Reading Rarities: As Seen On TV

asseenontv
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Ah, yes. Infomercials. Everyone’s seen them. In my neck of the woods, we have a channel that plays them all day and all night, seven days a week. It’s either hilarious or mind-numbing, depending on what time of day it is, and that time is highly nebulous. Anything involving Cathy Mitchell is usually fun, Others are creepy, like that Vince guy who advertised the ShamWow and the Slap Chop. Either way, the best infomercials are nothing if not unforgettable.

That’s what Indiannapolis-based authors Lou Harry and Sam Stall clearly had on their minds when they wrote their 2002 book, As Seen On TV: 50 Amazing Products And the Commercials That Made Them Famous, a satirical tribute to the wild, wacky world of infomercials. I can’t remember where my husband and I got this one; I think it was a bargain book from Barnes and Noble. Anyway…

The book is organized by sections. We have cooking implements, workout gear, fashion and beauty aids, financial aids, entertainment, and home improvement. The sheer scope of the delights to be had is widespread, so I’m just going to give a Top Ten list. Without further ado, here’s a smattering of the iconic, the ludicrous, and the just plain side-splitting, all seen through the witty, ironic eyes of Stall and Harry.

10. Matthew Lesko

According to query-clad Matthew Lesko, America’s federal government has truckloads of money for the claiming, and his gigundo manual, Free Money To Change Your Life will tell you how to get it. It’s not so much free money as it is cashing out taxpayer funds that would go to student loans and other government programs, as well as the inevitable pork barrel spending. Lesko encourages people to use that money to pay bills, start a business, travel, or whatever their heart desires. Harry and Stall’s take? It’s sound advice, but “Seeing your tax dollars at work was never so depressing.”

9. Thighmaster

Anyone who remembers the nineties and Suzanne Somers will remember this thingie. Yep. Put it between the thighs and squeeze. No, that’s not as dirty as it seems (I don’t think). Stall and Harry note that the Thighmaster was hugely popular from the get-go, selling 75,000 per week, and it does work. However, they caution that sweat can make the Thighmaster slippery, causing it to pop out from between one’s legs. Oops. The Thighmaster is still on the market, except that nowadays consumers can choose the Gold version or the Vibrato. Somers, who, along with her husband, now owns the company that makes them, has also added the Buttmaster, but I’m not sure I want to know how that one works.

8. Mr. Microphone

Homer famously gave Bart one of these in the Simpsons episode, “Radio Bart.” They were invented by Ron Popeil because he thought microphones and being on the radio shouldn’t be restricted to the talented. As Bart showed us, the concept got old fast, which is why Mr. Microphone is off the market. It’s the furthest thing from forgotten, though. Besides being immortalized on The Simpsons, Harry and Stall say that half the world’s deejays, concert sound men, and bottom-rung music studio workers are nicknamed Mr. Microphone.

7. Flowbee

The Flowbee was invented by a lumberjack who connected an electric razor to a vacuum cleaner. It’s a smart and slightly disturbing concept, but it sold. When As Seen On TV went to press, there were 9,000 Flowbees sold per year at $69.95 in 2002 dollars. Harry and Stall say it works and can produce consistent results; however, users run the risk of “looking like they lost a fight with a ceiling fan.” Flowbee is still on the market. In fact, my husband told me one is used to cut inmates’ hair at the Humboldt County Jail.

6. George Foreman’s Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine

I hesitated to include the George Foreman Grill because it’s been moved in with the non-infomercial grills at my Target, but it deserves its place in this lineup. My brother and sister-in-law have one, and it does a great job at keeping meat tender and caramelized while not drying it out. Stall and Harry like it, too, although they say that the grill’s temp control isn’t the greatest. That said, they recommend making s’mores in it.

5. Blo-Pens

It’s airbrushing for kids! It’s a nail-biter for parents! Plus, Blo-Pens aren’t as easy to use as they make them out to be in the commercial. It might look cute and fun and all, but a toy that has to address kids possibly blowing ink in each others’ faces or caution them to swallow their saliva might be better off skipped. Still, Lou Harry’s kids seemed to have fun with Blo-Pens, as evidenced by the samples of artwork included in Dad’s book.

4. The Clapper

Invented by Joseph Pedott of Chia Pet fame, the Clapper has been a steady seller since the seventies. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. The thing everyone wonders about this little guy is, “Will sounds other than clapping activate the Clapper?” Stall and Harry say yes, so connecting it to a TV or a toaster may not be the best idea. Lights seem to be safest. Kinda. Stall and Harry also say the product’s other major downside is that even if someone doesn’t buy a Clapper, that infamous jingle may get stuck in their heads forever. You’re welcome.

