From the George Foreman Grill to the Bedazzler to the Topsy Tail to the Perfect Pasta Pot to Ambervision to Pajama Jeans, Collette Liantonio is turning products into household names, one infomercial at a time.
The president of Concepts TV, also known as the “Queen of Infomercials,” boasts more than 30 years as an infomercial producer, creating more than 2,000 TV spots along the way. We recently spoke with the former high school teacher about how she got started in the biz, what it’s like working with her children and how Pajama Jeans became a huge hit. An edited version of the interview follows.
MORE: So, how did you get started in infomercials?
Collette Liantonio: You know, you don’t go to school for this. You don’t say, “Hey, I’m going to be an infomercial producer when I grow up” . . . I have a master's degree from NYU in theater education and I wanted to run a theater on a university level . . . I ended up teaching high school for a few years: art of writing, film study and Spanish. And at some point, I had two children, I was home with them and I began freelance writing. One of the people I was working for . . . was a very wealthy person who purchased a direct response company, and in the very early days of the business, he said, “Take a look at what I’m doing. See what you think.”
MORE: And it was a match?
CL: I have to say, I was instantly hooked by the idea that you could make the commercial and, hours later, know if it was successful, know how many products you sold and know how the public responded. To have that impact on the culture—or lack of culture, however you want to approach it—to know instantly what the response was, was addictive to me. I came aboard and began working for his company. It was really a challenge, having a couple of kids and going to work on somebody else’s schedule, and I ended up going off on my own in 1983 to start Concepts and haven’t looked back.
MORE: What’s the appeal of infomercials over other types of advertising?
CL: In other advertising genres you’re a cog in the machine . . . When you do direct response, you see a job from concept to completion . . . You start with an idea, you shoot it, you direct it, write it; it’s your baby and you bring it all the way through the edit process and see it have a life of its own. That’s a thrilling process, and very gratifying for people who work in this field. If you work in an ad agency, you’re a copywriter—you stay in your corner and you write copy. Or you’re the art director, and you’re not allowed to comment on the copy. It marginalizes people. But when you’re in direct response, you’re a generalist, and you get to see every aspect of the business.
The other thing that’s so thrilling is that I’m an entrepreneur and I work with entrepreneurs. There are very few places in the world where you can introduce, say, a mascara, for a very small amount, and have it become a household word. It would take millions of dollars in the normal chain of events. Or jeans—we did Pajama Jeans. If you wanted to bring out a brand of jeans, what would that take in the world of advertising? A fortune—and yet an entrepreneur can come up with Pajama Jeans and for less than $100,000 have a success story. That’s the appeal of this business for all the people out there who see the Topsy Tails and the Bedazzlers and all those products they may have grown up with. Everybody thinks of inventing something. That’s the American dream, and I really relate to that.
MORE: What takes a product like Pajama Jeans and turns it into a pop culture phenomenon?
CL: We call them magic moments. The magic moment is the aha moment . . . when the red sock in the laundry turns white. That’s the moment where everybody gets it. We call them metaphors for the masses—people get it when you show them an amazing demonstration. We have a hit right now on the air with Furniture Fix, which is just a support system for that sagging couch. Well, we took two sumo wrestlers who together weighed 1,000 pounds and we sat them on a couch. Here are these two huge guys in diapers, and they sat on the couch and the couch did not sag. Everybody gets it. Now, it’s ludicrous—sumo wrestlers, what do they have to do with anything? But it was the emphasis, it was that magic moment. Very often I have all of a minute to convince you to buy my product, so I need those magic, dramatic moments that stick with you.
MORE: How has the business changed over the last 30 years?
CL: More than half of people now buy from TV via the Web—it used to be all telecom. And we have a huge “As Seen on TV” after-market in retail. Some people, no matter how many times they see an exciting commercial, still go look for the product in a store because they need to touch and feel it.
MORE: Are people always quoting your infomercials back to you?
CL: There are people who are addicted to my commercials. I’ll meet people from all walks of life, and they’ll say, “Oh, I bought Topsy Tail and Hairagami, and did you do this one?” They get excited, and they can recite the whole commercial. That’s a little frightening, but it happens. Children love infomercials and I like to rhyme, so I love when they remember my rhyming commercials . . . I have two grandsons who are little kids, ages three and six, and they love them and can recite them, and my daughter says, “I feel like you’ve indoctrinated the next generation.”
