Ah, 1984. Ghostbusters ruled the box office, and Prince had the biggest song on the radio. Before this, long-form television ads weren’t allowed by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). Under President Ronald Reagan, the FCC lifted this ban, allowing the seeds of the modern infomercial to take root.
Shark Tank panelist Kevin Harrington (known as the “Inventor of the Infomercial”) realized that long-form commercials could be used to fill dead time on TV stations. By 1985, Harrington’s infomercials were becoming woven into the fabric of American culture.
But wait, there’s more! In the 1990s and 2000s, infomercials reached a new height of mainstream popularity. Infomercial actors began morphing into the co-stars of the show, along with their products. Billy Mays became a household name after a 2000 OxiClean infomercial, former boxing champ George Foreman became a grill guru, and who could forget Vince from that Slap Chop ad?
Infomercials continue to preach the “As seen on TV” gospel to the masses, but these ten are reserved for a prime-time spot.
Related: Top 10 Banned Commercials
Three’s Company star Suzanne Somers breathed fresh life into her career when she partnered with the folks at Thighmaster. Thighmaster was released to the public in 1990. It was a simple exercise tool that was placed between the knees and squeezed. That’s pretty much it. Thighmasters flew off the shelves in the ’90s thanks to Somers and a series of memorable infomercials.
These involved a smiling Somers, clad in a leotard, demonstrating the product to the audience. Throw in some personal testimonials and a realistic-looking doctor, and Thighmaster was off to the races.
Somers now owns Thighmaster outright. This proved to be a wise gamble. When Thighmaster originally launched, the price was $19.95. It can now be yours for the low, low price of $79.99. To date, Thighmaster has earned over $100,000,000 in revenue.
What has kept Somers at the top of the infomercial hill for so long? Her explanation is simple: “Always tell the truth. The public is smart, and they can smell BS.”
9 Sweatin’ to the Oldies
Health and fitness products are a hallmark of the infomercial industry. Late-night ads are full of get-fit-quick options for the discerning viewer. However, few have made an impact in this space like Richard Simmons and his late ’80s aerobics program: Sweatin’ to the Oldies.
There’s not much mystery here. Sweatin’ to the Oldies was a dance-aerobics program led by Simmons himself. The series’ infomercials were epic displays of average people dancing to a live band in a balloon-filled room.
Armed with his signature afro, short shorts, and undying smile, Simmons created a boom that continued until he closed his studio in 2016. The series raked in over $200,000,000 and is now available on “Fuse Sweat,” an offshoot of Fuse TV.
Simmons remarked, “I am very excited that my groundbreaking fitness series of ‘Sweatin to the Oldies’ still is so relevant and popular, and I hope many new fans will discover these timeless classics.”
It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.
The most successful products tend to stem from the simplest of concepts. Consider the Snuggie: It’s a blanket… with sleeves! According to the Snuggie’s website, “There is only one Snuggie!” Well, that’s not technically true. There have been other variations of sleeved blankets on the market for years, but none have touched the success of Snuggie.
This is largely due to a series of laughable infomercials that hit the airwaves in 2008. The ads were a throwback to classic infomercials of the previous era. It checked all the boxes: unconvincing actors, wooden voice-overs, and smiles all around.
Snuggie is still going strong. More than 20 million Snuggies have been sold, totaling over $400,000,000 in revenue. Considering that the Snuggie fixes a problem most people didn’t know they had, why has it become such a phenomenon? Even Snuggie creator Scott Boilen can’t say: “If I knew how the Snuggie became so successful, we’d have 15 more products like that. It just struck a chord at the right time.”
7 Ped Egg
Speaking of products that solve problems, the Ped Egg is a glorified cheese grater for the bottoms of one’s feet. Think it’s a small problem? Not according to the folks who have purchased over 40 million Ped Eggs.
Ped Egg is the most successful product ever launched by television marketing company TeleBrands. At the heart of Ped Egg’s marketing, of course, were commercials. First airing in 2009, the ads were… a bit gross. TeleBrands paid handsomely to show consumers a sequence of people scraping dead skin onto the floor while a narrator demands, “Don’t put sexy shoes on ugly feet!”
The commercials caught the attention of TV viewers. This led to a surge in direct-to-consumer sales, but for Ped Egg, the money was in retail. The ads raised awareness for consumers, but more importantly, they raised the awareness of the big-box retailers.
Ped Eggs didn’t need to be sexy to sell. Retailing at $10, Ped Egg made nearly $450,000,000 during its TV run and continues to be the premier product of its kind.
6 Total Gym
Anything fitness-related is given immediate credibility once Chuck Norris is involved. Total Gym is a transformable, full-body workout device. Total Gym CEO Tom Campanaro first designed the Total Gym back in 1974.
The Total Gym gained acclaim over the years, being praised in Consumer Reports as “best for training the torso.” In 1996, Campanaro struck a deal with American Telecast Products (ATP) to produce the first Total Gym infomercial. Those ads needed some big guns to push units. Those guns were Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley.
The QVC infomercials for Total Gym were half motivating and half cringeworthy. On the one hand, it seemed a legit way to get in shape. On the other hand, it was sometimes tough to see that through the cheesy presentation.
