Which Infomercials Are Lying?

The Infomercial Money Machine

Note: Consumer Reports has no relationship with the advertisers on this site. Ladies and gentlemen, do you scrub, scrape, and scour baked-on crud on cookware; cry over gallons of spilled milk; fall off your ladder when cleaning gutters; and torture yourself to get a firmer fanny? Wish there were a better way? Then stay up late tonight, rub your magic TV remote, and—abracadabra!—Infomercial Genie will save the day. Infomercials are the Rodney Dangerfields of advertising: They've gotten no respect for their quirky hucksters, ceaseless superlatives, and corny product names since at least the early 1960s. That's when Ron Popeil pioneered the Ronco Veg-o-Matic, once claimed to be "the only appliance in the world that slices whole, firm tomatoes in one stroke. French fries? Make hundreds in 1 minute!" But infomercials are a mighty money machine. They can chop marketing costs to as little as one-tenth the size of a traditional advertising campaign. They can slice posted prices when they lard the total bill with shipping and handling fees and other extras. They can dice consumer pocketbooks into 100 billion $1 bills a year, then miraculously sweep away that unsightly paper using patented credit-card technology. The secret lies in neuroscience. Infomercials are carefully scripted to pump up dopamine levels in your brain, says Martin Lindstrom, an advertising expert and author of "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy," which details how ads affected 2,000 research subjects. "Infomercials take viewers on a psychological roller-coaster ride," Lindstrom says. The fun starts with dramatizations of a problem you didn't know you had, followed by the incredible solution, then a series of ever more amazing product benefits, bonuses, and giveaways, all leading to the final thrilling plunge of an unbelievably low price. After the ride, Lindstrom says, "dopamine levels drop in 5 or 6 minutes. That's why infomercials ask you to buy in the next 3 minutes." —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Michale


Is "Seen on TV" Too Good to Be True?

"The magic of TV and film editing and shooting can make anything look good," says Christian Holiday, CEO of Global Media Marketing, an infomercial producer in Santa Ana, Calif. According to Larry Nusbaum, managing director of Vertex Capital Management and CEO of Ronco, which Vertex bought in 2008, "About half of infomercial products deliver on their promise, 30 percent do what they say but are a bit expensive, and the rest are junk." The Federal Trade Commission focuses on the most egregious deceptions. A recent case involved pitchman Donald W. Barrett, whose infomercials promised that Supreme Greens and Coral Calcium supplements could treat, between them, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and diabetes, among other ills. The FTC charged Barrett and others with making unlawful claims and unauthorized credit- and debit-card charges. Last August a federal district court ordered the marketers to refund $70 million to consumers for deceiving them about the supplements' effectiveness and safety. Barrett is appealing the ruling. In recent years, Consumer Reports has turned up a mix of "miracle" gadgets and goops that deceived, delivered, or landed somewhere in between. Read on for a roundup. Products are current, though packaging might have changed. Prices don't include shipping, which can hike the cost a lot. Freebies are often included. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: SMN


Breaking the Urge to Buy

But wait! Before buying any infomercial product, follow these bonus tips: Pause 10 minutes before buyingBy then, your impulse-shopping dopamine levels should have returned to normal. Slow down the spellbindersWhatever their length—"short form" up to 2 minutes or "long form" up to 28.5 minutes—infomercials move at an excited pace. Slow things down with your DVR remote or by watching the Internet video version. An infomercial on YouTube promises that the Hercules Hook holds up to 150 pounds. But click back and pause and you'll see three 50-pound weights hanging from three separate hooks. Do the math: That indicates each hook has only a 50-pound capacity. Ask, "Would I buy this with cash?"Forty percent of consumers say no, Lindstrom says, because credit cards candy-coat the fact that you're spending real money. Consider other solutionsWhen we tested the "amazing" Grease Bullet for removing cookware residue, it worked reasonably well with the recommended half-hour soak, but soaking cookware overnight in hot water with dishwashing liquid produced similar results. Listen for true "value" cluesWhen a pitchman cites "a $40 value," then says he'll give you two for one, that means the value is only $20—and probably less. Calculate the real price"Sometimes sellers make more money off shipping and handling than they do off the product itself," says Dave Lampson, CEO of From Patent to Profit, a California product­-development company. "That's just part of the game." Be sure to add shipping and handling charges to the price. Say no to upsellingThose "operators standing by" might pitch additional products, accessories, and refills—before you know whether the product even works. Avoid shipping and handling feesInfomercials are now a foot in the door to retail stores. Wait until the product you're interested in turns up with an "As seen on TV" sticker in CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, or other mass merchandiser, usually for the same price but with no shipping charge. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: oosp


