CLEARWATER — With his bald head, sculpted beard, gleaming smile, booming voice and burly build, TV pitchman Marc Gill stands behind the fake kitchen counter like a caffeinated pirate in a red and black chef’s coat.
Next to him, Jeni Bond is his perky companion in a canary blouse and sensible strappy heels; an everymom who sympathizes with the weeknight plight of home cooks who have too little time and too many mouths to make happy.
The next minute and a half of their infomercial taping is a blur of a sales dance as the two stand in front of video cameras and interact with actors portraying a family in a fake dining room — all to convey the merits of the Ready Grill, a new vertical kitchen appliance that its makers hope will breathe new life into the old Ronco home product brand.
If all goes well, Infusion Brands Chairman and CEO Bob DeCecco says a few feet away from the cameras, the Ready Grill could do for Ronco what the rotisserie oven and Pocket Fisherman did to establish it as the brand Americans craved in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Infusion acquired the rights to the Ronco brand in a 2012 merger.
DeCecco refers to the yardstick that all people in the Land of Direct Response Sales use: the George Foreman Grill. The Ready Grill, which cooks food vertically in an insertable basket in what looks like a tall, skinny toaster, could do $150 million in infomercial sales before it hits the retail market.
Even better, a Ready Grill explosion could establish Ronco as an international brand in the lucrative markets of Japan and South Korea, which clamor for American infomercial content.
Assuming Ready Grill hits that sweet spot, it could also mean big things for Bluewater Media’s partners, Andy Latimore, Brian Fasulo, Mark Hemming and Rob Fallon, who convinced Infusion Brands to tape this and four upcoming infomercials at their 33,000-square-foot production house north of Ulmerton Road.
Bluewater takes a percentage of sales of most buy-on-TV products they make informercials for, in addition to charging a production fee. The iPad pillow? That spot you watched at 3 a.m. was made by them.
And if the Ready Grill goes gonzo and the world embraces the formerly beloved Ronco brand as a source of must-have home products, Gill stands to inherit the mantle of America’s Pitchman. That title once belonged to Billy Mays, who worked in Studio 1 where the Ready Grill infomercial is being taped. Before Mays, who died five years ago this month, and his Clearwater-based pitching partner Anthony Sullivan, it was Ronco’s founder, inventor Ron Popeil, who for decades set the high-water mark for convincing TV viewers to spend money on products he demonstrated.
So a lot is riding on this infomercial shoot.
“COMING BACK,” a headphone-wearing floor director announces loudly to the set. Dozens of people simultaneously hush and silence their smartphones.
“IN THREE ... TWO ... ONE!”
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Gill turns mid-pitch to the family-for-hire at the dinner table from his spot on the kitchen set. The dad actor and a man who looks to be a Nick Nolte-look-alike grandfather have lamb on their plates. The representative mom and mother-in-law have fish. Three elementary school-age kids are digging into Ready Grilled chicken tenders and hot dogs. All have vegetables from the steaming basket that will be up-sold as a grill-topping accessory to future phone and online buyers.
Pitchwoman Bond stands between the kitchen and dining room sets, a conversational bridge in human form. Gill has several monitors from which to read his script, but the words flow effortlessly from his always-smiling mouth like a savant.
Gill: “I’m going to check in with Dad for a second. Now, have you tried the lamb yet? Look at that, IT’S LIKE BUTTER! You didn’t need a steak knife. You used a spoon! Perfect, right? WOW!
[Turning to the dad.]
Gill: “How’s the lamb taste? Does it taste like fish?”
Fake Dad: “It does not.”
Gill: “Does it taste like the hot dog?”
Fake Dad: “It does not.”
Gill: “Does it taste like the chicken fingers?”
Fake Dad: “It does not.”
Gill: “What does it taste like?”
Fake Dad: “It tastes like the best piece of lamb I’ve ever had! [Incredulously.] Did it come out of that? [Points to Ready Grill on counter.]
Gill: “Exactly. Listen, with that vertical grilling technology, all of the food is separate. Nothing tastes like the food beside it. Everybody gets their own meal. FAST! FRESH! HEALTHY! DELICIOUS! I LOVE IT!”
