Remember those cheaply produced commercials for useless products, and the hilarious catchphrases they spawned? Well, they’re back, and cheesier than ever. The most famous commercial in the world today is for the Snuggie, a “blanket with sleeves” that looks like a flimsy bathrobe. The ad shows a succession of Snuggie-wearers who look like members of an ancient cult; the spot has already been parodied on This Hour Has 22 Minutes (as “The Fuggly”), was used as a prop on Saturday Night Live, and most importantly, has resulted in the sales of four million Snuggies. Other products have led to commercials that are almost as successful and just as silly. For most of 2008, the advertising sensation was the Shamwow!, an all-purpose washcloth whose two-minute promo was named top infomercial of all time by CNBC. Around the same time, Grey Power, an insurance company for drivers over 50, bought up every spare moment of TV time for its ad featuring an angry woman driver screaming “Come on, already!”; The Rick Mercer Report, among other shows, has spoofed that one. Low-budget commercials have become big-budget business—and they may actually sell more products than the high-end commercials that cost millions.
The rise of cable TV in the ’80s and ’90s produced a glut of low-budget commercials that ran nationally; there was the medical emergency company Lifecall, whose commercial spawned the catchprase “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”, as well as the ads for the Clapper and the Chia Pet (a clay-figure animal that sprouted grass). Then when the Internet became popular, it seemed like that was a more logical place to sell useless products. But low-rent companies have realized that a TV commercial with real people has more of an impact than an online pop-up ad. Gregory Ferdinandsen, who created the website billymays.net to celebrate the veteran miracle-cleanser pitchman Billy Mays (“Hi, Billy Mays here for OxiClean!”), says these ads are appealing because “there’s a certain classiness about tackiness.” People may mock the bad production values and hard-sell approach of these commercials (and their promise that you can get two or more products if you order now), but mockable commercials make a product better-known, and that translates into sales. “When people talk about the commercials in the office or at school,” Ferdinandsen says, “that’s the sweet smell of success.”
These commercials have come along at just the right time. With the economy in trouble, advertising time is cheaper, and the makers of these products can buy almost unlimited time on cable. And with purchasing power down, most viewers can’t afford to buy expensive products touted in classy commercials, but they might pay $19.95 for something Billy Mays is selling. Frederic Brunel, a Boston University professor of marketing, told the Boston Globe that in today’s environment, “it’s cool to be frugal.” If we buy a Snuggie, we can be frugal but also fulfill the natural human urge to buy the things we see on TV.
These ads aren’t just good for the companies that create the products; they can help the careers of the people who appear in them. Billy Mays has several other fan websites besides Ferdinandsen’s, and the newest superstar in this world is Vince Offer, a struggling comedian whose role as the aggressive, frizzy-haired pitchman in the ShamWow! commercial made him famous. He’s already followed it up by hawking Slap Chop, a tube that slices and dices vegetables. Ferdinandsen says that a low-budget commercial star is identified like any other TV star, by “some sort of gimmick.” He explains that Mays is known for his beard, which looks like “an otter permanently affixed to his face,” while Offer’s trademark is a Britney Spears-like headset microphone, “even though he is on a sound stage.” These guys are such legitimate stars that they engage in star-like feuds: Mays has scoffed that his rival Vince Offer was a “one-hit wonder.” With gimmicks, catchphrases, and gossip, these commercials are as much fun to follow as any other kind of show business.
So that’s where the new classics of the advertising world are coming from: not from this year’s Super Bowl ads (most of which didn’t catch on), but products with names like Snuggie, Cashpoint and Mighty Mendit. “What do we have to lose,” Ferdinandsen says, “except our dignity if we wear a Snuggie in public?” After all, if the products don’t work, we at least wasted less money on them than we did on useless stocks.