by Mr Moth
If, like me, you ever find yourself staring at the on-screen TV guide for so long that all you can hum for the next day is the background lift-funk, you’ll know the lure of the more, shall we say esoteric?, stations available towards the top end of the channel range. I’m not talking about the ones with almost-naked ladies looking bored and waggling a vintage cordless phone at the camera, nor the ones with grainy, sweat-soaked footage of a preacher telling people off for being very naughty in the sight of God. I’m talking about the shopping channels. A whole range of actual TV stations that exist purely to sell, sell, sell. Given that this is like watching regular commercial television without that ridiculous “content” getting in the way of the sweet, sweet advert breaks, what actual incentive could there be for a normal human being tuning in? Why would anyone ever switch to Thane Direct of their own volition?
The answer, of course, is that there is gold in the gold-digging. Between frantic sales pitches, bamboozling product demonstrations and artless time-filling, there are spaces where the mere act of selling you a food processor transcends commerce and becomes art.
Of a sort.
One element that almost all infomercials share is the “how badly everyone does without our stuff” montage. Usually shot in bleak black and white, as if showing visions from old-timey newsreel of savage barbarism or from a post-apocalypse dystopia like if Threads was about a holocaust that affected only our ability to effectively clean a dirty floor. The actors demonstrating bad practice always look so sad, so frustrated, way beyond a reasonable reaction to the minor ailments portrayed. If this was genuine footage of a human being’s daily life you would be texting them the number for the Samaritans, not buying a mop.
We shall start with Household Infomercials. Sure, there are a lot of mops. A lot of steam mops, specifically, but there is also the literally whizzy Whizz Mop from JML, which is like a normal microfiber mop only its draining bucket fucked a salad spinner and this gets rid of the water like you wouldn’t believe. That’s just a shade under £30 to you, which on reflection is only about the cost of a normal mop and a couple of replacement heads. Why don’t I own one?
Stay strong. There’s better to come. This is my guiltiest secret. I covet this product more than I can decently state on a family website. It’s even got a slightly saucy name. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the XHose.
Tell me you don’t want that hose. I mean, I am definitely like those doofuses in the before shots, wrestling with the hose like a crap Laocoon every time I want to water the garden. Sure, it costs £50 for a non-laughable length, but that’s an investment. It packs into a tiny (big) flowerpot! It magically expands and it even more magically contracts when you’re done! It never kinks, like it is IMPOSSIBLE to kink it, even with special kinking devices! You’d save money over the long term because you wouldn’t have to keep replacing shitty, kinked, split… oh, the connectors are really weak and crack more often than not? So it’s essentially crap?
Until relatively recently, infomercials were something alien to British culture. Joey Tribbiani struggling with pouring a milk bottle was funny, but we didn’t have the extra layer, the ingrained knowledge of the grammar and signifiers of the form. The closest we got was occasionally watching a JML presentation on a screen specially set up in Woollies. The product would be there, right below the screen which is TOTALLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE, Jesus JML you’ve got no idea. If we can see the product the glamour is gone in an instant. If we can pick it up and feel the low quality of the build, see the cheap and crappy materials we’re never going to buy, especially not for full price!
There’s a reason you aren’t allowed to look at these things in shops. When reality interferes, so often it’s to the detriment of the tower of awesome built by these shows. And they are shows, or aspire to be. Sometimes you really need that voiceover at the end telling you “THE PRECEEDING WAS A PAID PRESENTATION BY THANE DIRECT”. Whoa, was it? I thought it was a new series about a crime-busting halogen oven and its wacky friends.
“Gee, Hal, what made you so sure it was the caretaker who stole the gems?”
The least interesting type of infomercial is the Fitness Infomercial, which usually involves a bunch of people using the product to exercise in a grey hangar-like studio while two people – one a perky, toned presenter, the other a ‘fitness expert’ who is wearing the smallest quantity of clothing possible to comply with local decency laws – discuss how the product will work the core muscles (always the core muscles!) and how normal exercise is just shit and you might as well eat a pack of iced buns rather than flap about like a dying fish doing what you describe as “sit ups” or whatever. There is almost no entertainment to be had.
Now, Kitchen Infomercials give you everything, but somehow better. The black and white horror flashbacks of how terrible things are in the kitchen without this product are frequently more intense because sometimes, let’s be brutal, they have to show people making a hash of jobs that are almost impossible to screw up. “Tired of difficult-to-open cans of beans?” Er, I, what? “How many times has this happened to you?” What, trying to cut a loaf with a butter knife? Not often, Informercial Guy! But what’s this? An automated tin opener? A knife that sonically separates food?? I don’t even know what that means, but for God’s sake take my money!
