Tony Little on How Entrepreneurs Should Approach Infomercials

Introducing Tony Little is a little silly because, well, you know who he is. You might not know his name, but if you're someone who's watched television, ever, you certainly know his face. His bio says, quite correctly that "today, like 'I Love Lucy' reruns, Tony always seems to be on television, with his constant presence on infomercials and home shopping channels." (His Wikipedia page says he averages "about 6,000" hours a year on TV.) Little has been synonymous with fitness products like exercise machine Gazelle, and these days he's repping a line of meats, pillows and also shoes, called Cheeks. Why the switch from exercise machines to these products? "I'm 56 years young now, and I've decided I don't like exercise," Little joked.

And while the dots might not seem completely connected from an entrepreneur to Little's story, but he wasn't always on the TV for thousands and thousands of hours. To raise the funds to shoot his first public-access exercise show, Little started a small business that cleaned health clubs. Also, he still has the mindset of an entrepreneur, evidenced by the conversation I had with him. To help connect those dots and get more of an insight into the infomercial world, I gave Little a call.

I see plenty of overlap between what you have done in infomercials and what entrepreneurs would like to do to get noticed, but what's the overlap that you see?

Tony Little: If you're looking to retail sales, like standard brick and mortar, usually in top 10 bestsellers in all retail stores, it's DRTV-driven. Meaning that it's had, obviously, some direct-response television exposure. If you have 10 people that see your infomercial, usually they have a statistic of about two out of the 10 buy off the TV and the other eight, when they walk into retail pick it up because they're already sold. At HSN I was actually the first on-air celebrity of any shopping channel in the world back in Clearwater, Florida back in '86. I started there and branched out into the infomercial world and then into international and then to retail.

What approaches to infomercials work now that still worked then? Or has everything changed dramatically in your view?

Tony Little: In my mind, it's always pretty much the same consumer. You gotta fill a need, right? You gotta find something that makes life a little bit easier and isn't available anywhere else at the time. But back in the days that I did most of my infomercials, I had a criteria. I understood that I was more of a mass-market audience. Male/female. Sixty percent female, forty percent men. So I always tried to develop my product or my infomercial to cater to a large demographic audience because it gave me a better chance of getting to show the work and run. There's a lot of startups -- what is it? One in 60 infomercials now work when they go out? So, the statistic's pretty dismal, but if you got out and you decide you're only going to cater to women over 40, it's probably not a good idea, unless you can really cherry pick your media and you really have magazine support and a strategy that complements that. I really think in infomercial land, the larger the demographic the better your chances of working.

What other mistakes do you see people making with infomercials nowadays?

Tony Little: I think that they talk over their consumer's heads sometimes. I think that they don't bring it down to where it's simple to understand. The biggest problem with infomercials is not really explaining the product quick enough and simple enough in a shorter amount of time. That's the same way even when you're on a shopping channel. You can see when people are spending their time and talking too long and they're not getting the point across and nothing's happening.

Are there campaigns you've done that you would do differently today?

Tony Little: [Laughs.] Not on my campaigns, I don't think I would. I'm a different cat in that area. I grew up in the industry, I understood the industry and I also have a personal belief that it's very, very easy to represent or sell a product that you're in love with yourself. If you're just out there trying to endorse a product it's obviously much tougher. I'm usually involved in almost all the development of a product from concept. All the way from babyhood to going on the air. [Laughs.] It's a different story for me. But if you're talking about entrepreneurs, they do start from concepts and go all the way to the end.

What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about infomercials?

Tony Little: I fall within my own branding category, whereas someone who's out there, basically a pitchman and representing other people's products fall within a category of believability. You know, "I can't believe that product works." Keep in mind that I really think they're no different from any other type of business. You've got the good guys and the bad guys, and bad guys are the ones who are representing a product and making it look like it's worth a lot more than it is and you get it home and you go, "What the hell did I just buy?" That's what leaves a bad taste in the consumer's mouth. In our industry, there used to be a saying that if you get one infomercial hit in your lifetime it was a great success. I was very fortunate. I had nine hits. I had the record at seven and then hit two more. But I had a very loyal following and followed basically the principles that you should follow, which is to put the best product you can for the best price you can and make sure you have some consumer and costumer service that is worthy of the person spending their time to make that call and put their credit card out. There's just not a lot of companies that do that anymore.

What's something that's usually forgotten when people do an infomercial for the first time?

Tony Little: Obviously, you could hire the wrong person for a product. Also you have the area where you have a pitchman, but he doesn't necessarily work well with the host. They always had to find me a host who could freestyle or freewheel because I never knew what I was doing. I don't mean that in a negative way. I'm not a script person. That drives hosts nuts because they're script people. And they're going by a script and all of a sudden I'm off to another area of the set and they're like, "What am I supposed to be saying?" So, they have to marry me to the right host. There's good hosts, there's bad hosts. There's great pitchmen, there's bad pitchmen.

I think one of the biggest mistakes is if it's a product, people don't have enough detail that they need to do when they're presenting a product. I sell shoes now. I'm one of the largest suppliers of footwear now to shopping channels. I have my own line of footwear called Cheeks. When I go out there and I set it up for a presentation for the camera to pick up, I want you to see the insole. I want that shoe to be tied a particular way so it doesn't look like they have laces hanging everywhere. I want it to be elevated at a certain level so that when the camera hits it, you see the best part of that product.

A lot of people go wrong in a lot of the product shots, too. I can see people sometimes advertising products and I go, "Why didn't they add this or add that? Why didn't they add animation?" I think you gotta go, especially in television, or DRTV, or anything like that, it needs to look like a lot for what it is. It needs to look like a lot more than it is. It's not the same as a retail shelf. You have to present the opportunity so that it looks bigger than life. I'm a big product-shot guy.

Well, that makes sense. After all, that is, ideally, what infomercials are all about: the product. Do you think people lose sight of that or why does that happen?

Tony Little: Sure, people do. People move and they do productions quick. I can't speak for every production company and everything that's out there. These are just some of the things that I see. Or, I think they don't go back as you would with a business plan for the infomercial in the way maybe they should for your business. "Who are we trying to reach? What are the three or four most important things about this product that's gonna make them want this product? We need to center on those three or four things, first thing out of the gate, and then we can start adding a little bit." But even then you still gotta go back to those three or four things.

There are so many mess-ups that can be done. When you look at weight-loss commercials -- I don't even believe 'em when they make outlandish claims. If they show a success story, you can see 'em. You can see the way they're shot. If they're afraid to shoot them below the waist? [Laughs.] You got a problem.

You said one in 60 tend to be successes. Are there statistics you know of about how often customers come back and complain? I would think not that often, since infomercials have that reputation of being aimed at insomniacs who don't really expect the products to work anyway.

Tony Little: Infomercials are mainstream. There's a lot of Fortune 500 companies -- and correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Obama use an infomercial? I think he was one of the first. Here's what an infomercial is if it's done correctly: It does what retail stores cannot do for you. When you or I go in to buy a pair of shoes at some sporting goods store, we obviously know that 18-year-old does not know the technology of the shoe when he talks to you. You're basically left on your own in retail. An infomercial is a 30-minute program that should educate you about that product and why you should own it. If it's a great product, then it's going to sell, people are going to love it, it's gonna go to retail, it's gonna go from retail to international markets. 

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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