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Personal Essays

To Live and Love in Beautiful Alabama

Erik Estrada wants us to buy land, Ron Popeil wants us to shoot our salad. Promising a better life—free of ills financial and otherwise—when infomercials air on a Sunday morning, the effect can be downright spiritual.

Would you like to own your very own property in beautiful Alabama? That’s right, beautiful Alabama, with some of the best golf courses in all of Alabama.

As I sit on the couch on the wrong side of the sunrise, I think that just maybe I would. I nosh on nuts, freshen my vodka, and listen to Erik Estrada sell me on waterfront property in beautiful Alabama, and I seriously consider whether it might be worth it to buy an acre in beautiful Alabama. It’s dirt cheap, and maybe I could do some jet skiing. Then again, Erik reminds me, it’s an excellent investment property, so I wouldn’t actually have to live there, which is a comforting thought for a New Yorker. Still, I might want to consider habitation—after all, we’re talking about beautiful Alabama here. The cats sprawl companionably next to me on the couch, dreaming of a beautiful Alabama yard where they could torment mice and pee with privacy.

The next morning, pores oozing booze, my stomach quivering with unhappiness, I tell my husband that in the lightening violet of predawn, while he slept the easy sleep of the non-drunk, I really wanted to buy land in beautiful Alabama. I think I’m being funny. He rolls his eyes and walks out of the room on his toes, ostensibly because the floor is cold, but also, I suspect, to limit contact with the floor through which I am obviously plugged into a current of craziness.

He knows why. Putting aside Erik Estrada’s dubious charms, it’s the infomercial itself that has hooked me. Technically, the infomercial is a form of direct-response marketing that debuted back in 1984 when the FCC eased restrictions on the commercial content of the airwaves. Thus, we endlessly witnessed the Ginsu knife slice a soup can in half and then delicately, almost flensingly, sliver a tomato.

In 2005, infomercials were a $182 billion industry, according to the Electronic Retailers Association, a trade organization founded in 1991 as the National Infomercial Marketing Association. Last fall it honored the thigh-spirited Suzanne Somers with its Lifetime Achievement Award. A private company, the Nielsen-like Infomercial Monitoring Service, Inc., tracks an astonishing 25,000 hours of infomercials every month on 40 cable, satellite, and broadcast television channels. There are only 720 hours in the average month. At any moment, then, at least 35 infomercials are airing, each one inviting you to de-cat the couch, fit in your pants, flip real estate, and have it all because you deserve it. The mind reels, the eyes bleed.

But the infomercial is so much more than a marketing tool. It is the American dream itself. It distills the red-white-and-blue ideal to its relativistic essence—newer, better, faster, cheaper, easier—and hard-sells it with hallelujah. The infomercial is the very apogee of televangelism, its flocks more believing than Jimmy Swaggart’s, more tithing than Creflo Dollar’s.

The awesome miracles they testify to are ones that relieve the prosaic terrors of daily life—rent checks cleared, that thing on my neck gone, someone rising on shaky legs from a wheelchair. There are crude attempts to tap this religious fervor directly, of course. Take the man I call God Juicer (real name: Peter Popoff). He hawks what I call, quite logically, God Juice, which he claims is from a spring in Russia. How promising. When I think about hope, peace, and redemption, I always think of the home of Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, don’t you? This panacea comes packaged in a clear, retro-style chemist’s bottle with a bandeau-like label. To sell it, God Juicer first perches in an easy chair before a backdrop of bookshelves—he’s a learned man, you see—and extorts me to put my hand on the television, to feel the power coming through the screen, to touch the very pneuma of Jesus. He commands, “Get the Egypt out of you!”

He then brings relief directly to a hoi polloi assembled in a rented hall, horned in on all sides by folding chairs. These believers bring out a mean, uncharitable part of me. They are too loud, too shiny with sweat and need, too heavy and lumpy and badly dressed, with tear-squirting eyes and flailing limbs, with walkers and wheelchairs and bad hips and hope rendered crude and grasping by its very depth, like sacks of fruit whose bottoms have gone rotten. They are too poor, too bereft, too taxing to my compassion. I feel pity and scorn at the same time, a bundle of badness tied up with self-loathing. The awesome miracles they testify to are ones that relieve the prosaic terrors of daily life—rent checks cleared, that thing on my neck gone, every once in a while someone rising on shaky legs from a wheelchair.

