IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

King of infomercials testing the mainstream

Kevin Harrington, who has produced some of TV’s best-known infomercials, has a knack for knowing what will sell and how to sell it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a sprawling studio, Kevin Harrington is watching a TV pitchman put a shapely model through her paces on a new exercise contraption soon to be featured in a half-hour infomercial.

The machine is all foldable bars and straps and handles, which can be used for 88 different exercises. Harrington is excited. He thinks the $99 item is going to be a huge seller.

“It’s hard to look at that and say, ‘This is going to be the next billion-dollar project,’” Harrington says to a visitor. “If it only does $250 million, we’ll be happy.”

Harrington, who has produced some of TV’s best-known infomercials, has a knack for knowing what will sell and how to sell it. He’s made a vast fortune convincing impulse-buying insomniacs that they just can’t do without the latest kitchen gadget, cleaning device or exercise video. The latest spot is for “Tony Little’s Private Trainer,” named for the long-haired “You can do it!” guy.

Harrington, who can be seen on ABC’s new show “Shark Tank,” claims to have invented the infomercial back in the mid-1980s. Today, he reigns over a marketing empire that includes a truckload of “as seen on TV” goods and ownership in the Tampa-area studio that cranks out the long-form commercials.

“I call him an infomercial visionary,” says Little, whose boisterous TV pitches for exercise gear and DVDs have made him a celebrity. “He’s very good at selecting the right products, selecting the right talent.”

For sketchy industry, a sense of legitimacy
Usually behind the curtain, Harrington is stepping in front of the cameras this year on “Shark Tank,” a reality show that has inventors and entrepreneurs pitching products to a snide panel of marketing moguls. That led to his showing off his St. Petersburg mansion for Joan Rivers on a new reality show called “How’d You Get So Rich?"

His memoir — “Act Now!: How I Turn Ideas Into Million Dollar Products” — has just been published. And he can’t stop talking about a deal that places one of his products — the Air Cutter, a hair-cutting device that vacuums up the locks as they are shorn — in a movie that has Kevin Spacey playing an inventor who peddles stuff on infomercials.

A likable, fast-talking wheeler-dealer who formed his first company as a teenager, Harrington sees his mainstream exposure as an opportunity not only to discover new products he can market on TV but to earn a degree of respect for his work.

Kevin Harrington watches as fitness guru Tony Little films \"B\" roll for a new exercise contraption Monday Aug. 31, 2009 in Clearwater, Fla. Harrington has a knack for knowing what will sell and how to sell it. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)Chris O'meara / AP

The industry has already gotten a boost from Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan, infomercial pitchmen who starred in a reality TV show on the Discovery Channel. Mays died of a heart attack in June but is still being seen in ads.

“In the last couple of years, I think the industry has gotten a little more credit for being critical,” says Harrington, whose wiry build and blonde-tipped crew cut make him look much younger than his 52 years. “It’s not as schlocky as it used to be, for sure.”

An expert on consumer behavior echoed Harrington’s assessment.

“He brought that sense of legitimacy and the idea that infomercials are not necessarily hucksterism, [that] they are meeting the legitimate needs of legitimate consumers,” says Thomas C. O’Guinn, a marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin. “He made it OK to buy stuff from infomercials. He kind of added a little class to it.”

Pitching himself out of bankruptcy
Harrington, who is married with two sons, is doing OK for a guy whose staggering business losses once forced him into bankruptcy and who still falls flat with 2 out of every 3 products he launches.

He started working young, first in his father’s taverns and restaurants in his native Cincinnati. Before long, he was peddling high chairs to pregnant ladies, car rustproofing, air conditioners and weight-loss products.

The way Harrington tells it, the infomercial was born in 1984 when he paid a Cincinnati cable TV station for cheap blocks of overnight air time to market small business opportunities to potential franchisees. Soon, he was buying dead air time in markets all over the country and on the fledgling Discovery Channel.

Others, like Ron Popeil, had used shorter television spots to market products directly to viewers, but Harrington says the program-length pitch was his innovation.

His 1987 infomercial helped generate millions of dollars in sales for a vacuum food-storage system called the Food Saver. At a Philadelphia home show, he found a guy named Arnold Morris mesmerizing a crowd with how his kitchen knives could cut through nails and aluminum cans. He filmed him doing his pitch, and the knives with the surgical steel blades became a phenomenon in the so-called “direct response” marketing industry.

Harrington’s infomercials generated millions in sales for hand-hammered Chinese woks, kitchen mixers and car-washing systems, the latter of which gave Mays his first TV exposure. In the early 1990s, he was the first to take infomercials to international markets. He says he’s launched more than 500 products, accounting for $4 billion in sales.

“He moves faster and thinks bigger than the average entrepreneur,” says Verne Harnish, an author and business-growth consultant who once commissioned a case study of Harrington for an executive education program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.