Should you 'Buy This Now!'?

Usually not, based on our tests of 15 infomercial products

Last reviewed: February 2010
Shop Right From Your Own TV ad illustration
Illustrations by Lou Brooks

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."

"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.

But wait! Before buying any infomercial product, follow these bonus tips:

Pause 10 minutes before buying

By then, your impulse-shopping dopamine levels should have returned to normal.

Slow down the spellbinders

Whatever 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 solutions

When 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" clues

When 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 upselling

Those "operators standing by" might pitch additional products, accessories, and refills—before you know whether the product even works.

Avoid shipping and handling fees

Infomercials 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.

Did you know?

Why "just $19.95"? "People can part with 20 bucks without a lot of concern," says Dave Lampson, CEO of From Patent to Profit, which advises inventors. A $19.95 product usually costs $5 to $6 wholesale, says Larry Nusbaum, managing director of Vertex Capital Management, a private-equity firm.