If you've ever had insomnia, you've probably clicked on the TV to see a late-night infomercial. You know, a long-winded ad featuring a fast-talking person hawking anything from ab-crunching gizmos to vacuum machines. Opinions about infomercial pitchmen range from entertaining to annoying, but a select few have stood the test of time to become celebrities in their own right – and some sell millions of products.
Love 'em or hate em', here's 13 of the most famous – or infamous – infomercial spokespeople who've sold Americans on their products as well as their pitches.
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John Scherer, Video Professor
Scherer founded Video Professor, a computer education firm, 20 years ago and is one of the most mild-mannered pitchmen around. He reluctantly became an infomercial star when his products weren't selling well at retail stores and he couldn't afford to hire actors for TV ads. "My staff said the salesperson should be me anyway because I knew the product so well," Scherer told WalletPop. "But I'm not one to jump up and down and be loud. It's just plain old me in front of the camera."
His soft-spoken pitch worked – the year after his first ads appeared in 1990, sales jumped from $5 million to $18 million.
Scherer got a recent burst of fame from a YouTube video that had him helping the admittedly Internet-illiterate Presidential candidate John McCain learn how to use a computer. And he is also embracing the Web, planning to sell more products online now rather than using infomercials. "TV stations charge so much for their airtime so it's tough to make it in the infomercial world these days," he said.
George Foreman, Lean Mean Grilling Machine
Once the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, George Foreman is now the champion of infomercial endorsements. After hanging up his gloves, he became a spokesperson in 1994 for an indoor grill made by kitchen appliance maker Salton. The company had promoted the griller at industry trade shows with little interest, but when Foreman signed on for infomercials, sales skyrocketed -- $375 million worldwide in 2002. Salton signed Foreman to a five-year deal worth $137.5 million, one of the biggest deals for an athlete, and designed a string of Foreman-endorsed products, like the Champ Grill and Bun Warmer. Sales eventually tapered, and Foreman has gone on to endorse his own products, like books, vitamins and clothing. His latest venture: his own reality show Family Foreman on the TVLand network.
Dave Pizer, Alcor Life Extension
In the 70s and 80s, Pizer and his Great Dane, Woofy, hawked car-seat covers in ads on Phoenix TV stations. Woofy is long gone, but Pizer is now dead serious about pitching cryogenics, the process of freezing humans so they can later be resuscitated and cured by medical advances in the future. He became vice-president at Alcor Life Extension, an infamous cryonics company in Scottsdale, and recently built a resort in Mayer, Arizona, the first step toward the creation of a permanent cryonics community to be called Ventureville. Pizer even plans to cryogenically freeze his current dogs. "A lot of people remember me from the commercials, but so what?" Pfizer told Phoenix magazine. "That's not immortality. Not dying is immortality."
Vince Offer, Shamwow
Offer is one of the newest infomercial pitchmen, but he has a notorious history behind him. He started his career by hawking kitchen utensils at swap meets and now pitches Shamwow absorbent towels. It's dubious whether the $28 Shamwow is better and more long-lasting than a roll of paper towels but Slate recently commended his selling skills -- "a street-smart persona...with rat-a-tat phrasing and fuhgeddaboutit confidence." Before Shamwow, Offer did infomercials for DVDs of a 1999 movie he directed called Underground Comedy Movie, which The New York Times described as "a series of sketches built around subjects like masturbation, defecation, urination, necrophilia..." etc. Not content to rest on those laurels, Offer sued the makers of There's Something About Mary, claiming 14 scenes from that film were based on his own, and Anna Nicole Smith for breach of contract after she backed out of the movie, saying it would hurt her career. Offer refuses to be interviewed by the media so as to preserve his mystery.
