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10 Best-Selling Infomercial Products

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Facebook.com/Snuggie

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. 

1. Proactiv

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.

2. P90X

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.

4. George Foreman Grill

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.

5. Bowflex

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.

6. Showtime Rotisserie

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. 

8. Snuggie

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. 

9. Sweatin’ to the Oldies

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.

10. ThighMaster

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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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