Infomercials are designed to sell the consumer a promise. Those late-night commercials promise you all that glitters really is gold, and you simply cannot live without the products they sell. But do you have to believe in something to sell it effectively?
As part of a hidden camera scenario, ABC's "What Would You Do?" created a phony product called ProPelage Power that purported to grow hair instantly, adding legitimacy to the product by crafting informative brochures, business cards, letterhead and even a Web site.
"What Would You Do?" then traveled to Las Vegas and posted online and newspaper ads seeking individuals interested in making $75 and a chance to be on TV. All they needed to qualify was a full head of hair.
Responses poured in; we held in-person interviews and selectively recruited people of all ages, representing a broad range of ethnic, social and economic backgrounds. They were told that the company was looking for "real people" to be part of an infomercial for a new hair-growth product and that they would be paid for their time.
During two days, we ran the infomercial experiment with five groups of people; there were 19 participants in all.
Participants were scheduled in groups and escorted into a green room where they awaited their turn in front of the infomercial cameras.
While in the green room, each group met Steve Carrington, a smarmy British infomercial producer. Unbeknownst to them, Carrington was actually an actor named Paul Mattingly who was hired to play this role.
He handed out product brochures to each participant, encouraging them to get to know ProPelage Power, while he sang the praises of its revolutionary hair-growth ability.
"I've got some of my own money invested in the product," Mattingly assured them. "Folks are going to bed: spotty, balding hair. They apply the product in the evening. The next morning there is full growth."
Mattingly explained that everyone was getting in "on the ground floor" of this miracle product and that any one of them could well be "the face of ProPelage Power."
He then exited the green room, leaving everyone to read through the literature and prepare for their exciting on-camera testimonials. One curious participant, however, went a step further and actually tried ProPelage Power in her hair.
"It's tingling," she said at first.
Then as everyone watched her, she said: "It's almost, like, burning."
Beginning to panic, she looked to her fellow participants for guidance. "Should I go wash it out? It's really ... It's really burning."
She ran her fingers through her hair, raking from her head several blond locks.
"Oh my God! Her hair's falling out," gasped Grace, a participant in the first group.
The more the woman touched her hair the more it fell out. Some participants sat in shock, while others scrambled to get help. Within moments Mattingly was beckoned back to the green room where he quickly escorted the woman out, presumably to assess the situation and get her medical attention.
The participants were left to consider what they witnessed and read more about the product.
"It's got mostly natural stuff in it, if you look at the ingredients," said Gina, a participant in another group.