“Praise Jesus!” they holler.

“You idiots!” I holler back.

And yet: Late at night, when the adrenaline of panic tha-thumps my heart, and I wish that I could reverse the effects of the alcohol, that maybe I could reverse the night entirely—I wish I had a belief in God Juice. Not the stuff itself, but faith in the very possibility of its existence.

Popoff can hawk his tap water to the most credulous among us, but I would guess that most find him too openly a shyster. Late at night, however, infomercials have forced me to look deep into my heart, and this is what I found: I am an idol-worshipping heathen. Behold the power of the Product! Hallelujah for the thing that will save me!

Never have I felt more patriotic and spiritual.

Yet, even if you don’t have a materialistic worldview, the infomercial nevertheless has something to sell: a fantastic alternate universe where all crises are fixable. For every infomercial is its own religious ceremony, and, every time, the Product provides. True believers, having experienced for themselves the glory of the Product, then testify to its transformative power. Vanessa Williams and P. Diddy speak of being saved from ick-filled acne pustules as if having escaped one of Yahweh’s murderous plagues. Balm with Proactiv, score tickets to the Promised Land. Ron Popeil leads his followers in ritual incantations—”Set it, and forget it!”—while gruesomely injecting slabs of raw meat with cloves of garlic. Hermetically sealed garbage cans, inaccessible to the profane, banish the rot of life to the place of wind and ghosts. The Power Washer cleans sink and soul with equal ease. And the Lee Majors-endorsed Natural Bionics elicits this sympathetic sentiment from one butch-cut user: “It doesn’t matter how old you are. When you hurt, you hurt.” Amen, brother.

 

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Among the current top-selling items at asseenontv.com are the Never Scrub, the Miracle Foam, and the Bit Shooter; the Ab Scissor and the 5X FingerVibe Massager; the Cloud Pillow, the Mattress Genie, and the Sudoku Master; the Spider-Man and You Music CD and the truly eww-y Grease Bullet. Please show me a more precise catalog of current American obsessions. Only one thing’s missing: guns.

It’s no surprise that infomercials seem to mostly air at two specific times: late at night, when any one of us may find ourselves confronting the cold, flat slab that is reality in the dark; and on Sunday morning, when the ads go head to head with sermons. Industry pros would say this is when broadcasters have empty airtime to sell, but I detect something deeper. You could start the last day of your weekend with an admonition from Him to obey His Word or never taste the manna that is eternity in His realm. Alternatively, you could order a firehouse-approved garden hose that will never, ever leak or your money back, guaranteed. What can you find the most immediate reward for your faith: heaven or the hose?

Yet, even if you don’t have a materialistic worldview, the infomercial nevertheless has something to sell: a fantastic alternate universe where all crises are fixable. The captive audience lives in a world free of pain, confusion, and loneliness; problems enter this reality only to be summarily dispatched like the last proud captive of a conquered people or a goat slaughtered for its prophetic entrails.

This universe is so preferable to mine, with its murder and TomKat and vast astronomical distances killing me with enormity. The infomercial universe is orderly, knowable, and contained, organized by a benevolent creator I can see and hear, who is eager to show me the path to serenity.

Late at night, when my stomach is sour and I freshen my vodka anyway, and I know that the next day will be hog-tied with dehydration and despair and I refill my vodka anyway, and even though later I’ll have to crawl into bed and stare at the shadows on my husband’s back until I’m calm enough to sleep and I knock back my vodka anyway, the infomercial offers a sweet vision of forgiveness. With a credit card and three easy payments, everyone can have another chance to get rid of the stains. Emerge from under all that excess weight. Buy, own, live, and love in beautiful Alabama.