Column: The New Breed of Corporate Infomercials

When will Corporate America “re-discover” long form DRTV? Despite all the talk on Madison Avenue of ROI and accountability in advertising, and the use of long form in video on demand, no major brand has carved out a specific and on-going share of its marketing budget for this powerful marketing venue.

Oh, they’ve dabbled in long form (we count at least 100 major brands from Apple to Wal-Mart), starting as long ago as 1990. And for the past decade brand marketers have increasingly penetrated the short form DRTV marketplace (longer commercial messaging, cheaper media rates). But long form DRTV is still the shunned step-child of direct marketing. Here, again, is the case for why long form should become part of many major brands’ marketing mix.

First, long form is not all about yell and sell, gadgets and gizmos. Many of us in DRTV have fashioned a new breed of long form, where an authentic brand image is created right along with the selling mechanics of direct-response television, i.e., where a lead or a sale is generated in combination with an arresting creative that reflects high brand identity.

We call this hybrid long form a “brandmercial.”

In this evolutionary venue, DRTV mechanics are combined with high creative and production imagery to create sales, along with a powerful brand position. Especially attractive is the flexibility of this kind of commercial.

Apple Computer, Evinrude, Nikon, Discover Card, U.S. Navy and Nissan’s breakthrough long form campaigns are examples of this new breed of 30-minute venue. In all of these programs the show body is beautifully produced and structured with a wealth of product information and benefits.  And the call-to-action commercials, designed to generate leads and drive retail, are crafted to portray an elegant image while enticing a huge audience to respond via the 800-number or click to the Web.

These and dozens of other brandmercial campaigns have produced dramatic results, including measurable qualified leads, ultimate sales and the enhancement of brand imagery.

Long form advertising is a fully accountable solution that can achieve a powerful competitive advantage by uniquely building brands while driving pre-enthused and pre-educated customer leads to retailers and to the Web.  In a nutshell, long form

DRTV can:

  1. Provide enough time to communicate a full-story brand message, where brand essence is authentically expressed and benefits and value are fully presented in an educational environment
  2. Bring a fresh high-concept creative approach to the genre, breaking through clutter
  3. Tap in to a huge new kind of TV audience
  4. Capture low-cost leads and drive prospects straight to retail and to the Web site
  5. Provide a measurable, fully accountable return on investment

 The approach to developing brandmercial strategies will depend upon the ultimate objectives of the brand. They include:

1. Lead Generation: where accountable, cost-per-lead target metrics dictate the strategy (examples: Discover Card and U.S. Navy).  Ten out of 11 of hawthorne direct’s last lead-generating Fortune 500 brandmercials were deemed successes by our clients. Example:

U.S. Navy

  1. The Navy wanted to create a brandmercial to help boost their record-low recruitment numbers.
  2. Hawthorne direct was hired to produce and manage the DRTV campaign in association with Rapp Collins/BBD&O under an aggressive production timeline.
  3. Hawthorne direct developed a national media-test plan that matched the Navy’s target demographic audience, and complemented their existing spot media schedule and other advertising.
  4. After just a few weeks of airing, the CPL generated by the brandmercial was lower than any other advertising in the Navy’s history. In addition, the brandmercial media was able to tap into new markets and venues that the spot campaign had not effectively reached.
  5. Measurement Method: (a) CPL metrics; (b) callers were asked a number of questions to determine the validity of the lead; (c) depending on answers, qualified leads were sent to a database to validate the prospect; (d) the resulting leads were then forwarded to U.S. Navy recruiters — who contacted the leads for a screening discussion and setting up appointments.

2. Lead generation and awareness: here the objectives were a CPL target and generating brand and product awareness.  Example:


  1. Hawthorne direct was hired to create a half-hour brandmercial for the Nissan Altima to generate leads and increase traffic to dealers.
  2. The creative team developed a storymercial concept: The Art of Buying a Car.
  3. A TV offer was presented: a buyer’s guide kit, including The Ten Steps to Buying a Car.
  4. Using only two test markets 12,000 qualified leads were generated.
  5. The show created CPLs under $20 on a $20,000 auto — a direct response record at Nissan. Viewers watched the program for an average of more than 25 minutes.
  6. Sales of 312 Altima cars were generated from leads tracked directly back to the show.
  7. The majority of program viewers surveyed said the Infomercial improved their image of Nissan. The result: $6,240,000 in car sales.
  8. The Art of Buying a Car brandmercial was cited as “The most successful direct response program in Nissan’s history.”
  9. Measurement Method: (a) prospects called an 800 number for a free Art of Buying a Car kit and location of nearest dealer; (b) leads were entered into the national Nissan database; (c) prospects were identified as a leads against all U.S. sales, and sales were tracked against all sales originating from the campaign; (d) dealership traffic was measured from program. The results showed a 20 to25 percent increase in showroom traffic after the program aired, compared to before airing.

3. Awareness: where brand imagery and differentiation are the primary goals, with retail drive and lead generation as secondary components. Example:


  1. Challenge:  To drive pre-educated, pre-enthused consumers to retail stores for the Nikon Series “S” APS cameras.
  2. Solution:  A 30-minute “documercial” was produced, showing real people using the Nikon APS cameras to take quality vacation photographs while on a Grand Princess Cruise in the Mediterranean. Titled Nikon Grand Adventures, the entertainment value of this show held viewers while teaching them to take great pictures and illustrating how easy it is to do. The TV offer was priced above retail to placate retailers. The program was measured on CPL and on a retail locator program where respondents were directed to the nearest store. 
  3. Marketing Strategy Objectives:  The primary objective was to drive buyers to retail.  Secondary objectives: (a) lead generation and (b) testing direct sales over TV.
  4. Results:  Nikon retail sales increased during the campaign and immediately after. The brandmercial was originally tested in three markets, where it drove traffic to retailers. A national rollout ensued in Nikon’s top 18 markets.  This generated 4,000+ leads at a lower than expected CPL.
  5. Measurement Method: (a) CPL metrics, (b) callers were given dealer locations, (c) sales increase at dealers, measured against performance in the previous season.

The problem…
In the history of television, advertising has been based on an entertainment medium supported by commercials. TV commercials have been based on intruding upon the viewer’s awareness. To minimize irritation, these commercial intrusions had to be brief.

Enter the conventional 30-second spot.  Nowhere in persuasion theory does it state that brevity in communications delivers the most effective result. In truth it is just the opposite.  Just as with personal selling, telemarketing and direct mail: the longer you engage your prospect, the stronger the relationship becomes and the greater the chance of closing the sale.

A brandmercial delivers 1,710 seconds of branding and selling. Precious minutes of customer time engagement.  At best, a 30-second spot can only deliver what David Ogilvy called “a blur of singularity.”  It is difficult to sell with a blur.

Long form DRTV provides the precious longer-time selling environment that can engage a viewing audience to connect with your brand and your direct offer–setting up the ultimate sale. 

Since 1990, those intrepid corporate marketing executives who have been brave enough to ignore their traditional agency’s protestations and actually test long form brandmercials have been rewarded with amazing ROI, sometimes almost scary good. Now, as new media opportunities on the Internet and video on demand broaden corporate advertising visions, it’s time for brands to commit real budgets, year in and year out, to the power of long form DRTV.

Timothy R. Hawthorne is chairman and executive creative director of hawthorne direct inc., a full-service DRTV ad agency in Fairfield, IA. James Hall is vice president of creative solutions. Reach Mr. Hawthorne at [email protected].

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