The camera was rolling. Sweat was starting to bead. The strange-looking comb in my hands -- something my smooth-as-a-
freshly-waxed-bowling-lane pate hasn't needed for years -- seemed to be laughing at me. I had just been shoved in front of a camera and told, with no further instructions, to sell a product I'd never seen before as if I were on TV. Things were going, to put it baldly, badly.
The first few minutes of Bob Circosta's class on how to sell on TV could be used to pry information from terrorists -- or at least reticent, highly self-conscious journalists. Mr. Circosta, who went from founding father of home shopping to prepping celebrities and Average Joes for infomercials, isn't out to torture. I'd volunteered to take his course to aid in my understanding of a central conundrum of our marketing age: Why, if consumers are so damned hard to reach, so handy with their TiVos, so skeptical of 30-second-spot shilling, is there a $182 billion direct-response TV market peddling everything from acne treatments to workout stations, all with sales pitches as bare as a baby's bottom?
This paradox gleamed in my mind like cubic zirconia the day before, in a Clearwater, Fla., hotel room where I prepared for the class with a seven-hour immersion in the Home Shopping Network. At some point in the binge, something like a vision occurred. A distressingly buff old man appeared on my TV screen, hanging upside down for long periods of time but nonetheless pitching as if his life depended on it. He was selling the health virtues of being upside down, and what was perhaps most absurd was the speed with which the $329 Teeter Hang Ups were selling, sometimes at the rate of several a second.
The reasons why people buy products endorsed by, say, Jessica Simpson are apparent, if depressing. Less clear are the persuasive powers of Roger Teeter. Though distinguished, with a gray beard, and spry, with a short-sleeved polo showing off a pair of sculpted biceps, Mr. Teeter is not particularly handsome, especially not for someone who can command a half-hour on TV -- even cable. Nor is he particularly charismatic, prone as he is to giddy, girlish exclamations -- "It's so fun!!" -- awkward, leaping scissor kicks and occasional voluntary flexings of those aforementioned guns. Nor does his machine appear to be a feat of modern engineering. In fact, while it's called an inversion board, it could easily be renamed the Hold You Upside Down Machine with little lost in translation.
Yet, despite what would seem to be disadvantages, Mr. Teeter and his ilk move product.
An old standby in a modern age
DRTV is, of course, nothing new, but in a marketing world dominated by quavering communications models and uncertainty verging on panic, it's almost shockingly durable. Most marketers or agency types will tell you that consumers are harder to both reach and persuade than ever before. Marketing doctrine has realized the power of DVRs and the internet's always-on product forum and responded by promoting more subtle ways of pitching, such as branded content and getting customers to help co-create marketing programs. It's best summed up in Procter & Gamble marketing chief Jim Stengel's recent proclamation "It's not about telling and selling."
Then, giving a big old middle finger to Mr. Stengel is a whole 'nother strand of thinking, characterized by the late-night trance of infomercials -- which P&G and its consumer-goods rivals are increasingly buying into -- and the endless commercial palaver of the home-shopping channels, all still devoted to the hard sell or even exalting the sales pitch itself as entertainment. What's been the gristle of the TV schedule has shaped up as a fine cut of marketing meat, with companies such as Sephora, Nokia, AT&T and Gateway in. It's bound to leap to the web as well, maybe with Honeyshed, a forthcoming project from Publicis Groupe that David Droga has described as "QVC meets MTV."
It's safe to say most folks who encounter DRTV pitches aren't necessarily searching feverishly for the collectible dolls, putty, headache remedies or zit cures they happen to encounter. So something else is ginning up the impulse to buy. Mr. Circosta would argue that it's a relationship, and what he teaches is how to build the kind that can drum up demand pretty much out of whole cloth.
"The power of the relationship through camera runs parallel with ability to sell product," he said during my visit in March. "That relationship is more important, many times, than product. It's the key to selling what you have, to creating the need for what you have."
Cliche becomes reality
In marketing circles, the word "relationship" is overused to the point of being meaningless, but the relationship to which Mr. Circosta refers isn't a scientific, CRM-type thing. Rather, it's the sort of connection that happens all day on the shopping networks. During my binge, I saw it manifest a few times. One concerned caller dwelled for a long time on a host's raspy throat, discussing causes of sore throat and remedies.
Doubtful that some housewife with an itchy credit-card finger would care about my sniffles, I nevertheless asked Mr. Circosta to try to juice me up with that relationship stuff. And, in some small way, he was successful. In just a few hours, my moronic ramblings were transformed into a relatively smooth pitch, not quite ready for corporate-training videos but passable. The teacher himself assured me that with just a few more hours of training I'd be ready for HSN, which seemed a bit overstated.
We did, however, succeed in creating a narrative around the comb that even addressed a central and possibly fatal flaw of the whole exercise: Who would buy a comb from bald guy?
The answer to that, it turned out: women. Apparently I know what they want, even if I don't know which end of a comb is up. We men, as I was instructed by Mr. Circosta and his deputy, Chelsea Scott, and as I would repeat endlessly on video, are obsessed with lustrous, flowing tresses on our ladies. It's what we talk about, which is why the TeasEase, as the comb is branded, is something you want -- nay, need. Its patented blend of rubber and plastic is designed to attract hair, not damage it. Plus, it's ergonomically-designed for the many arthritis suffers among you. Annndd ... it comes in all kinds of bright colors that stick out in those cluttered drawers and pocketbooks that (wink, wink) I hear you ladies have.
The fourth time around, the bullshit began to flow like it's rarely (sans alcohol) flown before. The repetition doubtless helped, but not as much as something called WSGAT (pronounced WIZ-gat), something Mr. Circosta revealed to me with the panache you'd expect from someone nicknamed Billion-Dollar Bob. About 35 minutes into the lesson, Mr. Circosta paused for an aside and looked away. "I'm not sure how eager I am to have this out there, but I'll leave it up to your discretion as to how you handle it."
Discretion, generally speaking, isn't something that afflicts me, so here goes. WSGAT stands for "What's so good about that?" -- a question designed to help the seller translate a product's features to its benefits. That the TeasEase is actually two combs in one -- one with thick teeth and one with fine teeth -- means it can be used by anyone on any hair day. That it comes in pink means you won't lose it. That it's rubber means it won't break. That it's patented means it's the only one like it.
This sounds almost insultingly basic, but when the camera's on and there's extreme pressure to just talk, talk, talk about products that would be aspire to be called low-involvement, it makes sense. All those benefits congeal in a big old blob of verbosity that just sort of keeps expanding. You can almost feel it going through the camera to the viewer.
A shaky start
Thus, WSGAT begat the consumer connection Mr. Circosta has appreciated for a long time, at least since July of 1985, when an until-then-local Home Shopping Club (as it was then known) went national. Its first day on the air, the club did $352 worth of business, not good when you consider it had about 400 operators standing by.
What was missing in the transition from local to national was the relationship thing, especially homey touches such as tooting a horn when regular callers phoned or even hand-delivering purchases when feasible. So the club went back to that. And, within 90 days it was doing $1 million in sales.
As Ms. Scott, who moonlights as an HSN host, said, "This is the fastest legal way there is to make money."