The science bit takes art of rave review to expert level

A new style of TV ad that combines modern social media with old-fashioned sales pitches has made its way onto British screens. Ruth Mortimer, associate editor of Marketing Week, explains more.

America has exported many things to the world. The hamburger, fizzy pop and squeezy cheese to name a few dubious gifts to modern culture. But this autumn, another innovation from the other side of the Atlantic is having an impact on British marketing – the infomercial.

With consumer cynicism at an all-time high – just 18% trust what the media tell them, according to a recent Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster study – it appears that a new style of infomercial, combining modern social media lessons with old-fashioned sales pitches is headed our way. But with its overtones of cheesy American salesmanship, can the “new infomercial” really convince UK consumers?

Procter & Gamble certainly seems to think so. Recently, I have been unable to switch on my TV set without seeing the ad breaks filled with short films called The Science Lab. In these segments, launched earlier this year, TV presenter Anna Richardson – of Supersize vs Superskinny fame – takes time off from working for the BBC and ITV to carry out the vitally important task of “reviewing” products such as Head & Shoulders or an Oral B toothbrush.

In this series of short programmes, which run in each break around mainstream TV shows such as Ugly Betty (or you can watch the spots on YouTube), Richardson goes in relentless journalistic pursuit of great household and beauty products by conducting a series of on-camera “reviews” where she claims to be “testing out” the claims behind everyday products.

During every ad break, Richardson goes in search of thrilling, in-depth information about face cream, shampoo and toothbrushes. This often seems to come from P&G scientists. In one execution, René C Rust, the man behind Head & Shoulders, reveals that more than 50% of UK adults have dandruff.

“Do you actually claim that Head & Shoulders starts to work from the very first wash?” probes Richardson. “Yes it does,” confirms scientist Rust, who joyfully educates viewers that a whopping 50 years of research backs up this statement. This obviously impresses Richardson, who simpers: “Well, you look good on it, René.”

After watching this sprint through the details of personal care products, identified as an ad only by smallprint at the bottom of the screen, viewers so overwhelmed by the valuable information in Richardson’s TV reports can visit the accompanying Sciencebehindthebeauty.com website. This in turn leads to another site called Supersavvyme.com.

Like the TV ads, Supersavvyme does not overtly refer to P&G, it just focuses on a few otherwise unconnected consumer products. In fact, Supersavvyme sets itself out as a good source of information rather than a marketing portal, telling its readers: “Because the beauty industry is so big, it can sometimes be difficult to know which products really work. Luckily, that’s where our team of experts come in.”

P&G’s Science Lab is the perfect example of the new infomercial. This is not just a straight translation of the old American TV spots with bad actors and phone numbers flashing up on screen, this is a much more sophisticated marketing message.

The new infomercial format adopts a novel tack by combining marketing for several otherwise unconnected products in one package – a valuable technique in today’s lean times. You don’t normally see a TV ad for shampoo and face cream at the same time, yet the infomercial style allows brands to connect seemingly unconnected products under one campaign by making the marketing centre around “reviewing” and “expert advice” rather than any one item.

P&G’s Science Lab is the perfect example of the new infomercial. This is not just a straight translation of the old American TV spots with bad actors and phone numbers flashing up on screen, this is a much more sophisticated marketing message. The new infomercial format adopts a novel tack by combining marketing for several otherwise unconnected products in one package

Another vital characteristic of the new infomercial is that it becomes a viewing event, rather than simply a sales reel. The Science Lab takes over every ad break throughout a programme to offer “episodes” that build up to a final “review” of a product or two. P&G has done a similar thing with its Max Factor “Makeover Breaks” where one consumer is given a beauty treatment in the ad break. And in a similar way, Dulux ran a “story” with faux-live ads around a popular TV programme showing how its products could be used to decorate a house in just moments.

The new infomercial is also based around the same social recommendation principles driving the growth of internet review sites and social networks. Consumers visiting Supersavvyme are asked to help the team decide which products they should next review (Clairol? Gillette? Braun?). They can also “tell a friend” about what they have discovered.

The new infomercial is also even skipping the TV altogether and embracing the humour seen in viral marketing to help sell its wares. The new infomercial is social and this means being funny. Take the Old Spice online commercial The Man Your Man Could Smell Like. This sees actor Isaiah Mustafa delivering an infomercial in such an over-the-top manner that it racked up 23 million views in 36 hours. And yet, ultimately, the Old Spice ad is still an infomercial hoping to sell its wares.

So can British consumers look forward to saying goodbye to the days of badly filmed late-night ads with American voiceovers? Probably not. But don’t be surprised if your friends start to suggest you might be a bit more popular if you wash your hair with a certain brand of shampoo and quote you “the science bit” to back it up.

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