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.

6 responses

  1. What a great, simple idea. I like the “infomercial approach” to sustainable products, but you seem to touch on a greater issue. Green marketers need to, like any other marketer, establish need for the product. In this case, the “product” is not only the item, but sustainability.

    How else do you think that marketers can simultaneously get consumer buy-in for their products and sustainability as a whole? I see how some companies could feel uneasy about environmentally evangelizing while selling because sustainability has (unfortunately) become a politicized, divisive issue in some circles. Do you think that the format about which you speak could be a particularly good tool to get buy-in from environmental sustainability laggards? The DBA pen example is excellent; do you have any other tips for creating an effective campaign like theirs?

    Thanks for the thought-proviking article.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this article, I think you hit the nail right on the head.

    Referring to Sun Chip, I think it is hard for a lot of marketers to make the transition from traditional marketing to green marketing. I believe that the big problem with Sun Chips marketing was that they did not understand what they needed to do in order to make the bag successful. I would think that Sun Chip would of brought in a test group and found out that the majority of customer do not understand the benefits of the noisy bag, then would of launched a campaign to educate everyone about it.

    I think a great example of educating the public on what a company is doing is Domino’s pizza, always trying to answer whatever question the customer has and trying to stay in front of it. At least that is what they are doing now. By changing their pizza, Domino’s created a buzz and now they are continuing to stay in front of what the customer want, answers to what the problem was and why they changed it.

    1. That is a great point, it really related to the fact that there is a market hurdle for green products. I am puzzled that how so many products out there selling on infomercials while report said that energy star equipment sales in foodservice industry for example only count for 5% of the total sales.
      Typically, there is a little extra cost associated with the green products. and the channel cost will magnify that cost by said 3x and making the green product to be less attractive. that makes it difficult to fight with the less efficient products on the market.
      It will be great that some network, or organization can set up a green channel, or a green section in an existing channel to serve the product promotion of the green products. This can be organized as an effective market force for green products.

  3. People complaining about noisy chip bags!?!?! I love it! People are soooooo weird! I figure the noisier the bag, the crunchier the chip. Which makes me think that I sure do hope those aurally sensitive types chew those crunchy chips with their mouths closed!

    Good job Mr. Chung, pointing out the paradoxes facing modern providers of our every whim!

  4. Agreed, marketing is about communicating value (and my marketing prof would argue, also about creating that value). I wish Sun Chips would have held the line while explaining to the customers why a little noise goes a long way in saving the world, one bag at a time.

    P.S. I’m an officer in the Design + Business Club at the Ross School of Business (University of Michigan). We should collaborate some time.

  5. I think you’ve missed the point here. The best and most successful infomercials clearly identify a problem and then give you a solution. Whether or not your opinion is that the gadgets are “useless, cheap products that bring little to our lives yet add to the clutter of our consumer existence”, the fact of the matter is, their marketing message hits home with some segment of the viewing consumer. direct response is one of the best measurement tools in advertising…simply put, you air an infomercial and immediately know whether the product is viable or not from the response you get. In the direct response world we know that certain products do not work – prevention is one…and the other is green or sustainable. It’s not that marketers need to educate consumers that these things are good for you…it’s that a majority of consumers see no need and therefore do not desire them. Maybe one should look at sales histories to determine a product’s viability before launching.

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