Billy Mays, OxiClean, OrangeGlo, GatorBlade and a slew of others
"Hi! Billy Mays here for..." insert product name here. With his booming voice and over-caffeinated personality, Mays is the most sought-after pitchman today. He's currently pitching nine products (the latest is health insurance from iCan Benefit Group) and expects his mug on 14 infomercials by Labor Day (look for him shooting a "bug bazooka" called GatorBlade). A college dropout, Mays began his career as a salesperson on Atlantic City's boardwalk, selling the "WashMatik" portable washing device to passersby. He struck up a friendship with Max Appel, founder of OrangeGlo International, and was hired to promote his cleaning products on the Home Shopping Network -- 6,000 units sold in 11 minutes on his first day. In 1999, Mays did OrangeGlo infomercials, and Appel later sold his business for $325 million. Now Mays gets to pick and choose the products he wants to promote, and even Pespsi has approached him. Next up: Mays and his infomercial partner-in-crime Andrew Sullivan plan to do a reality show called Pitch Men about inventors and the direct-sales people who push their gadgets.
Mays doesn't just swear by the products he pitches, he uses them in his own home. However, as he recently admitted to the Washington Post, the Cargo Genie car-trunk organizer and the touch-of-a-button Zip Wrench were pretty much duds.
Anthony Sullivan, Swivel Sweeper, Foodsaver, and more
With his charming British accent and charming manner, Sullivan is one of the most suave pitchmen. He's also one of the hardest working moguls behind the scenes in the infomercial industry -- he hosts, writes, directs and produces ads about kitchen appliances like the Swivel Sweeper, Foodsaver, Magikan and Smart Chopper. Back in his native England, Sullivan came across a product called the Smart Mop, and teamed up with the company selling it. That brought him to the Home Shopping Network, which hired him as a prime-time host. In 1999, he left and formed Sullivan Productions, and now creates infomercials for others – his $15,000 commercial for the portable lighting device Tap Light led to $60 million in sales. He regularly produces the ads of infomercial celebrity Billy Mays, and the two have just signed a development deal with The Deadliest Catch producers to create Pitch Men, a reality show about inventors and the salespeople who push their gadgets.
James Dyson, Dyson Vacuum
In 1978, Dyson became frustrated trying to clean his carpet with a vacuum cleaner that constantly got clogged, so he decided to create his own. He ran through 5,127 prototypes in five years until he perfected the G-Force, a bagless upright using a spinning technology to keep its suction constant. Dyson hosted infomercials for his Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaners when they were introduced in the U.S. in 2002, and even though the models cost up to $700, they developed a cult-like following and played prominent roles on shows like Friends and Will & Grace. In 2004, sales quadrupled to $747 million, and Dyson's current net worth is estimated to be nearly $2 billion. He still spends most of his days in his workshop tinkering away on his next design.
Klee Irwin, Dual-Action Cleanse
Irwin's infomercials are usually shown on late-night TV, and he says up front, "Please excuse the language I am about to use, if it is offensive in any way." That's because Irwin pitches one of the most squeamish products around -- a colon cleanser product. His website says Klee has headed a number of nutraceutical companies and has been a "master formulator" of health products for 15 years, and he often talks from personal experience -- comparing his four-year-old daughter's bowel movements to his own. Klee has had enough success since his 2006 debut with Dual-Action that he has gone on to create infomercials for Libido-Max sex-booster pills and the "Will to Live" weight-loss program. Next up: more products for weight loss and diabetes.
Billy Blanks, Tae Bo
Blanks is probably the celebrity pitchman who has mingled with the most celebrities. After a career as a karate champion and actor in martial-arts movies, he invented the Tae Bo workout, which combines martial arts and boxing. He opened a gym in Los Angeles to teach it, and word-of-mouth spread. American Idol's Paula Abdul was his first celebrity client, but Blanks' infomercials have included endorsements from Carmen Electra and Shaquille O'Neal. Current Olympic swimming star Dara Torres used to be a co-host in Tae Bo infomercials, but Blanks has more recently paired up with his daughter Shellie. Blanks' acting career also got a boost from Tae Bo, giving him appearances on shows like ER and Melrose Place.
