Strategy & MarketingMedia ProductionChristian Media

What Religious Broadcasters Can Learn from Ginsu Knives

Whether we like to admit it or not, nearly every religious broadcaster – and most ministries and nonprofits – have produced a dreaded “infomercial.” Remember those late night programs that sell everything from miracle bald spot reducers, to anti-cellulite cream? That’s right – we’ve done them – we’ve just promoted different products or causes. Because anytime you’ve offered a book, tape, or other product with a toll free phone number, you’ve experienced what we call “Direct Response Advertising,” which could be translated to mean: the technique of getting people to act now. In the advertising world, there are four types of commercials and full length programs:

1) Image / Awareness Advertising: This is where companies like Nike, AT&T, Budweiser, and FedEx excel. For instance, FedEx knows when they broadcast a commercial, you’re not going to run out the door, get a FedEx package, and send it to some friend in Cleveland. But they do know they are “positioning” the product in your mind. That’s because in the image advertising world we operate from what we call “impressions”. Research differs, but it generally takes 17-23 impressions before someone is likely to walk into a store and say, “I’m going to buy those Nike tennis shoes.” Impressions could be a print ad, a billboard, a TV spot, or a radio commercial, and when they add up, buyers act.

2) Evangelism: The Mormons probably do this better than anyone. They put more money and effort into it on a national basis, largely because they’ve learned how to get individual churches to work together and pool their financial resources to make spots that are compelling, high budget, and effective. Numerous Christian organizations have tried it, and some with positive results, but none with the overall effect and impact of the decades long Mormon campaign.

3) Public Service Advertising: This is an area of advertising that churches and ministries could use to address social service issues. Areas of concern like feeding the hungry, caring for the homeless, drug abuse, or dealing with gangs are all examples of issues that public service ads address. Generally, TV and radio stations broadcast these spots for free, because they address important issues and don’t promote one particular organization, company, or faith. But I would also encourage you to produce public service spots with real quality, because secular production companies in Hollywood and advertising agencies in New York are doing these spots for free, and they’re creating them to win awards and recognition, so the competition is really tough.

4) Direct Response Advertising: If image advertising plants a seed in the mind of the viewer or listener, then direct response wants them to act now. This form of advertising used to be the ugly step child of image advertising, but today, companies across America have discovered that DR works, and can generate phenomenal results.

As faith-based broadcasters and producers, we should explore all areas of advertising and promotion, but the fact is, in religious media we live in a direct response world. Chances are, your church or ministry won’t convince Nike to sponsor your program, so we need to understand how the audience will respond directly to our message through offering books, tapes, or other products and services. In other cases, audiences will give because they want to support your vision – regardless of receiving anything in return.

But the world has changed from the old days of cheesy infomercials. So to make that happen effectively now, here are the critical keys to successful direct response advertising:

1. Direct response works in multiple formats. Most of us immediately think of TV infomercials: Popiels Pocket Fisherman, Ginsu Knives, the George Foreman Grill, or miracle tools or personal care products. But the fact is, direct response works extremely well in print and on the radio too. Direct response is simply presenting a product or service, and then putting up a phone number and web site to encourage people to contact you immediately. So you can do it in print and radio, and do it far cheaper in those media, so don’t forget those alternatives when thinking of direct response.

2. Testimonies are the focal point of an effective direct response campaign. I’ve discovered that the audience can hear a program host talk until he or she is blue in the face, but when they see the testimony of someone who’s life was changed because of the product, that’s when they decide, “Wow! If it works for that guy, maybe it can work for me.” (Are you paying attention, pastors, evangelists, and Christian program hosts?)

We know that phone calls generally spike up during testimonies, because that’s when it hits home to people, and they respond. So whether it’s a secular infomercial and they see a housewife use the George Foreman Grill effectively, and they think “If it’s that easy for her, then I’m going to order it.” Or, whether it’s a Christian program, testimonies are absolutely critical. So start right now finding partner letters, testimonies, or interviewing people in your church or ministry – you could even have a little booth in the back, and announce, “If this church or ministry has made a real impact on you or someone you know, tell us about it.” Interview these people and put them on your program, because it will make a huge impact on your media outreach. Testimonies are absolutely critical.