Slap Chop

The claim By slapping this gadget with your palm, you can "dice, chop, and mince in seconds" and remove skins from onions and garlic. "You're going to have an exciting life now," pitchman Vince Shlomi says. Cost: about $20. The check We slapped mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, chocolate, almonds, and other foods. We also assessed how easy the device was to use and clean. Bottom line No high fives for Slap Chop. It chopped unevenly. Harder foods, which needed about 20 slaps, tended to get trapped in the blades; we had to fork out the stuck bits. Garlic peels came off after five slaps, but onion skins were only partly separated after 10. The splash guard, which must be aligned with the blades, became misaligned in two of three choppers. Lots of slapping can make your hand sore. An exciting life? Hard to tell. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Danielle Scott


MagicJack

The claim Magic Jack, a VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) phone device and service, "makes your monthly phone bill disappear," an online ad says. "Save hundreds, even thousands, of dollars" and get "no more poor reception." You plug Magic Jack into a computer's USB port, plug the line cord of your own phone into the other end of the USB adapter, and Magic Jack uses the Internet to make and receive calls. You need broadband Internet access, and the computer has to be on for you to make or receive a call. If it's off, messages go to voice mail. The charge: $39.95 for the device and one year of local and long-distance calling; then $19.95 per year. Details are at www.magicjack.com. The check One of our electronics experts made dozens of calls over several days, sometimes while downloading files or playing online computer games. Bottom line Shazam! Calls connected, and voice quality was clear, though not as clear as on a good corded phone on a regular line. When our tester downloaded a big file while playing an online game and making a call, there was some interference. But if you can live with a few limitations, it's a great deal. Vonage VoIP service can cost $216 a year; Skype, $95, and you must buy a Skype phone. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: freephotos7


Garry Ultra Light

The claim This "professional quality" upright vacuum cleaner, $199, "loosens stubborn, even hidden ground-in dirt from your carpets" and other surfaces "the first time you pass over the dirt." Its claimed weight: 9 pounds. The check We tested it on carpets and bare floors; measured tool airflow, noise, and emissions (particles released when the motor is just on and when vacuuming); and assessed handling. Bottom line The Garry is a lightweight in more ways than one. It was fair at deep-cleaning carpets, scoring lowest at that task among all the uprights in our Ratings (available to subscribers). Even most canisters did better. Airflow was weak through attachments, making it harder to clean dust from upholstery. It weighs 9 pounds only when you don't count its hose, attachments, and power cord. Pluses: It excelled at cleaning bare floors and picking up pet hair and had very low emissions. Better choices include the Dirt Devil Featherlite Bagless M085845, $60. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Garryvac.com


PedEgg

The claim This foot file removes calluses and dead skin to "make your feet feel smooth and healthy with NO MESS!" Powdery filings collect in a little compartment. Cost: about $10, sometimes with an extra PedEgg and buffing pads. The check Twenty-six women and three men with rough, callused feet tried a PedEgg on one foot and a pumice stone on the other. They used each product once, rubbing PedEgg on dry skin (per instructions) and the stone on wet skin, where it's more effective. Bottom line Crack open a PedEgg. It was very good at removing calluses and good with dry skin. It did better overall than a pumice stone, and buffing pads smoothed leftover roughness. But some filings escaped, so use it over a wastebasket. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit:

Snuggie



Grease Bullet

The claim "Just fill your sink with hot water, drop in the Grease Bullet, and soak your toughest baked-on cookware," the Web site says. "No more scrubbing!" The check We tested it on glass, ceramic, stainless-steel, aluminum, and porcelain-coated cookware in which we had baked a thin layer of beef broth and a smear of what we call monster mash—an evil mix of cherry pie filling, tomato purée, egg yolks, lard, and cheese. We also used it on cookware in which we'd cooked chicken and beef and overcooked mac and cheese. Bottom line The Bullet is no bull's-eye, but it could be worth a shot. It did a reasonable job with most residues if the cookware soaked for the recommended half-hour. Longer soaking generally helped. But soaking cookware overnight in hot water and dish detergent would also aid cleanup, and you wouldn't have to pay $10 for 12 Bullets. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Amazon.com


ShamWow

The claim Last year an ad claimed that ShamWow ("like a chamois, a towel, a sponge; works wet or dry") "holds 20 times its weight in liquid." Now the claim is "12 times its weight." Four 19½x23½-inch towels and four 15x15-inch towels cost $19.95. The check We dunked ShamWows in water, soda, and milk until each could hold no more liquid. And we tested whether the small ones could slurp up as much water, milk, and used motor oil as sponges. Bottom line We weren't wowed. ShamWow soaked up only 10 times its weight in water or soda and usually 12 times its weight in milk. Sponges often held a bit more water and soda. If we used a damp ShamWow, we needed another cloth to wipe remaining droplets. Two little wows: A small ShamWow held more motor oil than a sponge, and a bigger one is good for drying a wet dog. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: tsakshaug


