The most enduring image in infomercial history is that of a diminutive Vietnamese immigrant named Tom Vu telling tales of real estate fortunes from his yacht while surrounded by the gorgeous bodies of bikini-clad models.
Tom Vu promised that by attending his free 90-minute seminar you’d learn the same secrets he used to make millions—and you could use them too. Then all the accoutrements of wealth that Tom enjoyed would be yours as well: mansions, luxury cars, yachts, and, most of all, dozens of luscious babes ready to please you for the rest of your life. The barely-dressed ladies appeared all over this infomercial as lovely backdrops: there they were playing backgammon, sipping cocktails in the yacht’s bar, sunning themselves in various alluring poses, standing around the pool at the “Tom Vu Mansion” in Florida, bending over the edge of the yacht so as to give the viewers an eyeful of their firm-yet-supple rears. Despite the ubiquity of these women, Tom Vu never made any on-air reference to them, and although they often flanked him on both sides and even draped their hands on his shoulders, he was never shown having any direct interaction with them. But though the message sent by the pictures of Tom and his babes may have been indirect, the libidinous male imagination needs little prompting to make the connection. The viewers with their well-worn Playboy centerfolds and their dog-eared copies of the Penthouse Forum understood that if they had Tom Vu’s millions they too would have conga lines of luscious females snaking through their own yacht and mansion—and the surest way to make Tom’s money was to attend Tom’s seminar.
But if the power of big money to attract beautiful women was unspoken, Tom Vu blatantly bragged about all the other playthings his money bought him. In front of his seven-car garage, Tom sat on the hood of his Mercedes, faced his convertible Rolls, and tempted the viewer, “Look at the choices I have today. Would you like to have choices like this, someday?”
Tom didn’t boast only of the luxurious life he led. He also spun the melodramatic tale of his life: One of ten brothers and sisters who fled from Vietnam, Tom worked as a busboy, yet he was determined to get rich. He purchased books and tapes about real estate investing, but those all advised him to buy property and wait years to sell it—and Tom wanted to get rich now! So he created his own system and ended up a multimillionaire. This kind of rags-to-riches story is nothing new, and one might think that, combined with the outrageous brandishing of his women and luxury items, Tom’s story would be hard to take. But Vu’s speaking style—his friendly countenance, his gentle tone of voice, his less-than-firm grasp of English idiom—is, quite frankly, disarming. Whatever the truth of his tale or the merits of his system, Vu’s up-from-poverty success story comes across as more credible than those of such slick infomercial fast-talkers as William McCorkle and Don Lapre.
Perhaps the best example of his style can be seen in the spiel he gives in front of a water fountain on one of his “estates:”
I hope you enjoy seeing my waterfall as much as I do. I built this water fountain right in front of my estate, so I feel good about it. I feel successful every time I come home. Speaking of waterfall, that remind me of a secret that made me to become very wealthy….Years ago, when I was a busboy at the country club I used to work at, one night I got all the guts in this world. I walk over to this nice old man. I gave him some water, and I say, “Sir, I’m giving you some water. Would you please tell me how to be rich like you, sir?” And lucky for me the old man say, “Well, boy, stay after work. I show you how.” I condensed that old man’s secret into just three little words—three beautiful words that brought Tom Vu from poverty to be multimillionaire…You know, in the last ten years on the way to make these millions wasn’t easy. At first I got lots of discouragement from friends and stranger who are loser. You know what these people kept telling me? They kept saying, “Well Tom Vu, you’re a crazy nut. Here you are a poor immigrant…Look at all people out there; they’re smarter than you, and they’re not even rich. Who are you to try?” And you know what, I had to keep telling these people every time, I kept saying, “You a loser! Get out of my way! I make it somehow!”…I treasure that old man’s secret in my heart forever. If you want to become wealthy, come to my seminar; let me share with you the three little words that can change anyone’s life. I know some of you may say, “Why Tom don’t go ahead and tell me those three little words right now to get it over with?” Well, nothing worth millions like this come easy in life, my friend, You got to make an effort, you got to get in your car, take the time out, come to the seminar, learn the three little words that can make anyone change their life.
