Producers See Boom in Short Form Arena

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Selling a product or generating a sales lead in two minutes or less is challenging, but more advertisers are expected to try do so in the next few years as DRTV marketing becomes more predominant. Because the demand for DRTV spots is expected to grow substantially, commercial producers that specialize in direct response spot production see a healthy outlook into the next millennium.


Dollars are pouring in to DRTV media, according to a study by the Direct Marketing Association in New York, which estimated that consumer-oriented DRTV spot buying would grow 43 percent between last year and 2000. Meanwhile, business-to-business DRTV spot buying would climb 53 percent to $11.8 billion during the same period. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that one out of four commercials these days has some kind of direct response mechanism - either through the telephone or the Internet.


While estimates of the total amount of money spent on actual production of spots vary, DRTV producers see growth spurred by growing corporate interest in DRTV campaigns and an increased willingness of infomercial marketers to air spots that boost brand awareness and drive retail sales.


The division between these two camps - corporate brand advertisers and infomercial entrepreneurs - also separates most of the commercial production companies, which tend to specialize in a particular format. Many mainstream commercial production companies contacted by DRTV News said they rarely shoot DRTV spots, which tend to cost less and may only air for a short-term promotion.


"We have been in the bidding process with them [DRTV projects] a few times, but it's usually a bit different ilk than what we end up doing," said Kay Millett, an executive producer with Harmony Pictures in Los Angeles. "A lot of times with DR, the creative we get never gets financed, quite frankly." Her company this month shot spots for its cadre of brand advertising clients, including Lever Corp., AirTouch cellular, Wrigley's gum, Cheerios cereal, Huffy Bikes, MasterCard, Playtex and Labatt's beer.


Producers at other mainstream commercial production houses, including Propaganda Films in Los Angeles and Radical Media, The A&R Group and HSI in New York, also shook their heads to DRTV spots.


"The mentality of the mainstream commercial production companies is that they want that $700,000 corporate package," said Larry DeLeon, president of DeLeon & Associates Inc., an infomercial production company in Los Angeles. "The DR stuff is always short term, so the gross production dollars are less."


DRTV Meets Brand Image


The major stigmas attached to DRTV spots are that they lack production value, employ hard-sell tactics for newfangled gadgetry and all include the same call-to-action screen with a bluish background. Because corporate advertisers do not want to cheapen brands that they have cultivated for many years at great expense, they demand higher production quality in their DRTV.


"I'm not interested in that lower level of quality," said Sandy Stern, director of production at A. Eicoff & Co., Chicago. "If the comment is: 'It's just direct response,' that's not how we view it."


One producer who shoots both image commercials and DRTV spots said that the challenge for corporate clients is finding a production company that understands DRTV, but also respects the principles of quality branding.


"I've found that a lot of the legitimate advertisers that want to go into short form don't want to work with people in the infomercial industry," said Ava Seavey, president of Big Picture Communications Inc., New York. "They specifically don't want to be involved in the mudslinging and in the knockoffs. They want to distance themselves from those folks and not engage in what they perceive is an unethical kind of warfare."


Despite the pervading stigma, she said the corporate entry into DRTV marketing is upgrading the quality of DRTV spots and widening their creative scope.


"Instead of shooting everything on poorly lit videotape with 'demo, demo, demo' and flashing light graphics," Seavey said, "people now are more interested in a higher quality of video or even film."


An increasing number of corporate advertisers are realizing that they can project a quality image while adhering to the traditional DRTV tenets of making an offer, providing a call-to-action and emphasizing that the offer is a exclusive to TV. Her company's recent series of spots that were used in Time Inc.'s launch of Teen People magazine are one example of pushing the creative envelope on DRTV spots, she said.


All three commercials portray a teenage girl who is exasperated by schoolmates or family members that are characterized as nerdy or simpleminded, then ask the question, "Need some interesting people in your life? Teen People." Despite the long-standing rules that comedy doesn't work in DRTV, that 30-second spots do not pull as well as 60-second ones and that teenagers do not respond to TV offers, Seavey said that the Teen People launch campaign was highly successful.


"The 800 number spots got more phone calls than they [Time Inc.] ever could imagine in their wildest dreams," she said. "Those spots broke every rule and are the most talked-about spots they have ever done at that place."


Corporate demands for quality commercials have raised the production costs on DRTV spots into the range of $50,000 to $75,000, Seavey said.


"In the old days, we used to short form DR spots for $10,000 to $15,000," she said. "These days even the people that are doing the gadgety type of products care about things like food styling and talent and makeup and music."


Infomercial Marketers Selling Short


While corporations with established brands are more likely to use DRTV spots to generate leads and build databases of potential new customers, infomercial marketers traditionally have sought to make money directly from television sales. As media prices have climbed in the last few years and squeezed the margins on TV products, infomercial marketing companies have become more dependent on driving retail store sales.


But retail sales require a broad awareness that is not offered by infomercials airing in the middle of the night. Because of the limitation in infomercial media availability, infomercial marketers have turned to DRTV spots to attain a broader reach and frequency.


"Spots are a lot more flexible and cost less than the average infomercial," said Collette Liantonio, president of Concepts TV Productions Inc., a DRTV commercial producer in Montville, NJ. "We average about $25,000 now for video and $40,000 for film -- that gives you a two- and a one-minute spot." Her company has produced spots for Static Duster, a household cleaning device marketed by TeleBrands, and the Contour Pillow, marketed by Comfort Trac.


Because infomercials can range in price from $100,000 to $400,000, DRTV spots may be a cost-effective alternative, especially if the product can be demonstrated in a shorter time frame and does not require the extensive testimonials that characterize long form advertising. Even if a DRTV spot does not test well initially, Liantonio said, it may eventually pay out as viewers watch the demonstration several times and consider making a purchase decision.


"Higher ticket items are not impulse buys," she said. "You need to watch some commercials two, three or four times."


Her DRTV spot for Back Pleaser, a massage device marketed by HoMedics Inc., was priced at more than $100, which exceeds the $50 spending threshold that often requires an infomercial. She said that the company's spot performed well after increased exposure to the DRTV spot.


Reaching Out to Marketers


Because DRTV spots have grown in importance among infomercial marketers, the trade association NIMA International formed a short form council last month to address the needs of DRTV spot advertisers. The formation of the council is part of an effort by the association to also reach out to a broader group of marketers beyond the infomercial industry. NIMA plans to change its name to the Electronic Retailing Association to reflect that broadened scope of membership.


"One of the goals will be to make electronic retailing more relevant to mainstream advertisers, who primarily do short form," said Liantonio, who is leading the formation of the council. "We want to get as many people involved as possible."
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