Art and article by Kathie Jiang
Portmanteau of information and commercial, infomercials are half-hour long advertisements with the appearance of a news program and the intention of providing in-depth information about a product. Many infomercials air between 1am and 5am to cut costs of airtime. Infomercials sensationalize their products—which can be too novel or difficult to sell—in exaggerated and tacky ways: narration from energetic salespeople, rapid-fire demonstrations, scientific data, on-the-street customer testimonials, B-list celebrity appearances, etc.
Infomercials are a living embodiment of commodity fetishism, a concept explaining the relationships between goods, labor, and value that Karl Marx observed as he witnessed the domination of capitalism in Europe during the mid-19th century. Before the rise of the market economy, what determined the value of a good was the time and effort the
laborer took to produce it. With industrialization, the increased circulation of products and wage labor—the mechanism by which a good (now a commodity) acquired value—rested entirely on the market price of the product, or relationship to other goods, in the eyes of the consumer. A key component of commodity fetishism is imbuing the product with a mystical, sublime aura when it is presented to the consumer through marketing. This is done so that the consumer forgets, or better yet disregards entirely, the plight of the laborers, the impact of harvesting the raw materials, the transportation of the products from manufacturing site to the market, and the many steps of the production of the good.
Fast forward a century, and the American infomercial and the powerful mass media and economic apparatuses that created it have taken this notion far beyond the proportions Marx could have ever imagined: it cut out the middleman of the market itself and brought the presentation of products squarely into the homes of the consumers through the mass medium of television. No matter how peculiar the product or how such a commodity came into material existence, one filmed direct-response commercial for the product can now reach the entire nation on the same screen on which consumers watch their local news, favorite drama series, or national sports games from the comfort of their sofas. How could a consumer in a direct order business even come to question how and where their commodity was produced, let alone whose hands and bodies on the opposite side of the supply chain helped assemble and deliver the good? If a consumer becomes accustomed to initiating this method of exchange in their very home rather than in the market, how can a consumer even fathom their position as the final cog in a larger machine of capitalist production and circulation in which profits are maximized and costs minimized down to an exact science?
What the consumer does see and comprehend is the infomercial product’s divine, salvational power. This is directly in line with Marx’s observations, created from a specialized formula of gaudy, zippy aesthetics and rhetoric for which infomercials have become known and even parodied. The tropes that make up this particular aesthetic and rhetoric are an amalgam of cheap but intentional marketing ploys. In a typical infomercial, tacky artificial sets of kitchens, gyms, gardens, and other settings of contemporary daily life become the backdrop for an energetic salesperson rapidly demonstrating their product for as many purposes imaginable, trumpeting its benefits as “making [insert daily chore] easy!” and completing the task “faster than any other product!” The lightning pace of the visual and auditory stimuli shot out in an infomercial leaves the viewer in a dazed state of simply trying to keep up from shot to shot, pitch to pitch. In infomercials, theater, cinema, music, and visual aesthetics are employed in their cheapest form to convey the glowing, inscrutable “amazingness” of the product.
Infomercials present the value of their commodity as greater than all other similar products on the market, further enabling the fetishization of the material product and eliminating consideration of its actual value or utility. Side-by-side demonstrations of the infomercial product and a more common product are a regular trope in infomercials, featuring the infomercial product performing the same purpose but visibly quicker or with less effort on the part of the user than its conventional counterpart. Infomercials often also tout their prices as lower than any other conventional product that executes the identical function to suggest that audiences are getting “an incredible deal.” In reality, research firms for the infomercial industry recommend corporations set prices for infomercial products at 400% the costs of their materials. In addition, infomercials will often bundle additional items to accompany the main good advertised, such as cookbooks to complement an offbeat kitchen appliance. These add-on products make the main good advertised, which can at first appear too novel and unnecessary, seem more functional and useable. This increases the perceived utility of the good, justifying the value of the good by a sheer material juxtaposition. These methods of augmenting the value through the product’s presentation with other goods is another way in which commodity fetishism operates.
Imagine, for a second, if this intricate web of highly optimized marketing tactics around infomercials suddenly dissipated and all that was left were these novelty products. With no context, need, urgency, or comparisons, there remains little reason even to consider purchasing a Foreman Grill, a Shamwow, or a Snuggie. Yet through increasingly exaggerated marketing, these products suddenly appear as panaceas with mystical capabilities of fulfilling a desperately neglected need in your home, all a phone call away from appearing at your doorstep—while the processes of producing and transporting such commodities remain shrouded in the dark.