of TV and because convenient, inexpensive products tend to move in tough times. He has two brothers in the same business; "They're doing quite well," too, he reports.
On the other hand, the news is not so cheerful for anyone trying to sell TV advertising. The rise of infomercials is "not a reflection of [the TV] industry, it's a reflection of the general economy," says Allan Horlick, the president and general manager of WUSA (Channel 9). "You have to sit back and ask, in a recession, what types of businesses will flourish? And these are the businesses that are stepping forward right now."
Horlick thinks this might be a temporary phase, and the market could revive soon. With a new administration and a new Congress, he is hopeful that there could be a surge in "advocacy" ads from organizations and interest groups.
In the meantime, Channel 9 is going with the flow. The station this month stopped airing local news on Saturday and Sunday mornings. The replacement? For the time being, it's more infomercials.