*I’m fascinated by Sensa. It’s a weight loss product you sprinkle onto your meal just as you would, say, salt.  According to its ad, at some point while eating, you lose your appetite. You stop eating as much, and ultimately, over a period of weeks, you lose weight.  It’s a fascinating claim, but while most people ask if it works, I simply wonder what the stuff  tastes like.  

If you’re not familiar with Sensa, it’s because you don’t watch infomercials.  When they come on, you probably change the channel.  Me,  I might turn up the sound and settle in.  Call me weird. I watch  infomercials.

Not all the time.  But more often than I’d like to admit,  I’ve watched  them all the way through. I  stay tuned to see just how far an infomercial will go with its  incredible  assertions–like the “space age” craftsmanship of  the contraption a spokesperson swears will end backaches;  a  skin care system guaranteed to do away with crow’s feet; an education program that says it can teach a developing  fetus to read.   I’m kidding with the last one,  but those are mighty young kids reading in those infomercials.  Some aren’t even walking yet.   

But wait! There’s more! I’m captivated by the wooden testimony of  off-brand experts in white lab coats. I shake my head at  mock newspaper and magazine headlines dramatically exploding toward the screen  so fast that you can’t read them, about a chintzy product  supposedly “taking Europe by storm.” The cheap studio sets (and the expensive productions as well), the low budget wardrobes, the corny, over-the-top responses of “talk show” audience extras–it’s all like a bad circus act that I refuse to look away from.

So why do I watch? For the insomniac without cable,  at three AM it’s either infomercials or reruns of “Outer Limits” and “Sea Hunt.”

But mostly, the infomercials are  something for my brain to NOT to do. Something to “watch” without having to pay attention.  Kind of  like being comforted by the sound of TV while you’re in another room. The infomercial, though, is white noise,  21st  century style:  I’m sitting right there in front of the TV;  it’s my mind that is someplace else.  In the wee hours of the morning,  “Before and after” weight loss pictures become the equivalent of counting sheep.

It was the seductive  Anushka who got me into this.  Remember her? A middle-aged woman with an Eastern Bloc accent, Anushka was the “beauty care specialist” featured in the ’80s infomercial, “Cellulite Free:  Straight Talk with Erin Gray.” In the thirty minute spot, Anushka  insisted the use of her creams and potions would reduce or eliminate cellulite on a woman’s hips and thighs.     

Of course,  in making such bold proclamations, you have to show some hips and  thighs.  I was happy to lie in bed  and consider all of Anushka’s  TV assertions, even at two AM–especially at two AM–as long as there were healthy, supple images for me to judge.  I wasn’t alone in my shameless lusting of  Anushka’s “results” models.  You guys know who you are.  

Alas, one night Anushka was just gone from the airwaves.  The Federal Trade Commission  charged  ol’ girl  with making “false and unsubstantiated product claims.”  That wasn’t a bulletin.  I never trusted Anushka.  Too much mascara.  

But then,  I  don’t  trust anything  I see in most  infomercials, which often feel to me like a surreal  carnival Fun House  from a “Twilight Zone” episode.  It’s always the same–in just a few minutes curiosity becomes bewilderment and then finally, here comes a trick.  But I keep going back.   

It’s the sex that gets our attention. good-looking muscular guys  working out in spandex,  and  fit, taut women bending over as they illustrate just how easy it is to store under the bed a piece of exercise equipment.  Inventors of some of the most arcane scams are interviewed by inquisitive, busty sex bombs.

Soon, infomercials won’t bother to try and legitimize the skin.  Ads hawking women’s hair products and home alarm systems  will be hosted by young, shirtless hair dressers and law enforcement types,  respectively,  both of whom will look as if they just walked  off a Bowflex home gym set. Bikini-clad women will  periodically stroll through infomercials for commemorative coins and lawn mowers,  unacknowledged and for no reason at all.

Still,  spookily,  an infomercial can occasionally find a way to truly entertain. “You know what I like, Stevie?” my sister recently asked me out of the blue. “I like the shows with the music.”  

She was referring to the Time/Life infomercials selling R&B compilations.  The music, the TV clips of various old school artists–“that stuff brings back so many memories,” she said wistfully.  A “show,” she called it. I’m sure it never occurred to sis to pick up the phone and buy the music.   I’ve never bought anything off a TV ad, either. No matter. Without our contributions, the infomercial industry is said to earn a billion in revenue annually.  

Amuse, annoy, titillate–infomercials can do all those things.  But inspire?  That’s  what ads for two home exercise systems–P90X and Insanity–did for me. Both offer merciless, hard-core DVD programs that can get  anyone cut and ripped in a matter of weeks.  If the stark before and after video of   regular people who have whipped their bodies into the best shape of their lives doesn’t get to you, their emotional, heartfelt testimony will.

Early one morning I happened to catch both  P90X and Insanity infomercials back to back, on two different channels.  I was on fire. Both exercise systems are about more than just working out.  They’re about taking charge, about making a life-altering change.  Those infomercials made me want to leap out of bed stretch, then hit the floor and valiantly execute push ups and sit ups within an inch of my new, empowered life.  

And I actually would have done all that,  but after the last infomercial  was over,  I rolled over and went back to sleep.   

Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years.  Respond to him via [email protected]