Back in 1981, just as he was beginning his presidency, Ronald Regan appointed Mark Fowler as the new head of the Federal Communications Commission. This appointment spearheaded a political movement that would eventually lift advertising regulations that had been in effect since the 1950s. Deregulation opened the floodgates, and a new form of product marketing began to dominate the tv airwaves—infomercials.
If you’ve ever fallen asleep on the couch late at night and awoken to visions of a Ginsu knife cutting through a soda can, you know what we’re talking about. Advertisers at the time spotted a niche; they bought up blocks of late-night air time to run 30 to 60 minute paid programming, creating inexpensive commercials fashioned as entertainment. Ron Popeil quickly staked his claim on the market, and with catchy phrases like “set it and forget it” and “But wait! There’s more”, he mastered the art of the infomercial format—creating a story based upon a universal problem, the ideal solution, and bringing it all home with a compelling call to action.
Infomercials work as a testing ground of sorts for large companies as well. As The Week put it, infomercials are the appetizers, while getting sold by the big-box retailers like Walmart is the main course for these brands. Infomercials are effective because they rapidly move consumers through the sales funnel, from initial awareness to purchase, whether by phone, online, or in-store. What’s remarkable about them, and why we’re talking about them here, is that they changed the retail game, and 40 years later, they are still an effective marketing tool. When Reagan initiated deregulation, a window of opportunity opened, and advertisers leveraged it to connect with a targeted audience of night owl consumers. While these consumers know they are being marketed to, the infomercial host, often a celebrity (who can forget the George Foreman grill!), acts as an authentic conduit to the brand. Viewers trust the information and buy based on that emotional connection.
The pandemic created a similar opportunity for retailers as consumers flooded online in record-breaking numbers starting in the spring of 2020. Retailers quickly pivoted to reimagine their digital platforms as advertising real estate for brands, creating a new business opportunity, Retail Media Networks. eCommerce sites like Amazon, Walmart, Walgreens, and Home Depot have set up their own media networks and sell advertising to brand marketers. Amazon has an early stake in this market—having captured 89% of it to date. As they get off the ground, they are a double-edged sword. eCommerce sites see it as a significant revenue stream, with Forrester predicting that a quarter of retailers are generating more than $100 million in revenue from their networks. However, it can alienate consumers who are wary of direct advertising. According to Statista in a January 2021 research study, only 30% of consumers trust brand advertising on websites.
For the consumer, shopping online is about to get a lot noisier as products extend beyond the store shelves to confront them as they browse and buy. Here’s how. eCommerce retailers leverage data to understand the consumer and offer up personalized recommendations based on browsing history, purchases, demographics, and more. You’ll soon see personalized coupon placements, limited-distribution items on offer, splashy product launches, and memberships benefits as you shop online, along with email and social push notifications. And while personalized recommendations are a nice-to-have, consumers have different expectations.
What’s missing from the retail media network equation is a consumer-to-consumer connection and brand authenticity. Big brands are approaching retail media networks with a “set it and forget it” attitude— placing ads and relying on consumers to engage with them. But, today’s consumers are savvy—they believe each other, and that’s why over 90% of consumers read product reviews, and 80% trust them. Shoppers want more than a recommendation—they want to understand how a product fits into their lifestyle and how other buyers have experienced it.
Authenticity starts with a buyer who purchased. It moves markets. Communication via product reviews gives consumers the power. The brand marketing funnel and the general sales funnel will soon get crowded with all sorts of attempts to bring this consumer-to-consumer communication via reviews into these funnels. This will play out as consumers are retargeted with ads after an initial product search and stretch from retail media to social media with product reviews wrapped in an advertising message
The solution for this advertising noise is a haven for product reviews sponsored by each eCommerce site. In addition, when marketing does elect to advertise online, it infuses the advertising with real reviews that enhance the messaging. Consumers can accept that they are being advertised to, but what softens the impact – and converts – is a brand that understands shoppers rely on each other to buy. If retail media networks can put the consumer experience at the forefront, they will benefit from that marketing magic that infomercials excel at.