3. Demonstration is Vital: People want to see how a product or service works, and that’s why all the secular infomercials on TV demonstrate the product. Does the gospel work? Does salvation work? Can people’s lives really be transformed? Let’s demonstrate it. If there’s any possible way you can demonstrate the pastor’s teaching and how it works for people, do it. Does your message work in the office? School? Other areas? Demonstration is absolutely important, and has a dramatic impact on the audience.

4. Length is important. Unless your product or service is already known by everyone watching the program, I don’t recommend you ever do a 30 second DR spot. Frankly, you have to get the viewer off the sofa and over to the phone, then get him or her to write down the number and call. You simply can’t do that in 30 seconds. My personal recommendation is to never produce anything less than a 60 second direct response spot. Probably 50% of what our team has produced is 90 seconds or 2 minutes. I’ve discovered that you need that time to demonstrate the product, service, or message, edit in a short testimony, then give them the opportunity to respond.

In image advertising, McDonald’s, Nike, FedEx, or others make it work in 30 seconds because they’re just trying to present a good image or feeling. But in DR, you want them to act. So don’t be afraid to stretch it out.

5) Long Form Direct Response: Basically, we decide to make a 30 minute program when the product, service, or message is something that really needs extensive explanation, or, if it’s a complex concept. But in those cases, you can’t forget that people are tuning in and out of your program every 6-9 minutes (which is true for any program). Therefore, most half hour infomercials you see on TV are not really 30-minute shows, but they are three, 6-9 minute shows. Because we know that people are tuning in and out throughout that 30-minutes, we want to make sure we demonstrate the product, show a testimony, and give people an opportunity to order during that time.

In fact, one of the major principles I teach to my own clients is that if you’re not doing a product spot at the front of the program, you’re missing a huge number of people who are not going to be there at the end of the program. Likewise, if you’re not offering it in the middle of the program – you’re missing a lot of people who weren’t there at the beginning and won’t be there at the end.

My best advice?  Keep in mind that the audience of your program is not a lake, it’s a stream – constantly changing and constantly moving.

6) To compete with the competition, I recommend your direct response program be hip and contemporary. Make it cool, and make it look good. You don’t have to be cheesy and cornball to be successful at direct response. Granted, this isn’t a rule, and there are some terrible looking DR programs out there making a lot of money. But today, major companies are producing infomercials and taking them to a whole different level. Remember Ginsu knives: “The miracle knife that cuts through a can?”

Cheesy back then…

But now they’re creating a new generation of infomercials that look more like episodic dramas. There’s no hard-sell. It’s more dramatic, and the audience gets caught up because of the story, but the ultimate goal is still to sell those knives. So infomercials are moving from cheesy-land to being very cool, very contemporary, and very hip.

Years ago, our company produced a direct response spot for Joyce Meyer Ministries, based on Joyce’s book “Beauty from Ashes,” published by Time Warner. It’s was very cool and contemporary. We used photos of Joyce as a young woman, and told the story of her early abuse and failure, and how God redeemed and restored her life.

Thanks to the spot, the book sold so fast, Time Warner had trouble keeping up with the printing, and at the time they were the largest publisher in America. It’s a very high quality spot, drives the audience to the toll-free number and to the website, and we’re very proud of our creative approach.

So direct response advertising can look and sound as good as anything on radio or television.

So remember that direct response advertising can be very effective, when you use the right principles and techniques to get people’s attention, and get them to act.2


  1. I never said that being hip and cool should be the number 1 goal.  But the truth is, people have a mistaken notion that infomercials have to be boring and cheesy to sell, and that's not the truth either.  Keep in mind that ANY extension of your brand needs to stay in accordance with the look and feeling of what you're doing overall.  Because if you're a branded entity, it's more than a one shot thing.  One badly produced program can wreck a brand image you've spent years carefully crafting.I've had experiences where a hip and cool looking program didn't perform as well as an earlier, more cheesy program done previously.  But we stayed commited to the more contemporary look because we understood the long term implications for the organization.  Sure, a badly produced program might perform well – we'll never fully know audiences and their behavior – but it's important to think of the long term impression you're leaving with the viewers.  Mary's right – with DR it's about response, but I still believe it's possible to get people to respond to a good looking program as easily as it is to a bad looking one.  

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