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Jamie Block: Selling celebrity in an infomercial

BY JAMIE BLOCK
TV/New Media Columnist
Published March 29, 2009

In this country, you can show someone on the street a picture of an important political figure — let’s say Vice President Joe Biden — and there’s a decent chance the person won’t be able to name that political figure or say what he or she does. But show that same American civilian a picture of Matthew Lesko, more commonly known as “that guy in the question-mark suit,” and, though the person may not be able to tell you Lesko's name, the person will at least be able to tell you that the question-marked man can offer the secrets to obtaining free money.

It’s a sad truth that people know more about celebrities than politicians. It’s an even sadder truth that infomercial hosts have joined the ranks of other celebrities. Or at least I used to think it was sad.

Matthew Lesko has written far too many books, including at least six whose titles begin with the words “Free Money.” Billy Mays has sold everything from Lint-B-Gones and Bedazzlers to ESPN’s online coverage with his loud, in-your-face demeanor and signature “Billy Mays here” intro. Vince Shlomi (known in his infomercials as “Vince Offer”) is so universally known for his ShamWow informercial that a Wikipedia search for “ShamWow” links directly to Shlomi’s Wikipedia profile.

When I first realized these “accomplishments” are more successful ways to build celebrity than acting in an indie film or performing in a Broadway show, I was understandably pissed. Even the most commodified pop stars have some semblance of talent that made them famous. What right do Lesko, Mays and Shlomi have to be household names compared to true talents and personal favorites like Gael García Bernal (“The Science of Sleep”) or Michael Cerveris (who played the titular role in the 2005 Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd”)? But then I came to realize they have the same right to fame as anyone else.

Sure, infomercials may be incredibly annoying, but that doesn’t mean no semblance of skill is required to produce them and make them successful. Also, when you think about how many infomercials exist, it’s remarkable some stand out above the others. Yet Shlomi, Lesko, Mays and perhaps some of the home-gym sellers (I’m looking at you here, John Basedow) have done just that. And they are now the famous few among the commercial crowd.

Now, these wizards of sales could never have built their star power without setting themselves apart from the rest. Lesko’s high energy is engaging, and his signature suit was one of the most effective advertising ideas in the entire infomercial world. Mays is just a powerhouse, full of great product ideas and capable of selling anything with contagious enthusiasm. Relative newcomer Shlomi has a youthful exuberance that makes his products seem like must-haves for a new generation of go-getters.

So it turns out these guys might actually have talent after all. But now that they have their celebrity status, they need to make sure they live up to its standards of scandal and questionable moral decisions. Luckily for us, they haven’t disappointed.

Let’s start with The Riddler-wannabe Lesko, who has had a rough relationship with both famous newspapers and our nation’s government, as detailed in his Wikipedia page. In a 2007 Washington Post article, Lesko admitted to plagiarizing his books from the federal guidelines regarding grants and loans, and he has been criticized by The New York Times for claiming to still be a part of the paper despite the fact that he stopped writing his column in 1994. Also, in 2005, Emmy-winning writer Bernard Goldberg "honored" Lesko by including him in his book “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.”

Mays and Shlomi aren't unfamiliar with creating drama within the infomercial community either. After Shlomi’s rise to ShamWow fame, Mays called him out in a radio interview on Feb. 10, claiming that Shlomi’s product was a clear knock-off of Mays’s own Zorbeez towel product. Mays went so far as to say, "Billy Mays doesn't take this” and "I am the ultimate pitchman."

Also, Shlomi assaulted a prostitute. Really. Look it up. It just happened.

So it turns out infomercial celebrities are no different than any other. While celebs steal significant others from each other, infomercial salesman steal product ideas. While movie stars get arrested for violating the law, Lesko gets in trouble for plagiarizing the law and selling it as a book. And while pop stars may be loud and belligerent, Mays’s voice and Lesko’s bright suit are louder than all the celebrity singers in this country combined.

So to bring this all full circle, I have two pieces of wisdom. First of all, don’t be as quick as I was to criticize informercial hosts — they’ve truly worked their way to the top. Second of all, if any of you are thinking about running for elected office some day, start wearing a crazily punctuated suit. It sucks that it has come to this, but it might just be the only way to get people to pay attention to politics.


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