January 2007 - ERSP

Stepping Out From Behind the Curtain

One of my favorite memories as a child was curling up on a rainy day with my mother’s antique first edition of “Wizard of Oz” books, pouring over Frank Baum’s delectably descriptive world and characters. I was transported to a world of magical creatures, tin men, lions and even a wizard who was seemingly overseeing it all. It was enchanting and much grander than my every day ordinary life.

Flash forward to the present, and after two years with the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program (ERSP) and having watched approximately 4,200 direct response television advertisements, monitored 4,000 web/e-mail marketing campaigns and even witnessed the birth of cell phone advertising, I have a confession to make. Although Brandweek magazine called me the “Infomercial Queen” the truth is, like the wizard, I’m nothing amazing. I’m simply just an every day girl behind the curtain, or in front of a television set and computer, pedestrian in every way. Like everyone else, I’m just a normal consumer, but an observant one, who in two magical years with ERSP has learned several very important lessons about the direct response industry.

At ERSP, our mandate is to look at the truth and accuracy of core claims in direct response advertising-that’s it. We look purely at the advertising and a marketer’s ability to support it, plain and simple. It’s not a judgment on the product being marketed, it’s not a judgment of the marketer, it’s not an attack on the industry, it is only just trying to make sure the right message reaches the consumer. I know having been the first point of contact for a marketer who faces an ERSP review, most misunderstand this mandate and see it as a personal attack, but that’s simply not true. ERSP is often misunderstood as an adversary of the industry, but in truth it is set up only to help out direct response marketers, to make sure the industry becomes even more successful than it already has.

Too often, in the excitement of a marketer trying to get his or her product to the people, the technique of overselling comes in. That is, overstating what the efficacy of the product really is or what type of research has been conducted. “Lose 10 pounds in one week”; “Clinical tests on the product have proven…” and “It’s the only effective product of its kind,” are all too often bandied about in advertisements without support for their accuracy and without the notion that consumers have become dulled to the same overstatement of performance. That’s the one thing nobody talks about, the dirty secret, but the fact is consumer perception is an integral part of the direct response industry and by overselling the claims, consumers don’t know what to trust and become numb to these statements and to products sold in the industry.

At ERSP, over the two years, our message to everyone who has partaken in the process is simple. You have a product that obviously has something behind it (because you wouldn’t spend the money to market it if there wasn’t anything there), so, just tell the story. Tell the facts you do have, and don’t try and sell something that doesn’t exist.

For instance, numerous dietary supplement products-or even skin care regimens-do have testing, even clinical testing, behind their formulation of specific ingredients. However, often times these results are overstated, the merits of research on individual ingredients are sold as guaranteed benefits of the product “as a whole,” and in a time frame that doesn’t compare to the testing on hand. My question when faced with an example like this has always been “why?” Obviously there is some efficacy to the product, so why not just state exactly the type of research on hand and the results that can be expected? More often than not, the answer would be that in such a competitive world, you have to keep up with the people who have nothing to support its product’s claims and are just out to make a quick buck. But still my question has always been “why?” Like I said before, after watching all those advertisements, I’m still just an every day consumer. And trust me, I take note of the marketers who are honest about what to expect from their products and have even ordered a few myself over the years from those marketers who tell me what a typical result is, or tell me that they have research, maybe not on the product but on part of the product. Honesty breeds faith and faith breeds success in this extremely competitive industry.

The best example of clarification of results and working to tell consumers exactly what to expect from the products they sell are the live shopping channels. In addition to the other forms of direct response advertising, ERSP has also watched almost 240 live shopping hours. During the home shopping hours I’ve watched, I’ve taken note that the hosts for these channels work tirelessly to clarify (and qualify) the results and communicate reasonable expectations for the products they sell, from clarifying typical results after an ebullient call-in testimonial goes over the top in stating what that product did for him or her, to reigning in overzealous guest hosts who just want to sell as much product as they can. The live shopping channels have a continuous rapport with their consumers and, in turn, have shown that just telling the story accurately creates consumer loyalty and has customers coming back and back for more. That’s all ERSP has ever asked from any review it’s conducted. Just tell the story you have, and trust us, you’ll have consumers coming back for repeat business.

As with the live shopping channels, it’s plain to see that a person cannot pigeon hole the direct response industry into one clear-cut niche. It’s everywhere and encompassing every medium. However, over the past year I’ve taken a hard look at focusing in on new forms of advertising like cell phone advertising, broadband 15-second spots, or even podcasting. The one thing I’ve noticed however after countless hours and the expansion of these evolving markets, is that there is still truly no marked presence of direct response advertisers. If you go to a Bravo, Viacom or Discovery broadband channel on your computer and watch either a television program or several behind-the-scenes clips of your favorite program, you’ll see countless 15-second spots with banner advertising that links you directly to the marketer. However, these 15-second spots are for cars, shampoos, even batteries that are all purchased by walking into your local store. But to me, direct response marketers should be all over this medium. You have a captive audience (there is no way to fast forward through the ads), a direct link to your website (banner ads and floating pop-ups that accompany the spots), and an increasing volume of consumers who are turning off their traditional television programming and going online or to on demand programs. Cell-phone advertising and podcasting are two other areas where I think it would be fantastic to see direct response marketers make more of an impact in the market.

In my two plus years with the ERSP, I’ve learned that this industry is a fantastic place to belong. It’s exciting, it’s cutting edge and it’s the future of most product sales. Therefore, my message is to stay on the cutting edge side of things, and just tell your story. The consumers will follow and be faithful, creating success for you and the industry as a whole. Although I’ve chosen to take a step away from the industry and pursue other areas, I’m still planning on keeping my eye out. And maybe, my hot air balloon will blow me back into the Emerald City and we will meet again. Thank you for allowing me two wonderful years with ERSP, and I wish both ERSP and the industry all the success in the future.

Tessa Barrera is the former review specialist with the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program. She can be reached at [email protected].


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