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Media Zone: For DRTV, the Economy Is Always Good

1 Mar, 2009 By: Response Contributor Response

A friend of mine commented that in the DRTV spots he'd seen recently, product price points seemed unusually low. "Makes sense in a rotten economy," he concluded.

Timothy R. Hawthorne
Timothy R. Hawthorne

But his perception was a case of trompe l'oeil. DRTV offers have been and continue to be attractively priced. With a 24/7 drumbeat of economic negativity — unemployment rising, banks not lending, retrenching consumers prioritizing value more highly — it makes sense for DRTV marketers to drop price points, right? Not happening. You also might expect to see dramatically more wealth-generation and debt-relief programs. They're on the air, but not anymore than in the best of times. In other words, DRTV products and price points illustrate business as usual.

I compared the latest Jordan Whitney rankings with ones that Response featured five years ago. Among the top 10 spots, prices may actually have risen. In January 2004, there were three $14.99 offers, compared to four $19.95/.99 offers in the final week of 2008. Among infomercials, there was exactly one wealth-generating long-form ad in the top 10, and only one debt-relief show in the top 60 (Debt Cures, checking in at No. 47). The top 60 spots included no such products. Despite the buzz-kill economy, direct response is not rolling back prices — far from it. It's worth asking why.


The most obvious reason is that DRTV always emphasizes value. Unlike many brand counterparts, DRTV advertisers don't need to recalibrate creatives to speak to budget-conscious consumers. Programs and spots in the healthcare/insurance vertical, for instance, make affordability as great a focus as quality of care. Products for which value seems a secondary benefit also argue frequently that purchases make "cents."

The Kodak Easy Share printer — defined chiefly by quality photo printing and easy home networking — devotes significant screen time to documenting affordable ink cartridge savings. The new "Get Into Mexico" program that pitches property acquisition opportunities in Mazatlan, devotes time to the area's low cost of living — surely not the chief reason why U.S. viewers would buy. Even "miracle towel" ShamWow works savings into its pitch, proclaiming that you'll save $20 in paper towels every month. Well, maybe the 18-kid Duggar family would, I guess.

A second factor in DRTV's ongoing strength in our weakened economy has to do with its unceasing focus on real product benefits — often communicated by "people like us." Consumers understandably suspicious of a "corporate voice" instinctively trust peers. Even a star pitchman like Billy Mays can maintain his "regular guy" image with a well-chosen blue-collared shirt. Testimonials are similarly well suited to tough times. Their implicit message? "Hey, I've got the same problems you do. If this product works for me, it can work for you too."

Lastly, as TV media time devalues — a beacon of recessionary times — DRTV marketers take up the slack, feasting on lowered media rates that enable same or even higher product price points.

Overall, the traditional advertising industry is suffering the same woes as the whole country's economy — yet direct response venues continue to thrive. According to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), DRTV accounted for more than 30 percent of 2008 TV advertising. Expect continuing inroads in 2009. The medium expertly delivers the messages that cash-strapped consumers subconsciously crave: reassurances that products are utilitarian and affordable. The very same assurances — come to think of it — that strong response data delivers.

Timothy R. Hawthorne is founder, chairman and executive creative director of Hawthorne Direct, a full-service DRTV, print, mail and digital ad agency founded in 1986. A 35-year television producer/writer/director, Hawthorne is a cum laude Harvard graduate.

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