If there was a modern kitchen product in the 1920s, there was a good chance that William Grover Barnard sold it.
A health food pitchman pioneer, he traveled around the country to sell all sorts of kitchen wares. And, when he came across the blender in 1937, he thought he had a winner on his hands.
Barnard named his blender the “Vita-mix.” After his son suggested television as an advertising medium, he took his live demonstrations of the product to the airwaves in 1949 and arguably created the first infomercial.
He made his pitch sound, well, almost educational. “I’m going to give you a demonstration of one of the most wonderful machines that was ever invented — the Vita-mix machine,” Barnard said in his superlative-laden pitch. “And I’m going to talk to you on the most vital subject that concerns you and your family — and that is health.” And, so, with those very words, Barnard launched the modern American infomercial.
Advertisements like Barnard’s were able to take advantage of inexpensive airtime that television stations had during the late-night hours when they weren’t broadcasting. As a result, all sorts of pitches — like Barnard’s at the time — could be broadcast to the masses.
Since the ads were not limited to 15-second spots on prime time, people like Barnard could use a variety of approaches within the same ad to get people’s attention. Barnard’s ad, for example, went on for nearly 30 minutes — giving him time to wow audiences with awe and motivate them to purchase with a bit of fear.
In addition to marketers like Barnard, the ads helped television networks air content during dead late-night hours. With the cost of producing content for these hours often higher than the potential benefit of airing it, stations might have just gone dark during those times.
And, for marketers, it’s a “dirt cheap media space” that marketers can use to target specific consumer segments, according to Priceonomics. Indeed, marketers have taken advantage of TV airwaves over the years, hawking all sorts of wacky items from the Hawaii Chair to the Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker.
The business has also meant big business for HSN and QVC, but eCommerce is starting to encroach on their business. In a $2.1-billion deal, QVC acquired HSN in 2017 to consolidate their infomercial efforts.
From Television to Video
So, if Barnard were to have pitched the Vitamix in 2018, what medium would he have used? Perhaps he would have considered MikMak’s Attach, a middleman of sorts between Instagram or Snapchat and an actual product available for sale on the retailer’s website.
The product reduces friction that Barnard faced — viewers of his ads wouldn’t be able to simply buy the Vitamix from their television sets, of course. Through Attach, customers can purchase an item on a retailer’s Instagram — or Snapchat — by “swiping up” and adding it to their shopping cart. They can also watch more so-called “minimercials” for products made by the same retailer.
Viewers of MikMak-powered ads tend to be people who love to consume video, which is often designed for mobile and social distribution. They also tend to be open to learning about products — and shopping — through this experience. The most popular customer demographic? Middle-aged women, MikMak’s founder, Rachel Tipograph, told Forbes.
But Tipograph’s service isn’t entirely focused on connecting retailers with consumers. Beyond consumer products — like the Vitamix — MikMak is seeing interest from producers of B2B products and services.
“We get countless inquiries from B2B companies to help sell their services with video because often B2B services can’t be described in a photo or 90 characters,” Tipograph told Forbes. “Video is the medium to simplify complicated products.”
Still Tipograph doesn’t see other old school marketing channels going away completely, but she does see future development in tech-focused areas — like connected cars, she told Forbes.
So, how effective are infomercials, exactly? Well, for Barnard, his infomercials propelled his company to a multimillion dollar success that operates in 140 countries today. And Vitamix is still family-owned and run by Barnard’s great granddaughter today.
In the digital space, MikMak helps household brands like Birchbox, Bose and Banana Republic reach customers online to some success. “We have seen that video content really boosts conversion at a higher rate across all channels, so we’ve been investing heavily in it,” Lorelei Orfeo, senior manager of social and content at Birchbox, told DigiDay.
Perhaps if Barnard were just starting out today, he would have taken a page from Birchbox’s marketing playbook and educated consumers online through MikMak — instead of hitting the airwaves.