The Television Midway

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****Sorry for the delay this morning; I put a little too much trust in technology and alas, it failed me. Or, I failed me – I’m not sure. A “Seinfeldian” scenario to be sure. NEWMAN!!! Enjoy…****

I’ve been ruminating on the topic of home shopping channels for longer than I care to admit. Their concept has always been a sort of odd one to grasp; maybe because I have, for most of my life, taken for granted that I’ve lived either in, or very close to a big city. Although with the advent of e-commerce, one can very quickly become reliant upon the ease with which you can order up practically anything with a credit card and a few clicks of a mouse. But, the cable shopping channels have always fascinated me; be it the questionable quality of some of the items they sell, and the annoyingly perky and caffeinated program hosts who will sell their grandmothers to the Huns in order to entice you to buy whatever they’re hawking. I’ve been told their overly-aggressive sales pitches are very similar to carnival barkers, but I’ve never actually witnessed true carnival barking.  I’ll take anyone’s word for how slimy and utterly lacking in credibility it is.

 I’ve been up and down my share of amusement park midways to know that however much money I could potentially spend playing Whack a Mole, or trying to bust the balloon on the clown’s head with a power washer, isn’t going to reward me with a prize worth anywhere near the cost of playing these games. I’ve also been to Dave and Buster’s on enough occasions to say with utter certainty that the possibility of accumulating enough tickets to walk out of the place carrying a Playstation or an iPod is an absolute impossibility. I’d rather buy $500 dollars worth of Power Ball lottery tickets than spend that much money drinking beer and playing Skee Ball. But, when it comes to watching shopping channel program hosts hawk high-end skin care, cosmetics and fragrances, I am totally captivated.

 It was in early 1996 when I discovered that home shopping channels sell more than collectible dolls and cheesy jewelry. I was trapped in my second-story apartment by a blizzard that dumped over two feet of snow on the area I was living in. My only entrance/exit was a sliding glass door leading to an exterior wooden staircase, and the snowdrift blocking the door was about five feet high. Thankfully, I had food, electricity, my cat and the television keeping me company. I stumbled upon Connie Stevens selling her Forever Spring line of skin care products on the Home Shopping Network. I didn’t buy anything, but I watched Connie and the carnival-barking show host in utter fascination. In addition to the myriad lotions and creams, they were waxing rhapsodic about one of those hand-held electrical current gizmos that claimed to “zap” your wrinkles. And it grew from there.

 I faithfully watched Connie several more times and progressed to Jennifer Flavin-Stallone and her Serious Skin Care line of products. This was before e-commerce existed, and after the onslaught of Saturday morning infomercials. A co-worker of mine would engage in hour-long lunch-time rants about how horrible Lori Davis haircare products were and what crap Victoria Jackson makeup was. She even fell for some line of skin care Cher was shilling. I can’t remember the name of it, but apparently, those items scored high on her craptacular scale as well. I would sit there chewing my food and thanking my lucky stars that I didn’t fall for any of that infomercial nonsense. I failed to mention that I had the phone and my credit card at the ready on a number occasions, but could never bring myself to dial the toll-free numbers.

 Today, it seems the beauty industry has happily crawled into bed with the two major American cable shopping channels, HSN and QVC. Both are available to approximately one hundred and fifty million homes in North America. In addition, they’ve set up shop in several European countries and Japan. They’ve come a long way from Hollywood D-list hawkers to some of the most coveted and prestigious brands in the industry. Turn on QVC on any given day and you might see makeup artists Bobbi Brown, Trish McEvoy, and most recently, Laura Mercier.  Also among their stable of brands is Philosophy, Smashbox, Bare Escentuals, Dr. Nicholas V. Perricone’s anti-aging skin care (represented by a woman whose slight, lilting Irish accent morphs into a full-on brogue as the prices of the products she demonstrates go up), as well as some well-known department store brands such as Prescriptives, Origins and Clinique. Some of their best-selling items include Yves Saint Laurent Touche Eclat concealer pens, Bare Minerals foundation, that $200.00 Clarisonic facial cleansing brush, and Smashbox eyeliner to name a few. If you’re looking for some oldie-but-goodie infomercial favorites, they also stock Proactiv Solution and Victoria Principal’s Principal Secret lines of skin care. But, despite the horrible economy, the focus is concentrated on the higher-priced niche brands like Perricone’s; one of his most popular items, a 2.5 ounce tube of his Neuropeptide Facial Cream sells for $240.00. As a QVC customer, it can be yours for four “Easy Payments” of $60.00, plus a $9.00 shipping charge, sales tax, and however much usurious interest you’ll get nailed with on your credit card over the course of the four months it will take you to pay it off. I’m not entirely certain, but I think I recently saw this item with a six installment “Easy Pay” of $40.00 per month. When all is said and done, I could instead procure a round-trip ticket to Dublin and have enough left over to score a few pints of Guinness along with a bottle or two of Jameson whisky.

