A Little Less Fear and Loathing

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Next month, for my 15th consecutive year, I will trek to Las Vegas for the direct response television industry's annual gala, the Electronic Retailing Association convention. I attended my first ERA convention when the organization was in its infancy and called National Infomercial Marketer's Association. Because the word "infomercial" conjures visions of screaming, steroid-pumped fitness gurus and badly coifed, get-rich-quick pitchmen sitting around pools, the board wisely changed the name.

In the early days of NIMA, a couple hundred people would gather in Vegas to argue about juicers, ab machines and the rising cost of media time. ERA has grown rapidly in size and sophistication, and thousands from around the world now attend. While they still discuss the above, the convention has become a good resource to meet DRTV's players and service providers.

I have a love/hate relationship with the show, frequently vowing not to go and changing my mind at the last minute. This may have something to do with the location. Though I am pleased to see Vegas abandon ill-advised marketing toward families and return to its seedy, wonderful roots of gambling, nudity and excessive alcohol consumption, I have grown more sedate and don't enjoy these activities as much as I once did.

Clients often express interest in attending, which I discourage. Though it has interesting vendors and good educational opportunities, it can be bizarre for someone unaccustomed to DRTV culture. Wild-eyed inventors stop you in the hall, begging to rub your leg with a solar-powered, cellulite-reducing wand or encouraging you to drink brown liquid from a filthy coffee mug that they claim will reduce the size of your prostate.

A craziness seems to infect all who attend. Competitive agencies are unabashed about trying to steal clients; they stop me in the hall to pitch my client in front of me. A decade ago I boarded an elevator with a Fortune 100 client when a well-known television pitchman saw his name tag, cornered him and began poking him in the chest, yelling "Stay out of the DRTV business!" For years, a strangely muscular old man known as Doc roamed the convention halls surrounded by buxom girls in bikinis. Clad in a skin-tight leotard like an elderly but fit Richard Simmons, Doc's goal was to be discovered as the next Jack LaLanne. Jowly, sad celebrities last seen sailing The Love Boat hang out in the cocktail lounges, soliciting gigs as infomercial hosts.

Perhaps the freakiest and best experience is the awards ceremony. Most ad competitions stress creative execution, but the ERA awards tend to honor campaigns that succeeded financially. Winners can run the gamut from "awful but worked" to truly inspired.

Years ago I had two major clients attending the awards, both with campaigns nominated in the Best Corporate DRTV category. The host showed beautiful clips from the spots as my clients smiled, but their expressions turned to confusion as the final nominee's entry was shown. Their competition was a spot for a new kitty litter box, and the screens around the room were filled with images of cats defecating on a tiny conveyer belt, the innovative system whisking away the offal into hidden poop containers. To my dismay, one of my clients tied with the kitty litter box. But in defense of kitty hygiene, I am told the box sold millions.

I am excited that this year's awards ceremony features the musical stylings of one of my favorite infomercial hosts, Esteban. He became famous on HSN and infomercials selling his guitar course.

DRTV has made enormous gains in popularity and acceptance the past few years, and every year the convention tends to reflect this. I suspect this year I am more likely to see major corporate executives roaming the halls than characters like Doc. While I applaud this professionalism, somehow I think an ERA convention without a few crazy inventors would seem lacking. Most of the products we buy originally came from the minds of slightly eccentric entrepreneurs with a vision, and I would miss their energy.

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