MORE: We’ve gotta talk Pajama Jeans. How did that infomercial become so successful?
CL: The compelling story of the Pajama Jean is that it looks great on everybody’s butt, so that was our challenge—finding all different sizes and shapes and showing how nice they look in the jeans. We took all different ages of women and sizes of women and shot them in lifestyle situations. One of our employees, we shot her in the supermarket with her shopping cart. At my home, at my bar, I put three different-sized ladies on stools and we shot them from behind and tried to show how the jeans looked good on everyone. It’s a big risk to order a pair of jeans sight unseen. And it was a great deal— $40 for a pair of jeans that look that good. And you get a free T-shirt. Where else are you going to get a whole outfit for $40?
MORE: Yes, there always seem to be extras in infomercials.
CL: You put it over the top. Everybody loves a good deal, I don‘t care what your income level is.
MORE: Which infomercial has been your favorite to work on?
CL: We did the Amish Heat Surge Fireplace, and, I have to say, it was wonderful. We flew to the largest Amish community in the United States, which is not Pennsylvania Dutch, it is actually in Ohio, and we shot in a barn with the Amish people. It was just fascinating from a cultural point of view. It was so Americana, I loved it. It was thrilling to be able to work with the Amish people who actually fashioned these fireplaces.
MORE: Has the economy affected business?
CL: We’re at the opposite of the economy . . . Advertising, in general, did suffer, because it was considered expendable. But our business actually flourished, because, take the Furniture Fix as an example, instead of replacing your sofa in an economy like this, we found a $20 solution, rather than a $200 solution. People repaired their homes instead of trading up. And if you are on a tight budget, you’re not going to buy $200 jeans, you’re going to buy $40 jeans. So, we give really good value, and the consumer responds in times like this . . . Right now we have something on the air called Pedi Spin. It’s the electronic Ped Egg. And, yeah, maybe you don’t have the extra money to go to the salon for a pedicure, but you can do one at home with the Pedi Spin.
MORE: For all the hits, how many misses happen?
CL: Many more misses . . . It’s part of what makes us experts. I have failed many times over the years and I bring that knowledge to the table: things that don’t work. I do try to dissuade people from doing purely safety products, because they aren’t sexy and they just don’t sell. People have said, “Oh, a half hour show, let me sell three different products, one in each act.” That bombs. Everybody has tried that at least once. I’m always excited to try something new, but I like to share with people what I’ve tried that didn’t work.
MORE: What do you think will be the next infomercial sensation?
CL: For years, people said stay away from tech products, but that’s not right . . . And vitamins are huge now . . . They’re selling like crazy. Exercise—I think there will always be another ab product out there, and breasts are very big this year, by the way.
MORE: Your children have worked in the industry too.
CL: All three of my kids have worked for me. My oldest—my son, John—was my West Coast producer for many years. My daughter Eve was my director of finance, but she’s now home with her two boys. And my baby, Collette, who is 25, is actively producing right now for Beach Body. So, the girls at one point both said they were jumping in, my son has said he’s jumping in, but none of them has actually kicked me out yet.
My son, John, was in a commercial years ago that may be the funniest thing I’ve ever done. It was for a product called the Potty Putter—it made the 10 funniest commercials of all time list.
MORE: What advice do you have for women who may want to jump into a new job?
CL: When I started my business, my first husband and I had divorced, I had two small children, and then he died. He was 35 years old, and everything just went from bad to worse. I thought, What’s the worst that could happen? I’m going to try and make a go of this business . . . There were many nightmares, but they were nightmares of my choosing, and that autonomy is so important. I think there’s always an excuse if you don’t want to go out on a limb—people can give good reasons why not to—but you just have to do it sometimes. When young women talk about how they want to do this or that . . . Just do it. That’s the most important thing I can tell anyone. I belong to the Women Presidents’ Organization and I admire all the young women with all the challenges they have. When I listen to them, I remember some of the nightmarish days. You survive on very little sleep. You do without a lot of things. Maybe your nails and hair look like hell. But you feel good about your accomplishment at the end of the day. I think it’s important to have a career in addition to your mommyhood; you need identity.
Don’t miss out on MORE great articles like this one. Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter!