What Sustainable Marketers Can Learn From The Infomercial

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

By Chahn Chung

The infomercial, also known as direct-response TV marketing, is the constantly derided bane of the advertising world.  It’s the method of choice for advertising useless, cheap products that bring little to our lives yet add to the clutter of our consumer existence.  However, despite the lack of quality, the products sold in DRTV marketing campaigns have a tendency to do quite well.  Their sales stay up, even when everything else is going down (Over 4 million Snuggies were sold by the fourth quarter of 2008 – link).   On the other end of the spectrum we have green marketers selling products that promise to change our lives, promote healthy decisions and save the world.  Yet time after time we see these products crash and burn.  Why is it that DRTV marketing can sell us useless crap, but when someone steps in with a truly innovative product consumers turn their backs?

A perfect example is the Sun Chips bag.  When Frito-Lay quietly announced that they were pulling their recently developed 100% compostable Sun Chips bag for five of their six brands and were reverting to their old bag, a collective sigh of frustration was heard in environmental circles everywhere.

Yes, the bag made questionable claims that lead to confusion and debates about it’s merits.  However this confusion was not what actually killed the bag.  In the end what killed the bag was the fact that it was noisy. From youtube videos to facebook groups a cry went out from Sun Chips lovers to bring back the old bag.  Coupled with a reported drop in sales, Frito-Lay eventually buckled.

Although controversial, the bag was generally seen as a step in the right direction.  So why did it fail?  Are consumers really unable to sacrifice the aural discomfort of this new bag in exchange for a healthier planet?

According to Doug Melville in this Advertising Age article the issue stems from a lack of education and an inability to sacrifice.  Melville blames Sun Chips for not properly informing the consumer about why the bag was noisier, as well as consumers for not being willing to make the sacrifices involved with having a noisier bag.

I agree that education is the key here, but I would take it one step further and say that Sun Chips needed to not only inform the public about why the bag was noisy but also why the bag was relevant.  This could be naive, but perhaps if the consumer had a better understanding of what was at stake, things might have turned out different. This underlines a key difference in green marketing from traditional marketing: green marketers cannot assume the audience understands the relevance of the qualities to which their products aspire to (“It’s compostable? So what?”).

Which brings us back to the infomercial.  Infomercials understand one thing: you can’t offer a solution if the consumer does not know the problem exists.  What infomercials do so brilliantly is create in the consumer a need that, before seeing the infomercial, was not there.  You may not have had a problem with the way you cut your vegetables but after watching someone on TV mangle an onion–maybe you’re doing it wrong.  Infomercials first outline the problem and then, in the same breath hit you with the solution.

The goal in any marketing campaign is to show consumers how a product is the best.  However, the realm in which this takes place is often within already established, intuitive qualities about the product.  For example a marketer might claim that a cleaning product is good because it cleans better and faster.  A green marketer however, not only needs to explain the same thing but also that the product is environmentally friendly and why it’s important that it is.  This effectively establishes a new realm of quality in the consumers mind that can compete in importance with the other qualities.

A great example of green marketing that does this, is this video produced by Dirt Empire for DBA in New York. The video, a marketing piece for a biodegradable pen, does a masterful job at establishing relevance, at one point stating how all the disposable pens sold since 1950 lined end to end would circle the planet 348 times, creating a truly visual connection in the mind of the consumer the impact a non-biodegradable pen has on the planet.  What DBA manages to do that Sun Chips did not, is firmly establish, before we even know what the product is, the need for the product.

Many green products require on the part of the consumer a slight change in expectation or behavior.  It’s foolish to ask them to accept these changes without fully understanding the impact such a change would actually have.  It’s ok to assume people want to save the planet, it’s not ok to assume that people believe we need to.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.