 Another one of QVC’s persuasive selling tactics is to package certain popular skin care items in convenient economy sizes. Instead of a 2 ounce jar of moisturizer, they’ll try to sell you an 8 ounce jar. Need shower gel? How about a one liter bottle of it? Body cream or lotion? Will a one pound tub suffice? They have liter-sized bottles as well. A gallon jug of shampoo? Better watch those toes in the shower. To add even more insult to potential injury, they will offer jumbo sizes on what they call “Auto-Delivery”, in addition to “Easy Pay”. That way, a brand new trough of product will land on your doorstep before you’ve used up and paid off the previous one. Is it my imagination, or is this a metaphorical merry-go-round?

 One very recent maneuver that really gets my knickers in a bunch is “Exclusive To QVC”. That means they are the one and only purveyor of the product for “X” number of months or years, and it cannot be found anywhere else. I waited out the exclusivity of Smashbox’s Halo Hydrating Perfecting Powder until I was finally able to get it at Sephora, for about $20.00 less than QVC sold it for. QVC included a pricey brush which I did not want or need, not to mention their ridiculous shipping charges. I am currently waiting for the exclusivity to go away on a new Philosophy moisturizer. Even though QVC is currently selling it for about $10.00 less than what it will retail for, when you factor in shipping and sales tax, it ends up costing almost $15.00 more than what the retail price will be.

 HSN hasn’t quite reached the level of high-end beauty mania that QVC has, but they aren’t that far behind. About two years ago, they partnered up with Sephora, and started offering selected items from lines sold at Sephora stores and on their website. The shows are titled “Sephora Beauty” so you have to tune in to see what they are offering. Brands have included Clarins, Ole Henriksen skin care, Oscar Blandi hair care, Clean fragrances, Carol’s Daughter body products, FusionBeauty and Sephora’s eponymous brand. HSN has definitely acquired significantly more beauty product street cred, but they haven’t yet buried many of the old war horses the way QVC has. You can still catch Marilyn Miglin a few times a year selling Pheromone and her other fragrances, as well as Adrienne Arpel’s Signature Club A cosmetics and skin care. I especially love Arpel, who for what I believe is a licensing issue, uses only her first name during the presentations. Her “throwing on” of her Krylon color-wheel concealers onto the models’ faces borders on assault, while her own face barely moves because of all the work she’s had. And yes, I’ve also taken in a good bit of Joan Rivers on QVC, with her own line of skin care and makeup in addition to her fashion jewelry.

