Pink (Gus Van Sant)

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  A typical informmercial will play something like this: The teenaged host, Felix, sits on a barstool against a gray backdrop. The lighting is low, so that you only see a silhouette of him.

A smattering of recorded music introduces the commercial piece, smooth voices singing in unison, doo-doodoo-doowaaaaa, a soft jazzy Ray Charles singers sort of appropriation, and in two seconds the music ends, the lights come up, the audience applauds, and loudly.

The lights are very bright. Everything has got to shine so that you are literally burning your message into the viewer's retinas. And we can see now, oh, there are kitchen appliances in the background we didn't notice before. And there is a wooden chopping block right over Felix's left shoulder. If your audience is paying attention, this is a grabber right there, yes, the old kitchen set. Hardly ever fails.

Felix waves both his hands at an overjoyed audience, and you would think by this reception that he has just come back a hero unscratched from a war.38

We don't want to lose them in the beginning of the spot, so that's why there is so much joy in the beginning like there is. We want our viewers to be thinking: This is...uh...what the hell is this? So they don't go changing the channel on you.

Over the first hurdle we go, and Felix was absolutely the best at it. For a guy with no smile, he could turn the charm up full blast.

All right, now, Felix is going to signal to the audience to quiet down, because he is making it seem like he doesn't have much time. This is a very important maneuver, because you want the viewer to feel like the host of the show isn't going to waste his time, so he has to look like he doesn't have much time either, which is incorrect, because we have an entire thirty minutes, sometimes, my God, an hour, to fill with practically nothing.

This "time" maneuver also is signaling to our home viewers that this is going to be fast, and they are going to get what they are looking for (they don't actually know what that is yet) soon, so they don't have to worry about the channel changer, they are going to give this kid a chance. This brings to mind one of the reasons that so many of our informmercial presenters are teens. It's to play on the sympathy of the older home viewers who hopefully are just beginning to think: Well, that's a nice boy, he could be ours.

You might be thinking that this is too much, but there are no FCC restrictions on the pulling of heartstrings, yet.

The director of the informmercial has to focus at all times, remembering each viewer out there is holding a little remote control in their hands,39 so he is treading on extremely thin ice right now. In a few minutes that pressure is going to go away because we are going to hook those suckers, I mean, viewers. Sorry.

"Okay then!" Felix says to his studio audience. "Sister Mary Reily called in to say that back at her house they are experiencing the cold weather that is sweeping up into the northern states today. Oooooohhhh." Felix shivers, wrapping both arms around his body.

"That just feels cold thinking about it, doesn't it? I'm glad that we are in this nice warm studio, aren't you?" Felix stands up from his chair after he says this.

Now this is practically a cookie-cutter opening; that is to say, it is one that has opened a lot of shows before, but it can really work. We have our reference to a religious belief, which is not completely committing to a parochial ideology. We don't have the Sister on the show, we just quickly mention her name, and that will go to work for us. You have your weather rundown, and that is going to cozy up most of your viewers. Make them feel like they too are in the warm studio under those blaring lights.

From this point Felix dovetails the show properly, introducing another guest, a woman who is about three years older than he is, named Sarah. Sarah begins to make a new cookie with a secret recipe all her own that she is going to give out, over the air, at the end of the show. The product is there, hidden on the set, until it is time to pull it out. We keep it hidden until the last minute. Until the guests have a problem.

There is difficulty with the cookie baking. Felix and his guest are growing concerned with a problem, but the audience is concerned with the guests.

"I should have cleaned my oven a little before the show, but I have been having problems with the cleaner I'm using," Sarah says. "It leaves a kind of, I don't know, smell.

The host and the guest become more and more interested in "finding" a product that will solve this problem that seemed to come out of nowhere, like most problems do.

"How many of you just can't get rid of that oven smell?" Felix prompts.

The audience gasps.

Of course the sexual connotations are almost but not quite obvious.

Cut to the audience, and every woman there is shaking her head no. The men are consoling the women. Some of them look like they are tilting their heads with concern, as if they are saying, "Well, honey, I didn't know that was a problem, we could fix that, couldn't we?"

I try to be careful and time it so at the precise moment that the product is needed, whammo, the presenter and the guests discover it behind the counter or desk or what-have-you. It is a surprise, and we didn't even know that there was a product. It was sitting behind the counter all the time. This is to keep things moving along, so they don't have to go and buy it, or whatever.

To further the movement, the product amazes the guests as it is put to use cleaning, scrubbing, wiggling and doing whatever it is that it does best. Then a price is mentioned, also a phone number. And through television osmosis, at the end of the half hour the viewers will want to buy it, and they don't even know why.

An informmercial is very similar to a pirate's stolen treasure in theme. Only the audience is the treasure.

38 There is a reason for this. Most informmercial programmers fought in one of our wars, and the viewers did too, so the most striking mood a director can set in the beginning of an informmercial is this "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" mood/thing.

39 When the remote control was invented, it made it so much easier for home viewers to change the channel and leave the commercial spot in the electronic dust that the commercial maker had to work three, no four times as hard as he did before that little invention. This was particularly true of the main target audience, who is over sixty, because in the old pre-remote days there was no way they were going to get up out of their chairs to change that channel, they'd just as soon let the program play all the way through the half hour just to see what might be programmed next. So the early pioneer informmercial makers had it easy, big time.
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Excerpted from Pink by Gus Van Sant. Copyright © 1997 by Gus Van Sant. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.