How were mail-order product commercials ever viable?
November 16, 2015 12:48 PM   Subscribe

In the 1980s and 1990s more than today, there were tons of commercials for products that you had to call or write to an address to order from. Putting aside the fact that nobody would really want most of the stuff that was being advertised, how did they ever expect the following to happen...

a) someone's paying attention to the commercial to begin with
b) that person is really interested, in the first several seconds, in what's being offered
c) that person scrambles to get paper and pen from somewhere in time to write down the entire phone number or address before the 30 seconds ended?

I'm not saying it's impossible for the above to happen, but the hit rate seems so low i really don't see how it could pay for the air time.
posted by basehead to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Those kind of commercials air constantly, though. So once you've seen it once and determined you want the product all you need to do is remember to have your pen and paper ready the next time it's on.
posted by MsMolly at 12:53 PM on November 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

My grandparents used to keep a pad of paper and a pencil on the "TV Table" next to their couch for just this purpose.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:54 PM on November 16, 2015 [10 favorites]

An otherwise thrifty family member of mine once bought 30 DVDs of an old TV show he liked in his youth on a whim after seeing an infomercial at 2AM. The commercials must work enough to make them worth advertisers' money, or they wouldn't run.

I also wouldn't discount the impact on sales of the number of people who watch late night infomercials in an altered state of consciousness. I guess for my generation the equivalent would be drunk Amazon binges.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:05 PM on November 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Part of the economics of many of those ads was (is) a partnership with the channel airing it. The channel would air the ads as they had time available in return for a percentage of the sales through that channel. So, there was no up-front cost for those ads by the advertiser, and it was "free" money to the channel for otherwise unsold/unsellable ad time. (Source: an article or something I read years ago that I am probably not remembering correctly.)
posted by The Deej at 1:06 PM on November 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

MsMolly is right. Those commercials became ingrained. I could rattle off the phone number for Time-Life books at any given moment during my childhood.
posted by dogmom at 1:06 PM on November 16, 2015

What Wretch729 said; also, it's hard to imagine people going to all this trouble now, in the Amazon era (with its focus on a hyper-convenient customer experience). The baseline customer-centric experience looked very different back then. The convenience of making a purchase without ever leaving your home (or even thumbing through a catalog!) was part of the sell.
posted by duffell at 1:10 PM on November 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Those commercials became ingrained.

Indeed. In addition to airing very frequently, those commercials often repeated the phone number like 5 times in a single view. I remember it well; it was super annoying.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 1:13 PM on November 16, 2015

Somebody I know purchased the complete "Body & Soul" 10-cd Time Life music set one very drunken evening and had to be stopped from buying a set for everyone in the family.

(fine, it was me ...)

Those commercials were super cheaply made and played at odd hours of the night, so that also lowered the cost.
posted by Julnyes at 1:15 PM on November 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

My 90s household had pencils & paper *everywhere*. Next to every phone, on every table, and by the TV.
posted by acidic at 1:16 PM on November 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not saying it's impossible for the above to happen, but the hit rate seems so low i really don't see how it could pay for the air time.

But you'd know exactly how much response your commercials are garnering pretty quickly. It would take a long time to figure out whether or not your ads were working if you had to wait for returned merchandise from retailers to make its way back through the supply chain.

Malcolm Gladwell covers this a bit when he talks about direct marketing in The Tipping Point.

I present this example for consideration:

"Is that Freedom Rock?"

"Yeah, man!"

"Well, turn it up, man!"

a) someone's paying attention to the commercial to begin with

As a child of the 80s, I can say that many of us had fewer TV channels in the past way back when, and there was a time when a lot of the TVs people owned didn't have remotes, were kind of stuck on the couch having that 800 number lodged in your brain if you couldn't be arsed to get up and change the channel during commercials.

Until this very moment, I hadn't thought about those Freedom Rock commercials in decades - I was able to type those lines of dialogue above from memory. Paying attention? Dunno. Was a long time ago. But I sure remember it!

b) that person is really interested, in the first several seconds, in what's being offered

Well, they give you a pretty good sample of everything that's in the collection. If you're really hankering to get "Layla" into your record collection, the opening riff is right there at the start of the commercial...

c) that person scrambles to get paper and pen from somewhere in time to write down the entire phone number or address before the 30 seconds ended?

In my experience, the ordering info was repeated over and over, following a pretty standard format, like this. And some of these commercials could run a full minute, and would be in fairly heavy rotation.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:31 PM on November 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

There is a tiny National Lampoon bit that is just the teevee talking to a drunk, a drawn-out commercial selling a combination snakebite kit and trolley with capodimonte accents (or something along those lines) that periodically breaks the wall; call 1-800...haven't you gone to bed yet?...with this delightful one-of-a-kind...still haven't gotten up to change the channel, huh?

This was hilarious because it was pretty accurate. Insomniacs, alcoholics, shift workers, etc, were extremely limited in what they could watch in the wee hours and you had to choke down a lot of those ads to get through a 3am movie. Presumably the 1-800 numbers just soaked in after not too long.
posted by kmennie at 2:00 PM on November 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I actually made many "1-800" commercials, as well as voiced the tags. There were dozens of different numbers, so the seller could track who they needed to pay out. FYI, the shipping and handling charges were pulled out of thin air and were a source of revenue as much (or more so) than the product being sold.
posted by DaddyNewt at 2:09 PM on November 16, 2015 [17 favorites]

Speaking as the owner of a nearly complete set of Time-Life "Mysteries of the Unknown" books, as well as a mint-in-box Civil War Chess set from the Franklin Mint, I reject the premise of your question.

I'm gonna plead the 5th on 'Freedom Rock' though....
posted by spilon at 2:21 PM on November 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also, back then you had to get up and walk to the TV to change the channel, so commercials were more likely to play into the room. Well, in the 70s, at least.
posted by SLC Mom at 2:23 PM on November 16, 2015

I received an excellent Riverdance VHS, which my grandparents still enjoy having. That was the only purchase I ever made, but it was one of those strange 1-800 commercials that only played twice, I had an intuitive sense it wouldn't play many more in the future, and plus those shiny dancers in their high kicking! But it was an excellent trailer.

It also taught me how to memorize phone numbers quickly, back when memorizing was an asset and Google and Yahoo weren't really mainstream. There were a lot of benefits!
posted by yueliang at 2:27 PM on November 16, 2015

someone's paying attention to the commercial to begin with


(sings) Pete Ellis Dodge, Long Beach Freeway, Firestone Exit, Southgate, Pete Ellis Dodge, Long Beach Freeway, Firestone Exit, Southgate

This is from a car commercial that I saw over 30 years ago when I was in my early teens.

I can still recite the address for the Zoom! kids show from memory and will be able to until the day I die.

I don't actually remember too many of the mail order commercials. I can't give you mailing addresses, but I still remember some of the jingles ("You can do it easy, it sure does pay! With Time-Life books, you've got it made"). If I'd been even marginally interested in the products I'm sure I'd have them committed to that part of my memory that would be better spent on birthdays, anniversaries, and dentist appointments.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:30 PM on November 16, 2015

800 588-2300 - EMPIRE! (Empire floorcovering, carpet-bombed TV in the 80s. I have never lived in Chicago)

Call Goldberg 800 600 6014

And yeah It's Never Lurgi
Boston MA 02134

(when testing addresses in ecomm systems and wanting an out of state urban address I always use 02134...)

Did all that from memory. Music is a powerful aid to memorization...

As for how any of this !@#$% sold in the first place, remember -- no Amazon. no Best Buys. Few Sharper Image stores anywhere. No music streaming services. No wikipedia...
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:41 PM on November 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Write ZOOM!
Zee double-Oh Em
Box 3 5 0
Boston, Mass
oh two one three four
posted by chazlarson at 4:01 PM on November 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

I had Freedom Rock!

For me, I finally asked my mom for a major credit card after wowing friends and family with my verbatim recital of the commercial.

I still have it, thanks to an AskMe I posted seeking the correct order.
posted by Sheppagus at 6:20 PM on November 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I worked for one of the call-in centers that took the orders for that type of advertisement in the early 1980s.

We could always tell exactly when the various commercials played, because there would be a flurry of phone calls as soon as the phone number was displayed for for a few minutes (maybe 5 minutes?) afterwards. The ad playing very obviously and very directly drove maybe 98% of the phone calls. Other than those bursts of activity when a commercial played, one person could easily handle all of the random calls that came from someone writing down the phone number and calling a few hours or a few days later. We were handling maybe a dozen or so actively advertised products at any given time.

Most weekdays during the morning, or late a night, say, we'd have only 4-6 people working. That was plenty enough to handle all the calls when ads for the "Frankee Valli & The Four Seasons Lifetime Hits" played during The Guiding Light in the Phoenix market or whatever. So apparently you can play those ads and turn a profit even on just 5-10 sales per run.

Flip side, the first weekend I worked there, they were advertising some kind of golf training package during a nationally televised golf tournament. They had made 60 or 75 of us stacked in there that day, the most I ever saw, and when the ad played, we knew it right away, because could see the phones going off right down the queue, row by row. Being brand new I was near the very end of the queue and only got 4 or 5 calls for the day--one every time the ad played the queue filled up immediately.

Anyway, to answer your question: Very obviously, people saw/heard the number, picked up their phone, and called right then and there.

A lot of the commercials were extended time--maybe a minute or two, not just 15 or 30 seconds, precisely to give people enough time to get their phone and dial the number.
posted by flug at 7:48 PM on November 16, 2015 [13 favorites]

FWIW, my own experience with advertising even down to today, is that the vast majority of people (80-90%?) respond immediately to a prompt, or not at all. Even for people who might take a while to make up their minds about something, they still won't just respond out of the blue. They'll think about it a while, then respond the next time they're prompted. No prompts, no sales.

And response to prompts is immediate, or not at all.

The (oft-repeated) ads are, obviously, the prompt.
posted by flug at 7:49 PM on November 16, 2015

Also, I was a low-level flunky in the 1-800 call center, and not in on any high level reports or such, but I'm sure that the vast, vast majority of people called in vs sending a check in the mail. Might be as low as 1% or 5% or 10% on the outside, who sent the money in via the mail.

But, in those days people were much more set up to write a check and put it in the mail. It doesn't really cost anything extra to flash an address up on the screen along with the phone number, so why not? Why turn down an extra 1%, 2%, 5%, or 10% of sales, just for putting an address on the screen?

FWIW in my current business, I do that even now with email responses. If we send an email "time to renew!" most people--the vast, vast majority--respond by clicking on the provided link to go to a website to make a credit card payment. Maybe 1% of folks respond to an email request by writing a check and sending it in. But if I don't include the mail-in option, I will get a complaint every single time about why that option was omitted.

So, we include both options. Different strokes for different folks. Why turn down even 1% of sales or donations, from the 1% who want to write a check?
posted by flug at 7:59 PM on November 16, 2015

For me, I'd see ads over and over again and eventually things would line up correctly and I'd order. This was the case for the best, most-expensive, and by far most-memorable infomercial purchase I ever made - AM Gold! I saw the commercial several times and eventually I saw the commercial on a late Friday night, just got paid, and just got home from a bar so I was half in the wrapper. What I didn't realize was that it wasn't just one CD - it was a series. Several hundred dollars and maybe a year later and I had maybe 25 of them. I still have them. I've never regretted it. This was maybe 1995.

Regretted it? Shit, man, I just watched that commercial and wanted to order them again.
posted by dirtdirt at 12:35 PM on November 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

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