3. Nad’s

It’s amazing how many infomercial products center around hair, whether it’s wrapping it up, twisting it into Star Wars-worthy shapes, growing it, cutting it, or losing it. Nad’s does the latter–it’s a form of waxing. Inventor, Australian Sue Ismiel concocted Nad’s in her kitchen in 1992 out of honey, lemon juice, molasses, fructose, alcohol, water, and food coloring. Her six-year old daughter, Natalie, was unusually hairy on her arms and legs and very self-conscious about it, so her loving mama wanted to help her. I applaud the sentiment, but I can’t imagine a six-year old would sit still for a waxing treatment, especially once they find out how much it hurts. “We sense a Mommie Dearest-style tell-all in her future,” say Stall and Harry.

2. Richard Simmons

Richard Simmons and his short shorts are so infamous his name is all that’s necessary in Stall and Harry’s book. They don’t focus on any one product of his, but just the phenom that is Simmons. Already enjoying the success of his exercise studio, Slimmons, Simmons released his first video, Sweatin’ To the Oldies in 1986. For those readers who are over thirty-five, no explanation is needed. For everyone else, well…Richard Simmons is fun, he’s crazy, he’s a motivator, he’s endlessly cheerful, and he collects dolls. Yep. Simmons is a character and he knows it. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

1. Dr-Ho’s Muscle Massage System

The thought is nice, but the execution is a bit weird. Users apply gel pad electrodes to the part of their body they want massaged, and a AA-powered battery pack delivers a mild electric shock, making the muscles contract and vibrate, or in the words of Stall and Harry, “{jump} around like a hooked trout.” Yeah, it’s a TENS unit. The commercial features loads of bikini-clad women, who coo that the Muscle Massage is “better than a husband,” while the crowd chuckles appreciatively. However, as Stall and Harry note, the item’s most telling assessment comes from Dr. Ho himself. When asked what the difference was between the Muscle Massage System and an electric chair, the good doctor replied, “Your hair doesn’t go up in smoke.” Er…okay.


But wait, there’s more! Stall and Harry include a quiz on infomercials and take a break from the weirdness halfway through their book to give us “The As Seen On TV 100.” It pays tribute to folks who have participated in this illustrious mercantilian art form. Everyone from Cher to Erik Estrada to Stacy Keach to Vanna White to Rex Smith made the list. Ever heard of Susan Anton? Yeah, me neither, but she’s #4 of the hundred because she pitched the Power Dome Exerciser.

The king of the infomercial is, of course, Ron Popeil, and quite a few of his products grace Stall and Harry’s pages as well as a four-page interview. He mainly sticks to housewares, and a product a lot of people remember is the Showtime Rotisserie, but Popeil is a multi-faceted guy. Literally. Besides Mr. Microphone, one of Popeil’s non-kitchen items is the Bedazzler, originally named the Rhinestone and Stud Setter, which allows users to glam up the clothing item of their choice. He also peddles GLH Formula #9, which is marketed in Australia as, basically, a spray-on toupee. Nah, no potential for embarassment there, right?

If Ron Popeil is the king of the infomercial, Darla Haun is its archduchess. This woman is everywhere. She’s worn a Turbie Twist, hosted a Flavor Wave Turbo Oven cookout with Mr. T, and burned calories on a Tony Little Gazelle Freestyle. She’s also done some movies, such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and a few guest spots on TV shows, but the infomercial will always be her native heath. In Stall and Harry’s estimation, “If Response magazine, the Bible of the electronic retailing biz, ever publishes a swimsuit issue, Haun should be on the cover.”

As Seen On TV is laugh-out loud funny, albeit for the grownups. One, the humor will go right over most kids’ heads, due to its pop culture references of earlier decades. Two, it includes a few products that are definitely not kid-friendly, such as a page devoted to the Girls Gone Wild series. Still, the book wears well, even years later. Heck, with all that’s still going on in the infomercial world, I think As Seen On TV warrants a second and possibly even a third volume. Cathy Mitchell could have her own chapter, with a dark, quiet corner for that creepy ShamWow guy.

Okay, thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow with our first Shamedown!


Bibliography

Harry, Lou and Sam Stall. As Seen On TV: 50 Amazing Products and the Commercials That Made Them Famous. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2002.

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