Then there are the hosts. Some people may have made a career in Fitness Infomercials, but you wouldn’t notice them in the street. Frankly, if I saw some of the hosts of these Kitchen Infomercials I’d ask for an autograph. Take Ron Popeil, who will be played in the movie by Elliott Gould. When Ron dies, they will have to appoint his replacement via a whole white/black smoke system. Not only does Ron host the infomercial for the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, he founded the company and designed the machine (by the looks of it, in his garage from busted microwaves and old bicycles). Take a look:
Oh holy Jesus, tell me that wasn’t amazing. What a salesman, to note that the top of the oven overheats and not to think “I’d better insulate that” but, rather, “I bet I could cook pasta on that”. It’s a feature, not a bug! This also introduces the Kitchen Infomercial killer hook –variety. Look at how much stuff you can cook in one simple rotisserie! Sausages, ribs, fish, joints, an entire trussed turkey… and it all comes out looking beautiful. Go to 9:15 in that video and tell me you don’t want to eat that meat. Even if you’re vegetarian.
That said, there is a limit to the variety on offer in a rotisserie. It’s essentially grilled meat, which is nice but Ron is just an inventor. His inventions include hair in a can, a solid flavour injector (you don’t want to know) and the technology to preserve heads in jars, to name but a few, but he’s not exactly a chef. He’s certainly no Chef Tony – a man who must be a chef because his name is Chef Tony and he demonstrates Shun knives that can cut delicate slices of tomato as easily as it can bisect a tin of peas – he’s a salesman.
Enter Cathy Mitchell. If Ron Popeil is the king of Kitchen Infomercials, Cathy is the queen. Where there are kitchen implements to demonstrate, there is Cathy. She is eternal. Look at this:
That’s Cathy in the early 90s, making a toasted pizza sandwich. For connoisseurs of the form, this is hot stuff. For me, it was the discovery that the sandwich toaster had an infomercial. Who could possibly have struggled with the concept of a toastie? This isn’t rocket surgery, but here is Cathy, helpfully showing us how to make the most repulsive food imaginable with the simplest of tools. It’s like a gift, and one she can’t help but keep giving.
Fast forward a couple of decades. Cathy has settled comfortably into her role as The Nation’s Auntie, inhabiting an endless parade of offensively inoffensive kitchen sets and force-feeding a series of hapless co-hosts the most unlikely food ever to be created outside the Fat Duck.
The first infomercial I saw Cathy in (and of course your first time can never be bettered) was for the GT Xpress 101, which is neither a car nor a steam mop but a device very like a sandwich toaster that created semi-circular treats for the inventive chef with limited counter space. Most of it simply looked unappetising and dry but one creation has stuck like nothing else – stuffed soup. How on earth does one stuff soup, I hear you ask. Sadly, I can no longer find the infomercial itself online so I am forced to resort to inadequate language.
Basically, you put a packet of stuffing mix into one semicircle, glop a tin of soup over it and grate some cheese on top. You then close the lid of the GT Xpress 101 and pray, pray for your immortal soul. One man who’s been praying is Cathy’s partner for both the GT Xpress 101 and the Xpress Redi-Set-Go infomercials, Joe Farago. Joe, and possibly only Joe, has eaten stuffed soup and my god has he earned his money by giving every sign of enjoyment. Here’s the full 28 minutes of the Redi-Set-Go infomercial, and please give Joe a round of applause every time he tucks into a terrifying “personal pizza”. Cathy, incidentally, cooks a pizza in everything. She once cooked a pizza in a frying pan.
The best bit is about 8:40, when there is a cascade of pings as all the food is ready at once. It’s like ballet, or poetry, only with horrific “corn dogs” and foam-rubber chocolate cakes as the muse. Cathy, our host, is the centre of it all, showing us how to create this magnificent non-food as confidently as a teacher laying out the alphabet.
It can only be downhill from here. Clothing Infomercials are 99% Bra Infomercials. Sometimes body sculpting underwear, but basically it’s all ladies’ underthings, all the time. Bra Infomercial before shots are especially noteworthy in that not only do they assume that women are ham-fingered clots unable to clothe themselves but also, god, when they do manage it, get a look at them with their uni-knockers and lumpy hips! Honestly, women! What’s the matter with you?