Ron Popiel, Showtime Rotisserie, Chop-O-Matic, Smokeless Ashtray and dozens more
The godfather of infomercial celebrities, Popeil is known for catchy lines. Of his Showtime Rotisserie: "Set it and forget it." Of his Dial-O-Matic: "Slice a tomato so thin it only has one side." And for every product: "But wait...there's more!" Popeil first appeared on TV in the 60s, pushing his dad's Chop-o-Matic and Veg-O-Matic machines. Because it was impractical for salesmen to carry vegetables for chopping, Popeil decided to tape the demonstrations, then air them as a commercial. Dozens of gadgets – and sales -- followed. Popeil told Forbes his ideas have earned him $2 billion, simply from knowing just what people wanted. "The fact that I'm an inventor first and salesperson second is the reason why so many people buy my products. If you create a product that's needed in the marketplace, people are going to buy it" he said After working nonstop for 40 years, Popeil sold his company Ronco in 2006 for $55 million and now only works as a consultant. But his face still shows up on the screen – clips of Popeil's informercials have recently appeared on The Daily Show and in movies like Little Miss Sunshine and The Kingdom.
Richard Simmons, Blast Off the Pounds, Steam-Heat and others
Simmons is a 1980s icon, and still looks the same these days as he did then with his tight shorts, sequined tanks and high-energy personality. After growing up an overweight kid then shedding 123 pounds, he's still pitching the same weight-loss plans and aerobics today. Since first appearing on QVC in 1986 then turning to infomercials, Simmons has sold more than 27 million products like his Sweatin' to the Oldies videos, "Deal A Meal" food plan, and Steam-Heat food steamer. His 16th and latest infomercial is for the "Blast Off the Pounds" program, featuring "original videos and cool weights". Simmons' latest promotion is on getting physical education put back into public schools, and he testified about it before Congress in July and he maintains an active web community.
Susan Powter, Stop The Insanity!
One of the few women to make it to the top of the infomercial hierarchy, Powter ranks up there as one of those annoying-or-exhilarating salespeople with her platinum buzz cut and (in)famous catchphrase, Stop the Insanity! Powter told, or rather screamed, her story to millions in the 1990s – giving birth to her two children, her broken marriage and her losing 133 of her 260 pounds. She became a dietician and personal trainer, and wrote the book Stop the Insanity, advocating an organic, low-fat diet, and regular cardio and strength-training exercise. In her infomercials, Powter condemned the diet industry overall and told women to throw away their scales. Her book hit the New York Times bestseller list in its first week of publication. Gross revenues for 1993, when her infomercial debuted, hit $50 million. Powter wrote two more bestsellers, then disappeared until 2002 , when she wrote another Insanity-type book about ignoring the fitness and diet industries, and started appearing on cable shows. No more infomercials are in the works; Powter is content instead now to keep a fitness and wellness blog.
Matthew Lesko, Free Money
Lesko is famous for two things: as being "that question mark" guy in the Riddler-like suit he wears on and off the air, and for his books, infomercials and Web site telling people how to get "free" money from the U.S. government. He's also known for a high-speed, high-pitched shriek that can be as irritating as nails on a board. But Lesko says it was his experience as a professor of computer science in the 70s that made him realize how to get people's attention. "TV is like school– it can get boring and put people to sleep," he told WalletPop. "Who were your favorite teachers? Those who entertained and taught you at the same time." And yes, Lesko does wear his signature suits everywhere. "They get me free airline upgrades, free Starbucks, even a free train ride on Amtrak – perfect example of free government money!"
But Lesko has been criticized by the government and others who say his ads are misleading, such as mentioning public-assistance programs that many people aren't eligible for. Lesko's defense: "I never promise anything, I just copy what the government says and tell people about it. I have a perfect record with the consumer agencies and no outstanding consumer complaints." Still, Lesko is now pulling back from being the main attraction and highlighting interviews he's doing with government officials about how to get the money. "To have that person show people what their government can do for them instead of a huckster like me is more educational and can go a longer way," he said.
Love them or hate them? Our list of the top infomercial stars