In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • What is an Infomercial?
  • Wayne Hope (bio) and Rosser Johnson (bio)

The infomercial is a highly contestable term. On one level, it is merely a form of advertising on television. On another, it is a highly specific form of broadcast direct marketing. On yet another—and this is the most common frame of reference—it is shorthand for a particular type of earnest, hard-sell promotion. This confusion is, perhaps, a reflection of the relatively recent re-emergence of the infomercial. Nonetheless, the success of the infomercial as advertising and recognition as a cultural marker indicate that serious enquiry is overdue. Our purpose in this article is to explicate some of the more important issues surrounding the infomercial as a form of television. We do so from a critical media studies perspective, although we acknowledge research from other disciplines. Ultimately, our argument is that infomercials ought to be taken seriously, not least because they offer significant commercial advantages over traditional spot advertising. In the end, the success of the infomercial necessitates a re-conception of advertising on television. The key point here is the degree to which the advertising and the non-advertising content are separated. We believe that infomercials offer advertisers a platform through which their commercial messages can both be disguised within apparently normal “programming” and can be visually foregrounded within a highly cluttered market. The end result is a communicative form in which everything—including information—can only exist within a context of selling.


The infomercial is a misunderstood and under-researched form of television; it is generally dismissed as a “trash” genre, or as a vulgar form of advertising. Of course, each of these positions is credible; a typical infomercial is cheap to produce and will employ relatively obvious commercial strategies. Consequently, there have been few considerations of the infomercial form within media studies. This is not surprising; in countries where infomercials have been successful (the USA, New Zealand, and, to a lesser degree, Australia, Japan, and Western Europe), they are ubiquitous and have entered into popular culture as a marker of earnest hard-sell advertising. In doing so, they have become a media phenomenon that is reacted to rather than critically addressed. This leads to an incomplete understanding of the infomercial and its role within commercial television.

Infomercials are defined by their most ardent promoters, and the parameters of inquiry thus far have been set by marketing or advertising academics. Marketing and advertising research provides an initial, rudimentary answer to our central question: What is an infomercial? From these studies, one can discover how infomercials differ from advertisements, how audiences respond to infomercial campaigns, and how television networks gain revenue from infomercial programming. After collating the preceding information and acknowledging its shortcomings, we critique the proliferation of infomercials throughout commercial television, popular culture, and cyberspace. Although the majority of the material we use is from the USA (which reflects the leading role that country has in the global infomercial industry), some recent material from the UK and Australia is included in our analysis. Our view is that the infomercial is a global phenomenon that has been adapted within a variety of regulatory systems. With these thoughts in mind, the overall purpose of this article is to develop a critical understanding of the infomercial from a media studies perspective.

Insights from the Advertising /Marketing Literature

Initial studies of the infomercial form were conducted within the advertising and marketing fields. Beltramini (1983) examined the ways in which infomercials are perceived by three groups of advertising practitioners (media directors, advertising managers, and creative directors). He found that acceptance of infomercials varies significantly between these groups, but that the relative success of an infomercial depends upon its ability to blur editorial and advertising content (Beltramini, 1983, p. 30). This apparent hybridity was highlighted by Parsons and Rotfeld, who argue that “blurring between commercial and non-commercial content” is a prime criticism of infomercials (Parsons & Rotfeld, 1990, p. 63). They suggest that in-house television station clearance procedures (to check that infomercials comply with advertising standards) should be augmented by consumer protection legislation.

Tom (1995–6) was the first researcher to study infomercials themselves (rather than their role...