Bond: “And what’s great, too, all the oil and grease are going to go right down into this rapid-cool pan, so you never have to worry about little fingers. As a mom, what I really love is that you’re going to have a frustration-free dinner and you’re never going to have, ‘Mommy, I just don’t like this.’
[Turning to the mom actor.]
“Now I have to ask you, Mom, how does it feel to cook five completely different meals at the same time?”
Fake Mom: “This is so real for me. It’s amazing how one Ready Grill can cook an entire meal for my entire family.
Bond: “And there’s even leftovers!”
Gill: “FANTASTIC! With the Ready Grill, you’re always ready to cook delicious, healthy meals made easy without the wait of the oven, without the hassle of the grill and without all that grease sitting in the bottom of the pan! You never, ever, ever have to resort to a fast-food restaurant or a microwave meal again!”
Gill makes the Ready Grill’s timer go off.
“WHEN IT DINGS ...” he says.
“... DINNER’S DONE!” The collection of actors scream.
Ninety seconds. Done. The words “easy,” “healthy,” “fast” and “fresh” still hang in the air.
The set goes quiet. The child actors whip out their smartphones. The crew resets for another take with a fresh set of college-age actors. A third group of adults representing an intimate patio party waits its turn. It’s almost time for lunch.
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The Tampa Bay area is the fertile crescent of direct-response television.
The big kahuna in the sector is Clearwater-based HSN, formerly known as Home Shopping Network and, before that, the Home Shopping Club. The publicly traded company reported $777 million in net sales in the first quarter of 2014 alone. Such is its influence that rapper Nicki Minaj in July will travel to Clearwater to sell her “Minajestic Exotic” fragrance directly to viewers in a cross-marketing effort that ties in with her latest music video.
Sharing cable television space — but not the cachet of owning its own network — is As Seen on TV Inc. of Clearwater, which sells products through late-night television advertising time and other commercial buys, as well as in retail stores.
In December, As Seen on TV acquired Infusion Brands, also of Clearwater, in a stock-for-stock transaction. The merged company put several direct-response brands under one roof, including AsSeenOnTV.com, eDiets, DualSaw, Dual Tools and DOC wood-fiber cleaning cloths. It also brought along the Ronco brand, which Infusion acquired after merging with Ronco Holdings Inc. in 2012.
To DeCecco, who took over as chairman and CEO after Infusion merged with As Seen on TV, Ronco was an under-utilized brand that still held great value and public awareness but had not sold a revenue-generating “hero product” in a while.
His strategy: to produce a handful of infomercials for Ronco products that would simultaneously sell units while re-establishing the company’s identity in the infomercial marketplace.
In September, spots for renovated versions of the Ronco rotisserie oven, pasta maker and knife set, and the DOC cleaning towel, will join the Ready Grill on the airwaves. All will be shot in Clearwater at Bluewater Media.
The Ready Grill itself is a re-imagined version of a Sunbeam vertical grill from the 1980s. This time, Ronco has designed the drip tray to harmlessly remove grease so it doesn’t catch fire the way it did when Sunbeam made the device. The buying public will get a preview ahead of the September roll-out when the grill sells on HSN on June 23.
The direct-response world has changed greatly since Ron Popeil was king. Back then, there was no social media to pump up sales, and Internet selling was in its infancy. Ronco also aimed its focus at U.S. domestic consumers. DeCecco sees the international market as a third extension for Ronco’s branded products after they go through their TV and retail phases of popularity.
Company revenue projections for all products are $90 million for 2015. By 2016, the number is expected to be $155 million.
But with only about one in 100 direct-response products reaching hero status, its anyone’s guess. Especially if the Ready Grill takes off. A final sale price for the item has yet to be decided, although it could cost about $70 dollars. With accessories, and a few nudges on the phone by sales staff for callers to maybe buy the knife set or the DOC cloth, each call could generate $125 on average.
“This product relaunch is more about becoming a billion-dollar company,” DeCecco says. “My biggest fear? Not having enough product.”