Tyre Grip & AutoSock

The claim Tyre Grip "helps keep you on the road regardless of the road conditions." You spray it on tires and get up to 50 miles per application. It costs $19.95. A second product, AutoSock, is a cloth-and-mesh cover you slip over a tire and wheel. It's "a quick and easy alternative to metal chains when driving on slippery roads." We paid $99 per pair. The check We sprayed Tyre Grip on the tread of a Honda Accord's front drive wheels, then drove on a snowy Vermont road. We also drove up a small, snowy hill with the Accord's all-season tires alone, with Tyre Grip, and with AutoSocks over the front wheels. Bottom line Don't toss your snow tires. Tyre Grip improved traction modestly during acceleration and braking, but any benefit waned after about a mile. The Accord couldn't reach our hilltop with or without Tyre Grip. With AutoSocks, however, the car made it uphill many times. The downside: AutoSocks are cumbersome to put on and are meant to be used only on snow or ice and to be removed right away when the roads clear. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Trucktrend.com


Ab Circle Pro

The claim It will "firm and flatten your stomach in just weeks" and "takes just three minutes a day." It comes with a nutrition plan and a workout DVD. Try it for 30 days for $14.95 plus $34.50 shipping and handling or buy it for $200. The check We reviewed the nutrition plan, measured energy expenditure and muscle activity as two women and two men used the device, and had nine women and four men do the DVD workout. Bottom line Three minutes a day? That won't cause much weight loss. The device engages core muscles but burns no more calories than brisk walking. The nutrition plan is strict, so most people could lose weight on that alone. Just three of our 13 panelists said they'd consider buying the device. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Wal-Mart


iRobot Looj

The claim The battery-operated iRobot Looj 155 uses rotating rubber paddles and brushes to clean gutters. You climb a ladder to place the device, then use its remote control to control the direction of movement and spin. Moving on flexible treads, the Looj "blasts through debris, clogs, and sludge." You can clean a 60-foot section in "just 10 minutes." We paid $170 for the Looj at store.irobot.com. The check We tested it on a 60-foot section of gutter with dry and wet oak leaves and also at a staffer's house. Bottom line This robot is not so hot. It flipped many leaves back into the gutter or toward the roof instead of the yard. We dislodged dense leaves or debris only by working it back and forth repeatedly. And it sometimes got stuck. The Looj removed dry leaves from 60 feet of gutter in 15 minutes, but it took almost an hour to clear heavy spring debris from 50 feet. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Amazon.com


Urban Rebounder

The claim "Sculpts your entire body," says the video for this mini-trampoline. "In just 10 minutes a day, you'll build lean ripped muscle and develop a tight sexy body." The Rebounder and six workouts on a DVD cost $90 at www.urbanrebounding.com. The check We used a metabolic gas analyzer to record calories burned during the workouts included with the device when we tested it in 2007. And we had staffers use the device on their own. Bottom line Keep bouncing. It takes more than 10 minutes to burn lots of calories. Time to lose 1 pound of fat: seven weeks, if you use it for 15 minutes three times a week. About half of the staffers who tried the Rebounder said they'd consider buying it. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Aokhealth.com


Debbie Meyer Green Bags

The claim They "prolong the life" of fruits and vegetables by absorbing and removing the ethylene gas they release, which accelerates rotting. At www.greenbags.com 20 bags cost $9.95 plus $6.95 shipping and handling. The check In tough tests, we put bananas, peaches, apples, melons, blackberries, strawberries, basil, asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, grapes, lettuce, and carrots in Green Bags for up to five weeks. We stored the same foods for the same time in regular plastic food-storage bags on a counter, in a refrigerator, or in plastic supermarket bags. Bottom line When we saw green in Green Bags, it was sometimes mold. Only bananas fared much better in them. And at almost 85 cents each, Green Bags are much pricier than the typical food-storage bags. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Amazon.com


Hercules Hook

The claim A video ad says, "Holds up to 150 lbs.!" Just "Twist! Push! Turn!" this wire hook into drywall, plaster, or paneling. We found a packet of 20 hooks for $14.99. The check Staffers used hooks at home in various wall materials. In the lab, we hung progressively heavier weights on hooks pushed into drywall. Bottom line Hercules Hooks get the hook. Although they were easily pushed into drywall and wood paneling, they got hung up if they hit a stud and were very hard to force into plaster. A single hook is strong enough to hold 40 pounds or more, but holes in drywall tore at that weight. Brackets, picture hangers, and even nails hammered into a stud are better for heavier objects. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Bed Bath & Beyond


Mighty Putty

The claim Mighty Putty is a two-part epoxy that can be applied to "most any surface." It can "support up to 350 pounds," says the late pitchman Billy Mays, still appearing at www.mightyputty.com, and (cue truck towed by a puttied chain) "pull this fully loaded, 80,000-pound tractor-trailer!" You cut it like dough, knead it, apply it, and let it dry. The check We used Mighty Putty to join overlapped pieces of plastic, metal, and wood; clamped them; let them cure for 24 hours; then measured the force needed to pull them apart. We didn't tow a truck. Bottom line It's moderately mighty but pretty pricey ($19.99 for six sticks). It took more than 350 pounds of force to break its hold on metal and wood (270 pounds on plastic) and it excelled at filling gaps. But other adhesives are stronger and cost less. —Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org or check out Consumer Reports’ Money advice. Photo Credit: Walgreens.com


Show Comments

Back to Top