Touted as fast, easy, and inexpensive fixes for flabby arms, cooking tasks, and much more, infomercial products are being hawked for your body, your home, your car, and other areas of your life. The $300 billion direct-to-consumer industry is booming, and infomercials are no longer only a staple of late-night programming-they now take slots on myriad channels at all times of day.
But are the products they advertise really worth buying? To find out, Consumer Reports partnered with the ABC News magazine "20/20" on "Infomercial Nation," part of the May 20, 2011, edition of the show. Five of the many infomercial products that Consumer Reports has tested were featured in the segment: two designed to get you in shape (Belly Burner and Shake Weight) and three aimed at making cooking easier (FlavorWave Oven Turbo, Magic Bullet Express, and Ninja Master Prep Professional QB1004). Also check out our review of the MagicJack, which is supposed to cut your phone bills.
See our earlier review of infomercial products, including Ab Circle Pro, Debbie Meyer Green Bags, Garry Ultra Light, Grease Bullet, Hercules Hook, iRobot Looj, Magic Jack, Mighty Putty, PedEgg, ShamWow, Slap Chop, Snuggie, Tyre Grip & AutoSock, and Urban Rebounder.
To slim down, asserts the infomercial, all you have to do is wrap the 8-inch-wide Belly Burner around your stomach while you exercise. The neoprene belt is "proven to burn more calories faster" and can help you to shed unwanted inches, the company claims, because it increases your "thermal core temperature."
We measured the Belly Burner's ability to increase energy expenditure using a common exercise, having test subjects jog for 20 minutes on a treadmill with and without the product. They burned essentially the same number of calories in the same amount of time whether or not they wore the device. Wearing the Belly Burner did increase skin temperature beneath, but that just left some testers sweatier. One found it slightly harder to breathe when jogging with the Belly Burner on.
So don't bother burning through any money to buy the Belly Burner. Instead, make changes in diet and other daily routines and increase how much you exercise. Our guide to diet and exercise is full of healthy tips and recent Ratings of exercise equipment.
Want to get in shape for bathing-suit weather? Then you might have noticed the ads for the Shake Weight, which say it will "Build Definition, Size & Strength FAST!" and "Shape and tone your arms, shoulders, and chest."
Each end of the Shake Weight—basically a dumbbell with a molded-plastic handle—is loaded with a spring that alternately compresses and extends as you shake the weight back and forth. Picture something akin to a young Tom Cruise slinging mixed drinks in the film "Cocktail." It's this widely parodied motion—search for "Shake Weight" on YouTube—that's supposed to morph you into the Adonis seen on one of the Shake Weight websites.
We used electromyography (EMG) to measure how effectively the 2.5-pound and the 5-pound Shake Weights activated muscles in the chest, shoulder, biceps, and triceps. We used the three exercises that were common to the DVDs that came with each size Shake Weight. We compared those results with the same measurements taken when our testers performed modified push-ups and elastic-band exercises.
We found that the exercises on the DVDs that came with our Shake Weights can tire individual muscles. For the biceps specifically, the Shake Weight worked about as well as the elastic-band curls. But for the chest, shoulder, and triceps, the EMG measurements showed that the Shake Weight exercises were inferior to ours. Keep in mind that any resistance exercise can build strength.
Although the Shake Weight isn't promoted as a weight-loss device, we also measured the energy required to perform Shake Weight exercise routines, because the greater your muscle activity, the more calories you burn.
We compared the Shake Weight results with the energy expended during a push-up-and-elastic-band routine of the same duration. We also measured calories burned while walking on a treadmill for a similar time at three different speeds (3, 3.5, and 4 mph), easily understood benchmarks. The Shake Weight routines burned fewer calories than the other exercise routines our testers performed, and fewer than walking, even at the slowest speed, 3 mph.
You can activate muscles and get a workout with the Shake Weight, but we feel that you can do better with a variety of other exercises.
For a reality check on other infomercial exercisers such as the Ab Rocket and Bowflex TreadClimber, read our review of fitness machines.
The FlavorWave Turbo "combines the speed of a microwave, with the . . . taste of a gourmet restaurant" with no need for defrosting or preheating, according to its infomercial. Celeb pitchman Mr. T calls the FlavorWave easy to use, saying you just set it to cook and "you're off the hook."
We cooked a variety of foods in the FlavorWave oven, including fresh and frozen whole chickens. In both high- and low-temperature settings we measured the FlavorWave's energy use and recorded the corresponding temperature readings.
With its combination of halogen, infrared, and convection cooking, the FlavorWave cooked faster and used less energy than a regular electric oven. The countertop oven worked very well for cooking meats and roasting vegetables. The meat came out browned and juicy, even without defrosting or preheating. But, the FlavorWave didn't make the A-Team for crisping frozen pizza crusts.
The manufacturer also claims that FlavorWave provides easy self-cleaning, but that might be a stretch when it comes to getting baked-on fat splatters off the glass lid.
One ad for the food chopper known as the Magic Bullet Express touts fast and easy results, claiming it can chop, mix, blend, whip, and grind "in just 10 seconds or less."
This appliance performed less than magically when grating cheese and crushing ice, though it did a better job puréeing soup. Note that its two-cup container allowed us to handle only about half of our standard test soup recipe at a time. (It comes with a one-cup and a two-cup container.)
Despite the claim that the Magic Bullet Express works fast, after two minutes of blending time there were still unwelcome chunks in virgin piña coladas, the frozen concoction that's part of our test protocol. Note that this Magic Bullet is not intended to be used for long-running chores—the instructions say you should run it for no more than one minute at a time to avoid permanently damaging its motor.
You'll find more information on food choppers and processors in our buyer's guide.
In our recent review of food choppers, the "ancient Asian metalworking secrets" described in an infomercial for the Ninja Master Prep Professional QB1004 helped the combination food chopper and processor earn the top score among tested models.
The Ninja, which comes with a 2-cup chopper bowl and a 6-cup blender vessel, did a very good job of chopping vegetables and nuts, crushing ice, and puréeing soups, even though the device has only one operating speed; many of its competitors have several. The Ninja was relatively quiet, the push-button control proved to be easy to use, and the blade removed easily for cleaning.
One drawback: the Ninja can't slice or shred, so you still might also need a food processor in your kitchen. To find the right model, check out latest Ratings.
The MagicJack is a matchbook-sized device that comes with a big promise: a year's worth of nationwide phone calling for less than many people spend for a month of telephone service. The catch? You have to have high-speed Internet service first. Assuming you do, then you can plug the Magic Jack into a USB port of an Internet-connected computer and your home phone into the other end of the MagicJack, and you're ready to make calls in the U.S. and to Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands at no additional cost.
In our tests, MagicJack calls connected well and voice quality was clear. But there are a couple of minor drawbacks. Your computer has to be on and connected to the Internet to receive calls (otherwise calls go right to voicemail or are forwarded to a number you've chosen). But overall the MagicJack is a good deal, costing much less than comparable services from Vonage.
MagicJack isn't the only VoIP device out there. Read our recent review of several low-cost alternatives to home-phone service.
*Prices reflect information current as of early May and do not include shipping and handling.