 What’s most fascinating to me is how fragrances are sold on the shopping channels. They do not offer a plethora of them, but watching these presentations often induces uncontrollable giggling that sometimes progresses to hearty belly laughing. As we all know, and the show hosts are mightily adept at reminding us, “Smell-o-Vision” has yet to be invented. And there are people out there who wonder how they’ve made it through life without mobile phones and PDAs. So, since you cannot actually smell the scent being sold, you have to endure endless anecdotal exhortations about how the scent will make you feel, and what impact it will have on others around you. My favorites on QVC are Tova Borgnine and Philosophy’s Cristina Carlino. Tova is particularly adroit at claiming her signature scent, Tova, and its flanker, Tova Nights are responsible for attracting legions of men, getting them to fall prostrate at your feet, and according to legend, aid in the conception of children. I’m not kidding. She does have some right to brag, however, since Tova Nights did win a FiFi Award in 1998.  Years ago, I knew an SA at the Barney’s on Long Island who wore Tova, and it smelled wonderful on her. Back then, Tova had a salon in Beverly Hills, in addition to peddling her wares on television. Recently, Borgnine closed up shop and licensed her products to QVC. Since that, there has been an online uproar about the quality of her Signature fragrance. According to the cries of foul play on QVC’s community message boards, the fragrance has been tinkered with and does not smell as it did before the QVC deal. Why do I not find this shocking? Tova Signature’s notes consist of bergamot, jasmine, lavender and sandalwood; and we all know what happens to fragrances that are tinkered with in order to cut costs. Of course, I have no proof of this, but I am enough of a cynical perfumista to not put it past the head honchos at QVC to want to save a buck or two.

 Cristina Carlino has a very different approach when she is pitching her Philosophy fragrances. Hers is a very utilitarian, no nonsense pitch that I somewhat admire. She’s not attempting to sell Harlequin romance novel scenarios, rather the idea that the fragrance you choose is a reflection of who you are. I agree with that bit of it, but when she veers off into one of her diatribes about how no one should smell like spices, pine or any notes that aren’t fresh and clean, she loses me, because the bottom line is she wants you to buy into the Philosophy concept, and wear her fragrances exclusively. I will disclaim this by saying that I am a fan of a lot of Philosophy products, and have purchased a few economy-sized jugs of shower gel and other items on QVC.com, and I do wear Amazing Grace and Pure Grace scents quite often.

 What bothers me about Philosophy’s relationship with QVC is that Carlino’s passion for what she does is undermined by all the carnival barking. Granted, she’s sold tons more product on QVC, instead of just letting it languish in department store cases and on the shelves of Sephora. She happens to be in all three. I remember reading in Allure a while back that she turned down an exclusivity deal with Barneys in favor of wider distribution. I’m all for success, but I can’t help but be put off by the underlying sliminess of the television shopping culture.

 Last year, I made the discovery of a very interesting thread on one of QVC.com’s message boards. One very brave soul posted about her compulsive shopping habit and how it ballooned into a full blown addiction. She was spending about a thousand dollars a month and had dozens of items on “Auto Delivery” and “Easy Pay”. Her house was filled with unopened QVC packages and she was quickly running out of space. Hundreds of posters added their comments, and a lot of them fessed up to their own compulsive shopping demons. It was fascinating, but in a very sad way. I had no idea this was so prevalent in society, and I developed my own compulsive habit of needing to read this thread every day for about three months. I’m no psychology expert, but it became very clear to me the negative impact television shopping channels can have on people, for a wide variety of reasons. When I went looking for the thread recently, it was gone from QVC’s online community. I was pretty surprised that they let it go on for as long as it did, because on some level, they must realize that compulsiveness does factor into their success in a big way. But, I’m sure the board mods didn’t want the inmates taking over the asylum, and they decided to nip it in the bud. Regardless, it did make for some interesting reading, as well as shine some light on what seems to be a well-kept dirty little secret in the industry.

On a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me note, I witnessed the showcasing of what has to be the most unlikely product any shopping channel would ever choose to sell. Last summer, while visiting the family above the 49th parallel, I was flipping around on the television one morning, and came across The Shopping Channel. I tuned in just in time for their “Showstopper” value of the day (HSN does a “Today’s Special”, and QVC, a “Today’s Special Value”). It was a colon cleansing kit enthusiastically being pitched by someone named Dr. Ho. One of Dr. Ho’s sales props was a clear cylinder filled with, umm… what results from doing a colon cleanse. Ironically, the Food Network was showing at the very same time, an installment of Paula Deen’s “Home Cooking” show, in which she was frying up hunks of cheesecake. I swear; you can’t make this stuff up.

Image: wired.com.