Tom’s personable manner helped soften the over-the-top build-up given him. The announcer repeatedly boomed, “Tom Vu: The Man, The Life, The Mission.” Much of this infomercial consisted of the announcer beginning statements with “Tom Vu says…” interspersed with Tom revealing bits of his wisdom to the viewers. That “Tom Vu says” treatment almost made him out to be some sort of revered authority from ancient history. Or maybe it’s patterned after the famous “Confucius say” of fortune cookies:
Tom Vu says there are plenty of real estate bargains for you to make big money if you know how.
While most of this infomercial extolled Vu’s wealth and rise to success, he did provide a small glimpse of what his money-making system involved: the investor was to seek out and buy low-cost “distressed property”—foreclosures, bankruptcies, divorces, tax liens—and sell them at a profit. In other words, take full advantage of other people’s misfortune to build up your own net worth. How anyone was supposed to find all these “distressed properties” or buy them without money would supposedly be revealed at the free 90-minute seminar.
“Come to my seminar” was the constant refrain of this infomercial. And throughout the infomercial, Vu responded to the objections viewers might have for not attending this life-changing event. Did you have other plans already—such as going to work or maybe burying your mother? “Well, what is your priority, my friend? There is no plan better than a plan for our financial future. And this is a proven plan.” But do you still think you should be doing your job instead? “You should stop making someone else rich”—as if couch potatoes watching Tom Vu infomercials in the middle of the night are making anyone rich. To those who would discourage you from attending, Tom offered this fierce suggestion: “Take a look at them from head to toe. If they are nothing, stay away from them. You want to learn from success not failure.”
Few remember the testimonials on the Tom Vu infomercial; however, two of them are notable. While most people in infomercial testimonials try to be upbeat, one man with a Caribbean accent whose checks read “Deirdri Durity” tried more to threaten than to inspire the viewer. He snarled, “Think about that for a second: If you haven’t the guts to attend this free 90-minute seminar, how do you expect to make any money?” The viewer almost expects him to take off his belt and paddle your behind if you don’t get to Tom’s seminar.
Another testimonial, however, perfectly typified the target of this infomercial. From his chintzy home office, a stout, middle-aged, bald man, in a mustache, large glasses, and button-up blue shirt with an open collar, plunked down a stack of books and tapes and declared that these don’t work but Tom’s training will. This man incarnates the very archetype of the people who filled up all those hotel conference rooms in suburbs all across America to attend Tom Vu’s seminar, convinced that they too were bound to make it big in real estate.
It’s been nearly a decade since Tom Vu’s infomercial last aired; Vu ran into legal trouble and now, according to Dateline NBC, is retired and living in California. Yet Vu’s infomercial remains the best remembered and most laughed at—indeed, I rank it second only to the Crime in America infomercial as the most ridiculous ever broadcast. Surrounding himself with mansions, a yacht, pricey cars, and beautiful swimsuit models, mild-mannered Tom Vu persuaded thousands of men that a rich playboy’s lifestyle was in their grasp—and it would all start by showing up at his seminar.
Tom Vu and His Babes
This video clip shows a typical segment from the Tom Vu infomercial. Scenes of Tom lounging on his yacht with chicks in bikinis are intercut with stiff testimonials from his "graduates."
Tom Vu's "Three Little Words"
Here Tom Vu tells the story of how "three little words" inspired him to achieve his success. By the way, the words were "Don't Give Up"and that's really worth wasting all day long at a seminar to find out!
"You Deserve to Be Broke!"
Learn why Tom Vu's seminar is different from the other and why if you don't attend his free seminar, "You deserve to be broke!
"Tom Vu - The Man, The Life, The Mission"
Hear the announcer tell us of the greatness that is Tom Vu