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.
100 Percent Natural; May Cause Hair Loss.
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.
"Until you get down to here with the ammonia, sodium methyl coaltyde [sic] or whatever the hell these long words are," her husband, Mark, said. "Look: carcinogens. It actually lists carcinogens!"
Pharaoh, another group participant, read the fine print: "May cause temporary redness, rashes, swelling, hair loss."
Like Mattingly, the woman who lost her hair was a hired actress named Jessie Coleman, and the hair she was losing was not really her own. Her role, along with the product information that the producer disseminated, was to plant seeds of doubt about the safety of ProPelage Power.
A participant named Mindy voiced her concerns. "Our names ... our faces could be attached to this s---. And we're gonna advocate this?"
Another woman named Annette chimed in: "For $75."
"What Would You Do?" ran the discovery phase of this experiment on all five groups of participants to see whether it would prompt any of them to leave immediately or prevent them from going forward with the infomercial. Despite the participants' reservations, it didn't.
One by one and group by group, participants were escorted from the green room into the studio where Mattingly was on hand to direct the filming of the infomercial. He instructed them to begin by telling a story about suffering from traumatic hair loss.
"Tell me about a time when you didn't have hair," he said. "Tell me about a time when you were a bald freak. I want you to really make me feel this pain that you had to endure as a balding person."
To Mattingly's delight, everyone came up with a story on the spot and heartily attributed the regrowth of their hair to ProPelage Power.
"Then ProPelage came in ... and instantly, I had the hair coming through," Grace said.
"It works wonders, it really does," said RosaMaria, another participant. "You put it on and you'll feel results by the next day."
"So I used ProPelage Power and it grew back. I couldn't believe it," said Robert, Grace's father.
Hair Growth Worth Cancer Risk?
Pushing the experiment further, Mattingly asked the participants to hawk a money-back guarantee that would not be honored.
"If you're not completely satisfied there's a 100 percent money back guarantee," participant Dana said to the camera.
"We do not actually guarantee the product, but say it anyway," Mattingly instructed. "Say, 'We 100 percent guarantee the product.'"
Dana paused for a slight second and then proceeded, "We 100 percent guarantee this product."
"We all assume, as we go through our days, that we're in a normal situation, and that the things that we're being asked to do are normal and reasonable," said Amy Cuddy, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. "When things look abnormal, when we're asked to do something that might not be reasonable, we don't know what to do."
Perhaps tall tales about hair growth and false guarantees weren't unreasonable requests, especially in an infomercial. So Mattingly pushed the participants further, pointing out that ProPelage contained carcinogens and that testing yielded some incidents of cancer.
"We have a couple of carcinogens in there, but it's in everything now," he told Pharoah. "The warning's there. ... So, if we could say something to the effect of, 'yes, cancer is a possible side effect, but life is coming at you like a fast bus, and you could get hit at any time.'"
Pharoah acknowledged that he read the list of questionable ingredients and proceeded.
"When I first used ProPelage Power, and I started doing research on it, I heard that there was a ... one in three chance of acquiring cancer," he said to the cameras. "What made me decide to move forward, was I felt my ... life was already over. That was two in three of a chance to live and have my life back. And to me that was really worth it, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
"If these people had known that when they came to work today, they'd be asked to endorse a product that caused cancer, they probably wouldn't have shown up for work," said Cuddy. "But of course, they didn't know that. They came and they complied with a small request, and gradually the requests got bigger and bigger and bigger, until they're being asked to do something that's pretty outrageous."
At the end of the two-day experiment in July 2008, ABC's "What Would You Do?" had met 19 people who had 19 different reasons for participating in the infomercial. One person walked out of the studio without complying with any of Mattingly's requests, and only four others put up any resistance. What made the others go through with it?
Even before the nation's economy bottomed out, the economy in Las Vegas was hard-hit. More often than not, the participants were unemployed or financially strapped.
"I can't find work up here in Vegas," said RosaMaria. "I've done a number of things: worked my way through college raising six kids. I can't find work up here. I'm 55. Who wants to hire a 55-year-old woman?
She added that the $75 "helps put something on the table and it helps pay my rent. I caught the bus here. You want, want me to be honest? I don't like taking a bus. I caught the bus for a job."
Similarly, participant Mike had two young daughters and was unemployed.
"I moved here five months ago and I haven't worked at all," he said. "And that's the main motivating factor."
Others planned to use this experience to build their resumes.
"I'm an aspiring actress," said Annette. "So I'm practicing."
"I need the money, and plus it's a gig, you know? And I thought it would be cool, maybe a little advertising experience," Dana said. "It's kind of how it is in the beginning, too. You take the jobs that you don't really believe in so you can work your way up."
Annette said she participated because she was an aspiring actress and needed the practice, but by the end of the experience she'd had a change of heart and learned a lesson.
"Acting is something I've always wanted to do," she said, "but I don't or I didn't plan on doing anything immoral to get there. But I guess I did.
"I learned that I should always trust my instincts and I shouldn't go along or do things just because I'm getting paid or just to achieve something I want. I mean, there's honest ways to get around it. There's honest ways to make money."