Following this, there will be a parade of women brought out to face the hosts, who constitute what is basically a sympathetic, smiling and helpful firing squad. Take your insane wibbly outline out back with our flesh-coloured magic bra and come back when your breasts are arranged by the Genie Bra’s precision engineering (aka really strong elastic). The problem is that, like the fitness infomercials, once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. More so in this case, although at least you get a sort of makeover show and who doesn’t love those?
You know what else people love? Sitcoms. Back to the kitchen, and here’s Mick and Mimi the Magic Bullet couple. These two will give you a whirlwind demonstration of the prep required for an entire day of food for your average Hobbit. Such is their desperation to show you how one tiny food mixer can produce lots of types of food they really exceed their brief; pâté! Seasoning! Quesadilla! Smoothies! Salad! Anything! Anything!
Not that you care, because the Magic Bullet infomercials are the closest thing on the shopping channels to sitcom and they know it. Maybe that wasn’t the intention when they introduced the likes of the chain-smoking, aggressive Hazel (whose cigarette has actually been blurred out in later showings), oddly hostile Berman (basically, the people they have over hate them and their food) or the inexplicably English Mick, but they have decided that, dammit, they’re a cult now. So Mick and Mimi came back for the Infomercial for the Magic Bullet Express which is basically the same product but without the advantage of being small. The irrationally ANGRY Granny wasn’t much of a replacement for Hazel, but the Express was another small masterpiece of oddly compelling shit.
Where do you go from there, though? As any TV executive will tell you, you take the cast out of their home environment and so in the Magic Bullet To Go not only do Hazel and Berman make a return but everyone goes on holiday! It’s Holiday On The Buses in Infomercial form! Good god, what next, will they be demonstrating the Magic Bullet X in a space station?
It’s not all like this, though. There are more obvious shopping channels, and we’re all I’m sure familiar with the QVC format. Product information is pasted down one side of the screen, a phone number along the bottom, and peeking into the frame thus created is a salesperson of varying levels of competence and intensity. So on the aforementioned QVC you will find a gentle salespitch couched in a soft cell of the sort one might see on daytime television where beige reigns supreme. That’s your baseline. From there you can move to the channels hawking jewellery, which is rather like being trapped in H Samuel with Dan from Sales. It’s not offensive, it’s just boring. Endless hours of sterling silver and gemstones with names like Tanzanite and Paraiba Apatite.
Then, and this was my gateway drug, there was Bid-Up TV. A simple, wonderful concept; viewers called in to bid on an item at the price on the screen. The more bidders, the higher the price would go, forcing people out until there were the right number of people at the right price. It was a perfect illustration of the intersection between supply and demand. It spawned a sister channel, price-drop.tv, on which the price, um, dropped, with viewers calling in when the price got low enough. This was, essentially, a waiting game and inherently less exciting than the scramble of an auction. So, obviously, Bid-Up adopted it and just became price-drop 2.
However, bid.tv has something that price-drop doesn’t, an ace up its sleeve. See if you can spot it on the picture below:
For those of you who never watched Double Dare or Run the Risk, the answer is Peter Simon. Simon’s curious second career hawking chunky jewellery and knock-off mp3 players shouldn’t work. He frequently seems to be in the middle of a crisis of some sort – sweaty and disorientated, missing his cues and brimming with a poorly-suppressed rage, he’s as close to a real-life Alan Partridge as you’ll find outside North Norfolk Digital. Naturally, he is compelling viewing – his wonderful and often baffling pronouncements have found a home on Twitter – as he swings between smooth professionalism (or at least what he thinks of as smooth professionalism) and some kind of consumerist mysticism (“The night sky. The celestial sphere. The continuing destiny of an expanse.”) for hours at a time, and you can’t take your eyes off him. This is how evenings disappear, and I’m not kidding. I’ve spent hours watching Peter Simon selling everything from Nazi documentary DVD collections through cheap towels to musical Thomas Kinkade snowglobes. Yes, that last item exists and no, I didn’t buy one. I’ve never bought anything from bid.tv but that doesn’t matter.
It’s this certainty that pulls me back. I’ll never buy anything, so where’s the harm? I’m just there to point and laugh, but I am also fascinated by the shows themselves. Infomercials are developing their own subculture. Personalities, catchphrases, visual grammar – all of it unique to the television sales pitch. Given the amount of time TV companies have to fill, we will soon all know it very well.