Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Pump it up

If you've ever suffered from a crippling bout of insomnia, or found yourself stuck on a cable channel when the TV remote batteries failed, you're probably a fan of the infomercial. Half an hour of specially created content, designed to batter you over the head with sales messages until you're punching your credit card details into the phone like a hypnotically activated sleeper agent.

This week, the world of informercials lost one of its most prominent celebrities - the seemingly unstoppable (until pneumonia had other ideas) Jack LaLanne. To TV audiences, he'll be most recognisable as the spokesman for the 'Juice Tiger', an aggressively powerful kitchen accessory that could squeeze a delicious glass of vitamins out of a smashed-up rocking chair.

Irrepressibly energetic and passionate about eating healthily, Jack would bound onto the kitchen set of 'Amazing Discoveries' dressed in an unforgiving purple spandex body suit that made him resemble Grimace's anorexic granddad. He'd then proceed to crush and grind pretty much any organic material that came to hand, promising that the resultant mulch would give you more energy and 'lifelong fitness'.

All the while, he'd be ably supported by a co-host in a sweater who would 'oooh' and 'aaaah' as though his airways were constricted. It's no wonder the excitable studio audience was always happy to cheer and wave their carefully fanned handfuls of notes to express their willingness to buy. Who needs The Event or Lost, when you've got this kind of excitement on TV?

So as we reflect back on the life of the man who claimed to have invented the modern gym concept, it's interesting to note that this month also marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first ever infomercial. Back in the mid-eighties, it took a single weightlifting machine to transform viewing habits forever.

Spotting a gap in the market (as well as an unsightly dent in the couch cushions), Jerry Lee Wilson was inspired to create the Soloflex - an all-new at-home exercise device that promised to transform gullible punters from flab to fab. And after a few years of running magazine ads that could teach Dolce & Gabanna a few things about objectifying the male body, he took his invention to TV. Ad prices were on the rise, and the recent Cable Communications Policy Act had legalised the broadcast of 'advertorial' content.

Wilson figured that what his product really needed was the TV version of a Hoover at-home demonstration, just one where the salesman covered himself in oil and stripped down to a pair of microshorts. Unlike today's infomercials, which attempt to convince people in trailer parks that they can whip up a rack of cornish game hens in a rotisserie the size of shoe-box, Wilson's original infomercial offered empowerment rather than unattainably aspirational lifestyles.

However, that's not say that the broadcast didn't indulge in its own hyperbole. Scott Madsen, the "genetically perfect" spokesmodel for Soloflex, became more lusted-after than the product itself, even inspiring his own poster book. But at least his fans were guaranteed a work-out on one arm.

These days, it's hard to turn on the TV without seeing some spandex-clad monstrosity inviting the camera to "inspect her buns", whilst shaking, flexing and pumping in the world's largest dining room. And don't forget, these increasingly complex contraptions fold away and can be neatly tucked under the bed. That is, if you don't mind dragging the fucking thing up a flight of stairs after you've used it.

But as long as we have credit cards, self-esteem issues and short attention spans, infomercials will continue to haunt the schedules like ghosts with unfinished business. And they won't stop until every cupboard, closet and crawlspace is crammed full of machinery that's as easy to clean and use, as it is to forget about.

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