The Norris/Brinkley pitching powerhouse worked, though. Total Gym is still a hot item in the fitness space. To date, Total Gym ads have aired in 85 countries and sold over four million units. This has resulted in over one billion dollars of revenue.
5 Showtime Rotisserie
If a Mount Rushmore of infomercial pitchmen were to be made, a strong case could be made for Ron Popeil’s inclusion. Popeil started his company, Ronco, in 1964. Ronco released a slew of landmark products, including the Pocket Fisherman and Ronco Spray Gun.
In 1998, Popeil produced the “must-have” item that took Ronco to the next level: The Showtime Rotisserie and Barbecue. The infomercials were fueled by Popeil’s gregarious presentation. He gave hands-on demonstrations of cooking a chicken while a glazed-eyed co-host threw out gems like “That’s unbelievable!”
It was in these ads that Popeil established his catchphrase, “Set it and forget it!” It’s tough to forget the Showtime Rotisserie’s bottom line. Sales for the Showtime have amassed a whopping 1.2 billion dollars. In 2005, Ron Popeil sold Ronco for $55,000,000. Popeil died in 2021, but not before enjoying his last 16 years as a very, very wealthy man.
Ron Popeil may be gone, but budding barbecuers can still pick up a Showtime Rotisserie at the Ronco website.
Bowflex has been in the game longer than most. Debuting back in 1986, Bowflex has managed to maintain relevance in a rapidly evolving market. It wasn’t until 1996 that legal entanglements finally allowed Bowflex to be widely marketed. This put Bowflex in direct competition with Total Gym, which was also released in 1996.
Bowflex is a home gym that utilizes a pulley system and tension rods to create resistance. This set it apart from traditional weights as a lighter and more manageable option.
Those early Bowflex infomercials had a lot to learn. The first ten seconds of a 1996 Bowflex spot was a sequence of perfectly sculpted bodies on display. The next 30 minutes were a combination of “real person” testimonials, scientific claims, and product demonstrations by well-oiled fitness models.
Bowflex made this list not because of total sales but because of their annual sales. Over 2.5 Bowflex units have been sold, and the company touts an annual revenue of approximately $194,000,000. That’s a lot of oversized clothes hangers!
3 George Foreman Grill
It’s a common misconception that the former boxing champ invented the George Foreman grill. It was actually developed by Michael Boehm, an employee of a Chinese home electronics equipment company called Tsann Kuen.
Boehm developed an early prototype for the grill but had difficulty with promotion. In 1994, George Foreman was approached about being a brand spokesperson and was given a grill to try. Oddly, it was Foreman’s wife who ended up loving the grill and encouraged him to take the gig.
By the following year, Foreman was on TV, pitching his new “Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.” On paper, an aging former boxer hawking mini grills on TV shouldn’t work… but it did. The affable Foreman showed everyone how to cook burgers in two minutes while his wide-eyed co-host kept the live audience pumped up.
The George Foreman Grill has sold over 100 million grills and reached a staggering $202,000,000 in annual revenue. It was so good, he put his name on it!
In the fitness infomercial space, P90X breathes rarified air. The brainchild of trainer Tony Horton, P90X was a follow up to his 2001 Beachbody fitness program, Power 90. When P90X was released in 2005, it did so with the support of an unavoidable TV ad campaign.
Unlike other fitness infomercials, P90X looked cool. It was 2:00 am, and a jacked 53-year-old Tony Horton was yelling about getting “absolutely ripped in 90 days!”. America was hooked. Diverging from the corny infomercial style of the previous generation, P90X ads were slick. They featured testimonials (of course), interviews with Horton, and group workout demonstrations.
The workout regimen for P90X is extreme, but Horton denies that it’s only for people who are already in decent shape. He told Business Insider, “Our audience is everybody. From folks in their 70s to their teens, male and female, professional, collegiate, high school athletes and government officials.”
The intense program sold like hotcakes. By 2012, Beachbody sold more than 4 million copies of P90X at $119.85 a pop. Tony Horton and Beachbody have since released two follow up P90X programs. Tony and friends bring in an estimated $400,000,000 of P90X revenue annually, earning them the gold star for fitness infomercials and number two overall.
If this list says anything, it’s that there’s no way of knowing which products will resonate with the public. Who could have guessed that the most successful infomercial of all time would be for a skincare product?
Proactiv was developed by dermatologists Dr. Katie Rodan and Dr. Kathy Fields in 1990. Five years later, they inked a licensing deal with the colossal infomercial company Guthy-Renker. This deal opened the door for the celebrity endorsements that made Proactiv such a smash success.
In 1999, Who’s the Boss star Judith Light was featured in the first celebrity-endorsed Proactiv ad. Since then, Proactive ads have featured such stars as Alicia Keys, Julianne Hough, Kendall Jenner, Jessica Simpson, Adam Levine, and Justin Bieber.
How did Proactiv rope in all those A-listers? They could afford to. In 2014, Proactiv reported annual revenue of one billion dollars. In 2021, 26 years after its debut, Proactive raked in $27.5 million in sales. As long as celebrities and acne exist, Proactiv will continue to sit comfortably as champion of the infomercial.