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LAS VEGAS-They held another infomercial convention last week, and, as always, one of the prevailing themes was Fear of the Fortune 500. The purveyors of teeth whiteners and bald spot paint and five brands of psychic advice for the pitiful are still terrified that their medium will be overrun by those contemptible mainstream advertisers.

Like the Visigoths in a panic over the Yale Glee Club at their gates. Well, the barbarians can relax.

Not only are mainstream advertisers themselves terrified of associating with the snake oil and schlock that still contaminates the infomercial medium, they also seem not to fully grasp or feel comfortable with the principle that makes infomercials the magnificent marketing tool they are.

We refer, of course, to selling.

Thirty-second TV spots often don't seem to have time to sell. Fashioned by what probably should be rechristened brand-awareness agencies, modern TV advertising confers ironic new meaning to Vance Packard's notion of "Hidden Persuaders"-i.e., the persuaders seem to be in hiding, while the image makers run the show. So when major advertisers do venture into infomercial land, they don't seem to know how to act.

The latest vivid example is Magnavox, which this week unveils its first infomercial for its 27-inch color TV. The highly produced "storymercial" from Tyee Productions, Portland, Ore., is well-written, directed, cast and acted. It is entertaining from beginning to end. Moreover, it is far better than most mainstream commercials in identifying-and relentlessly reiterating-its two unique brand benefits: the SmartSound and Remote Locator features.

Yet because it is neither fish nor fowl, neither genuine direct response nor classic image ad, it is strangely unsatisfying. Even, after a while, tedious. And maybe even fundamentally wrong.

The premise is a bizarre day in the life of the Howells, a family of four who on Labor Day 1956 check into the Time Warp Motel where they find a 1994 Magnavox TV. They also encounter a strange desk clerk with a ridiculous French accent, who seemingly pops up again and again in a half dozen other goofy personas, always demonstrating the features of the Magnavox. Actor Michael Shapiro is a poor man's Peter Sellers, materializing variously as an Indian technodweeb, a German chambermaid, and a blow-dried anchorman, among others.

Time plays weird tricks here-sort of "Twilight Zone" meets "Groundhog Day"-and there are genuinely comic moments.

"Gregg," says the mom after one deja vu episode, "don't you get the feeling like you've been here before?"

"You can say that again," the dad replies.

Muses his wife: "I probably will."

And she's right, but by that stage we'd prefer a little less story-and a lot more-mercial. Instead of having the plot resolved, we'd rather have the sale closed-and therein the ad's fundamental flaw. For all its pains to palatably convey its product features, Magnavox is still timid with the central appeal of the medium: that viewers can be satisfied and entertained by the pure act of selling. We crave information and demonstration and opportunity, and-ask any psychic Visigoth-we'll watch the cheesiest damn things to get it. Tell Bob Garfield what you think through the Ad Age Bulletin Board on Prodigy, or by Prodigy E-Mail at EFPB35A.

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