The Strange World of Radio Infomercials

“They’re saying things that I can hardly believe.”
Radio, Radio
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Fans of infomercials should know that the boob tube is not the only place you’ll find “paid programming.” Radio has infomercials too, even though most people aren’t even aware of the existence of these little gems. And more and more of these radio infomercials are making their way onto TV. (“Grown up radio infomercials” as I like to call them.)

You tend to find radio infomercials aired on the less powerful AM stations on the weekends and late at night.

There are many fewer types of products sold through radio infomercials than there are sold via TV infomercials. You will find a few radio infomercials selling memory courses and at least one selling a child rearing course. In the mid-90’s several reading courses were sold via radio infomercial, no doubt inspired by the widely advertised “Hooked on Phonics.” The vast majority of radio infomercials, however, sell health products—almost always some sort of pill or potion you ingest to cure whatever’s ailing you.

The specific ingredient of the cure being peddled differs widely. All of the following substances have been sold on radio infomercials as the cure to human suffering:

• Blue-green algae
• Tahitian noni
• Green tea
• Greek oregano
• Colloidal silver
• Hyaluronic Acid
• Queen bee’s nectar
• Ginger
• Fish oil

And believe me that list is just the beginning.

Many of these “miracle” ingredients—such as green tea and oregano—are actually common substances. So the infomercials make a big point of explaining why you can’t just go to your local grocery store and buy them: You would have to drink green tea all day long to get the benefits just taking one of their pills will give you. The oregano you get at the supermarket in not the real Greek oregano (‘joy of the mountain’) but is in fact Mexican sage. The queen bee’s nectar sold in health food stores is freeze dried and not fresh like the product sold on the radio. And of course all the processing, chemicals, and pesticides have destroyed any benefits that the common version of the substance could have given, so you need to get the “all natural” version sold on the radio.

Nearly all radio infomercials tell of an idyllic past when people ate all natural food and breathed air and drank water free from pollutants. And now chemicals have turned our every breath and swallow into something that makes us ill and brings us closer to death. The exact historical period of this healthy golden time (The Victorian era? The Dark Ages? Eden?) is never specified. But the radio infomercials want you to know that your ancestors lived clean and healthy and modern technology means you’re getting screwed. Indeed, several radio infomercial tell of isolated villages even today (often in Japan) where people live long and vibrant lives because everyone in that community ingests whatever miracle ingredient the infomercial is trying to sell you.

Many people think TV infomercials are dishonest and prone to exaggeration. But most TV infomercials are models of probity when compared to radio infomercials. Radio infomercials will not only sell any damn thing but they’ll say any damn thing to sell it.

All the products sold on radio infomercials cure only two things: namely, anything and everything. Indeed, they try their damnedest to mention as many ailments as they can, and tell of people with those symptoms who no longer suffer after taking the product. Then they’ll also mention that they can’t legally claim that their product cures anything—before telling of still more people cured by their product.

Many of these radio infomercials emphasize intestinal health, and the urban legend about John Wayne is repeated endlessly on these programs–so much so that the John Wayne story is pretty much a hallmark of the radio infomercial genre. The story goes that John Wayne donated his body to science and during the autopsy 40 or more pounds of fecal matter and undigested food were found in his colon. And the same thing could happen to you if you don’t take their product. I am so glad that “grown up radio infomercials” on TV are now delighting whole new audiences with this weird and gross story.

Years ago a woman on a radio infomercial selling a reading course related a sorrowful tale of an illiterate lady who could only buy food based on the pictures on the box. Then one day she purchased some chicken only to bring it home and find out it was not the chicken pictured on the bag but only the breading. This story, too, is featured on the Urban Legends Reference Pages. And I’m confident that if a person would closely listen to radio infomercials they would find them teeming with urban legends of all sorts.

As I mentioned, more and more of these radio infomercials seem to be making their way onto TV these days. And even many infomercials that didn’t originally start out life as radio infomercials could be considered “grown up radio infomercials” if they follow the basic pattern described above and consist of just one or more hosts interviewing an expert and maybe taking calls. (The kind of thing that could be done on the radio without any loss of information.)

Here’s to hoping more radio infomercial oddities make their way onto the small screen.

By the way, these devices would be perfect for listening to radio infomercials:


  • 2 Responses to “The Strange World of Radio Infomercials”

  • This is an old post, but I’m glad I found it. One of the remarkable things I’ve noticed about radio infomercials is how difficult it can be – at first – to determine that you’re listening to an infomercial.

    Without the telltale video production qualities of TV infomercials as a guide, some of these radio versions are almost convincing as actual health shows.

    Comment by Ryan on June 7, 2008 at 6:14 pm

  • When I first discovered radio infomercials, I soon realized that I could get a good laugh out of them (Really, I never knew that average vitamin C formulas had sand in them!), and I quickly began recording them and building an archive of them. I now display this archive here:
    Take a look there for some interesting examples of the stuff mentioned on this page.

    My favorite radio infomercial is currently the one for Biovaxin (available to listen to on my website, above). This is because not only does it have many of the elements mentioned here (urban legends, a cure-all in a bottle, etc.), but it features constant mispronunciation of ingredient names, which can get quite amusing…

    Comment by b22 on May 26, 2012 at 8:26 pm