35 Comments

  1. I used to work with a guy who was an IT lead by day, and sold electronics on HSN by night. I didn’t know about it until someone made a joke about seeing him on there one night–he certainly didn’t tell anyone about it. I always wanted to ask him if he felt a little like he was wearing a scarlet letter by promoting televised shopping, but I didn’t want to be rude.

    Somewhere there’s a video that my fencing academy buddies were e-mailing around concerning replica weapons that were being sold on QVC. The promoter is banging a katana on a table, yammering away about workmanship, tensile strength, blah de blah, when the blade suddenly snaps. The broken tip flips backwards and wounds the promoter in the stomach; he screams and falls to the floor as the cameraman comes running in to help. I’ll confess, I cried with laughter, and nary a thought of opening my wallet crossed my mind.

    • My husband knew a guy who sold collectible coins on one of the channels, I can’t remember which. He, too was always on in the middle of the night.

      Fencing, huh? I was on the team at my high school and was going to make varsity until I pulled a muscle in my leg. I never went back to it. 🙁

    • HaHa! I have a friend who dated one of those QVC women, and she was one weird f***er. Make up applied with a shovel 24/7. I jes cain’t watch ’em — it huuuuurts me.

      • Yeah, those female hosts sure do pack on the makeup. I personally wouldn’t mind walking around with a flawless manicure all the time, though.

  2. Nava:

    I also enjoy your posts, and whether it’s a subject that I’m interested in or not, I find myself reading avidly. Thanks for sharing. You’re an excellent writer, and you’ve got great insight into our culture and psyche.

    Donna

  3. Shopping channels are disturbingly addictive though I’ve never bought from one. I’m always impressed by the spiel, even as I shudder at the inauthenticity.

    • I sometimes watch QVC UK online. How disturbing is that? 😀

  4. I confess to never once watching QVC or HSN for more than a brief moment. I simply find them….creepy. I can’t imagine being addicted to them. But, as someone who owns an uncountable number of fragrance bottles, decants, samples etc and spends a ridiculous amount of time reading blogs, boards, reviews etc, who I am to judge? Most people find my compulsion equally bizarre, I am sure! And wait, isn’t there a place on the Basenotes message board for those who believe that they have a fragrance addiction to post? Hmmm.

    • Personally, I have a rather serious lip balm addiction, but that’s a story for another post on another day. 🙂

      And, you are not bizarre. We have a lot in common.

  5. EWWW!!! OK, sorry I read that last paragraph!!! Ha ha. Seriously, that’s gross.

    To get back to the shopping networks – I solve it very easily. I delete the channels from the lineup, so when flipping through stations, it skips right over them.

    I do admit, though, that I have watched various skincare and makeup infomercials when they’ve shown up on local TV stations, usually on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. I even used Proactive for awhile when I was younger – but purchased through a website – never called an 800 number. I can see how it’s easy to get sucked in. I had no idea Bobbi Brown was on those shows. I love her and have been using her makeup for years. I also love Trish McEvoy. Bare Escentuals seems to be the biggest queen of infomercial makeup. Never got sucked into that one, though…

    • I thought that last paragraph was my gift to everyone for persevering through my lengthy and verbose meanderings. 😀

      From what I’ve read, a lot of people claim to put on the shopping channels as “background noise”. I suffer from somewhat regular insomnia, so I tend to watch them in the middle of the night if they’re showing makeup or skin care. I never tried to delete channels from the lineup, but I plan on investigating that function. Thanks!

  6. Frying up cheesecake? This is almost as shocking as the fresh sperm. As one New Yorker to another, I am horrified and I’ve seen everything. Or I thought I had.

    • If it were that idiot “Let’s Pretend We’re Cooking” woman, she probably smothered it in a jar of gravy. Bon appetit.

      • That one on the Food Channel? Watching her huuuurts me too. I find sitting next to your frontal lobe on the B train far less painful and twice as entertaining, even if it wasn’t all that fun for youse.

      • Are you talking about that blonde Semi-Homemade woman? The one with all the craft-store tablescapes? She irritates the hell out of me.

    • This New Yorker would take a hunk of deep-fried cheesecake over NYC street meat any day. All bets are off when it comes to pretzels.

