We’ve all been there: It’s 3 a.m. After hours of tossing, turning, and bad television watching, sleep deprivation and consumer curiosity get the best of you. By the third time that WaxVac commercial airs, you realize that the pitchmen are right—Q-tips are a danger to your eardrums! So you dial the toll-free number, rattle off your AmEx digits, and play a key role in what has become a $150 billion industry: infomercials.
From acne medicine to hideously oversized blankets with sleeves, these are 10 of the best-selling infomercial products of all time.
Annual revenue: $1 billion
When it comes to its actual commercials, the Proactiv acne system has come a long way since its earliest days back in 1995, when the product’s main spokespeople were its creators, Dr. Kathy Fields and Dr. Katie Rodan, and Judith Light (a.k.a. Angela from Who’s The Boss?). Today, the zit cream company’s estimated $1 billion annual earnings afford them the benefit of real celebrity endorsers. Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, P. Diddy, Justin Beiber, and Katy Perry are just some of the boldfaced names who have earned $2 to $3 million per commercial spot, and helped the company compete—on a financial level—with such mass market manufacturers as Estée Lauder and Johnson & Johnson.
Annual revenue: $400 million
Standup comedian-turned-personal trainer Tony Horton is laughing his frighteningly toned 54-year-old body all the way to the bank. Since 2005, the seemingly ageless creator of the hardcore P90X workout DVDs has been reshaping bodies—and the infomercial industry—one confused muscle at a time. And he’s got plenty of powerful converts in his corner, from professional athletes (NFL quarterback Kurt Warner) to would-be vice presidents (Romney running mate Paul Ryan). Now Horton’s got a highly profitable business that has generated some interesting (albeit less-advertised) offshoots, such as the Christian-themed Body Gospel, Tony & The Folks for senior bodybuilders, and Tony & The Kids for pint-sized musclemen.
3. Total Gym
Total sales: $1 billion
Chuck Norris’ biggest movie, 1984’s Missing in Action, earned less than $23 million at the box office. Maybe the film’s producers should have paired the martial artist with former supermodel Christie Brinkley. The unlikely duo’s promotion of the Total Gym exercise system has led to more than $1 billion in sales.
Annual revenue: $202 million
Truth be told, two-time World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman had nothing to do with the conception or design of his world-famous grill. But selling his name to this lean, mean, fat-reducing machine earned him $137.5 million in 1999—which is just a fraction of the company’s net worth. Since its debut in 1994, more than 100 million units in varying sizes have been moved.
Annual revenue: $193.9 million
Though it has gotten a lot of competition from more compact and less costly fitness-in-a-box programs like P90X, Bowflex—the all-in-one gym system first introduced in 1986—is still very much in business. More than 2.5 million six-pack-wanting households have cleared some space for the machine; in fact, the $193.9 million the company earned in 2012 was a 7.5 percent improvement over the previous year.
Total sales: $1.2 billion
Set it, forget it and watch the money roll in. This small rotisserie oven has been the gravy on veteran inventor/pitchman Ron Popeil’s career, with more than 2.5 million units sold.
7. Ped Egg
Total sales: approximately $450 million
The up-close demonstration of a Ped Egg in action—scrubbing away dead skin and calluses—is fairly stomach-turning. But more than 40 million people signed up to try the real thing at home, making this well-priced product (just $10 apiece) one of the industry’s most surprising best-sellers.
Total sales: approximately $400 million
Snuggie did not invent the blanket with sleeves (that honor goes to the Slanket folks), but they did popularize the item with a series of widely seen and totally laughable commercials that insisted the behemoth blanket was the product viewers had always wanted. They must have done something right, because more than 20 million Snuggies have been cuddled up with to date. Of course, it helps that the product is big with groups; bar crawls and sporting events are just a few of the Snuggie-required group activities that have helped push those numbers up. In April 2010, Los Angeles Angels fans set a Guinness World Record when more than 43,000 spectators showed up to watch the game in their Snuggies.
Total sales: approximately $200 million
When it comes to infomercial pitchmen, the rule seems to be the louder and more obnoxious the better (see Billy “OxiClean” Mays or Vince “ShamWow!” Shlomi for further examples), which made Richard Simmons a perfect fit for the industry. In the 1980s, he sashayed his teeny-weeny striped shorts into more than 20 million living rooms around the world and helped viewers aerobicize their way to a healthier life, simply by Sweatin’ to the Oldies.
Total sales: $100 million
Like something out of a Three’s Company plot line (minus some misunderstanding of a sexual nature), Suzanne Somers became the most unlikely of brilliant business minds when she shared the secret to a great pair of legs: this butterfly-shaped exercise device, which promised swoon-worthy results for your thighs, hips, upper arms, breast and chest areas. More than 10 million takers came calling.