  7. Although I don’t watch any shopping channels I actually confess to loving their forthrightness. The only thing different between the guy/gal barking on QVC and the guy/gal pushing (________) at Barneys is, at least on QVC et al, they are upfront about it.

    I find it all a bit creepy and as I get further along in my life I realize that I continually walk that very thin line between enjoyment and addiction in a lot of things, including shopping. I’m currently fighting an eyeliner addiction, which is just ridiculous. I’m relatively mature – anything other than blue/black/brown/dark green looks absurd on me so I don’t buy it. So…..how many of the above shades does an >-) need?

    The answer, according to my eyeliner drawer, is 27. Which is absurd. I totally jones for Internet ‘sales’, esp from companies I already do biz with. PLEASE do not be a ‘buy 3, get one + free’. Please. You will be in my cart and on your way to my house before you can blink!

    Nobody needs 7 dark brown eyeliners.

    xo>-)

    • Well as long as we’re confessing: who really needs 50 tubes of lip balm? 😀

    • Okay, I have to ask since I’m kind of in the market…. which do you prefer?? Also, I’m very fair and also a “woman of a certain age” – lol!

      • My all time favorite is Kiehls. I took Accutane for 6 months when I was 31, and I could not be without it. Now, it comes in a bunch of yummy flavors like pear, vanilla and coconut. If you want a stick, Nivea or Labello are the best in my opinion.

      • Are you asking about eyeliner? If so, I’m not your gal – I’m very dark olive (prob JLo color Oct-May, several shades darker May-Sept).

        However, visually I LOVE dark brown and dark mossy green eyeliner on blondes, esp honeyblondes. Dark blue looks fantabulous on pale brunettes and Asians (again my opinion) – and the kicker for this colorway is a dark, silvery-grey slate green.

        Black worked for me when I was under 40 – I find it really ages me now. I can’t go too light because it washes me out, which is why I stay in the dark browns/blues/greens/breens ( which is a brownish-green)

        xo>-)

        • Thanks Musette! I was asking about the eyeliner. Good advice.

          And Nava, thanks for your response as well. Always good to get beauty advice!

  8. I’ll confess that I do buy from QVC occasionally. In fact, the laptop computer I’m using to type this was a Today’s Special Value 🙂 My next door neighbor had a serious addiction to QVC, with a front hallway filled with unopened boxes. Her brother actually was asking me for advice one day on some way to help her.

    But you know, I think MUA is another haven for those with serious addictions to various vices, be it perfume, skin care, makeup or whatever. And then there’s the addiction to the act of swapping. Early in my swapping days, I might have had a small problem, but luckily it’s under control now.

    ….sigh…..addictions everywhere….

    • QVC does have its good points; I have purchased a good bit of Philosophy items from them, and some electronic devices: my Uniden cordless phones and a cross-cutting shredder are just a couple. There are some bona fide deals, but you have to beware of the pitfalls. Anything to excess is never good.

  9. Hey, Nava — I am amazed (embarrassed?) to admit I have never seen the Home Shopping Network or QVC. So now I feel like a total amateur.

    I have heard a lot of raves over the original Tova, though I’ve not smelled it. If they’ve re-released it and it’s changed I can picture the peasants with pitchforks (having been one meself.) On the whole, though, you haven’t made me sorry I’ve not been tuning in! 🙂

    • Nothing to be embarrassed about. If it wasn’t for that dang snowstorm, I don’t think I would have fallen down the rabbit hole. Going back to school didn’t help either. It was just what the doctor ordered when I needed to check my brain at the door and zone out for a bit.

      Tova Signature pre-QVC buyout was a beautiful scent. I swapped for some on MUA years ago, but it never worked for me. I used to get compliments when I wore it, but something about it didn’t sit well on me. The pitchfork wielding peasants created quite a stir about the reformulation, and I was so rooting for them. I think the b.s. reason they were given was “it was a bad batch” or something to that effect. Yeah, right…

  10. Am still a QVC and HSN virgin, so this was truly an interesting read for me. Had no idea Perricone, Bobbi Brown, Philosophy, etc. were on them now. LOL about the fried cheesecake and the colon cleanse. 🙂 Have you seen her fry up macaroni and cheese? And her Elvis faves show (does she have a secret side line in defibrilators?). Her cooking style is pretty much the polar opposite of mine, but I can’t help but being bizarrely fascinated by what she makes. Same sort of thing maybe as watching the shopping channels? Anyway, thanks for this post! 🙂

    • I’ve seen P.D.’s Elvis’ favorites show. Those fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches looked soooo good! I don’t make a habit of deep-frying a lot of food, but it sure is fun to watch. I’d watch Paula Deen fry up tennis shoes rather than contemplate a colon cleanse.

      The whole high-end beauty scene on QVC is somewhat bizarre. If the “V” is supposed to stand for “value”, a $240.00 tube of Perricone moisturizer should clean the house, make dinner and walk the dog in addition to what it claims it is supposed to do. I never thought the home shopping channel customer would ever be the target for a high-end line like his. Now, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if Creme de La Mer should show up one day. A 16 oz. economy size for 6 Easy Payments of $232.00. I can totally see it happening!

  11. Very interesting post, and I enjoy your insights, Nava. I live in an area that’s been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn; the unemployment rate in my small town is now almost 20%. So my husband and I have made some lifestyle changes in the past year, and cancelling our cable television subscription has been one of the best. I used to watch QVC on mute because I couldn’t stand the pitch, and especially the live phone calls *shudder*. One tiny host that hawks silver jewelry (something I really liked to look at) could make a sentence run on for so long that I’d think she couldn’t reel it back in. I was fascinated at how her eyes would bug out before she’d finally have to gasp for air.
    I thought I would really miss having cable, but I don’t. We opted for unlimited Netflix instead and now I’m addicted to movies. 🙂

    • Thanks, Rosarita. I hear you about those lifestyle changes. And Netflix is a really good deal now. If I wasn’t over a bundle barrel with the local cable company, I would give it up, too. But, then I would have to give up my phone and high-speed internet. I shake my head everytime I scroll through all 300+ channels and there’s nothing worth watching.

  12. Ah, Nava, you posted yet another great take on something near and dear to my heart. I am also one of those people who watch the shows but never call in. I have actually bought a few things from QVC (mostly makeup but also the Clarisonic) but only through their website. I really hate the way they charge you shipping on each individual item instead of having a sliding shipping cost based on the purchase total. I did notice that they had a free shipping on everything day recently, so I’m guessing the crappy economy is now affecting their sales enough to notice.

    I used to enjoy the Philosophy shows when they first started on QVC, but ever since QVC bought Philosophy outright, I’ve found Cristina (and her minions) to be just beyond annoying in their insistence that you must never smell like anything other than their cleancleancleanCLEAN(dammit!) fragrances. Feh on that.

    And thanks to our fabulous Fair Oaks mall store, I do actually own some pre-QVC Tova signature fragrance. On me, it’s a kissing cousin of D&G Sicily, which means I will be wearing it a lot more as the weather heats up. But I will never spritz it all around my head like it’s hairspray the way she does on the show. Oy.

    • OMG, M! QVC owns Philosophy, too? I heard they were bought up by another entity, but I didn’t realize it was the Q who swallowed them up. I hope they don’t do to them what they did to Tova. That would break my heart.

      Double feh on Cristina and her minions for all that cleancleanclean jabber. I can’t stand it either. Sometimes, I wear nothing but Pure Grace in the summertime, and I hate that mantra for reverberating in my head.

      I definitely have to go check out that perfumery in Fair Oaks. I spent 2-1/2 hours schvitzing in the the DMV the other day, and after I was presented with my new driver’s license (my head looks like a damn bowling ball in the picture), I just had to get out of there.

  13. For what it’s worth, Adrien Arpel’s skin care and makeup are good. I’ll still buy some of her makeup but Olay, Nivea and L’Oreal are making such good skin products these day that I no longer buy Adrien’s line.
    It just takes a trip to CVS or Walgreen to get some really fine products like Olay’s Regenerist Line.

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