'Girls' reinvigorates frequently-maligned ad format

Infomercials have gained a new level of respectability–thanks in part to a series of videos that star drunk college girls yanking off their tops and flashing the camera.

You heard right.

“Girls Gone Wild” has become one of the direct response world’s biggest success stories, having released 83 different titles and selling 4.5 million videos and DVDs last year alone.

Mantra Entertainment created “Girls Gone Wild” in 1998, but the franchise really hit the mainstream this year, as TV viewers were exposed to a ubiquitous stream of latenight 30-minute commercials hawking the videos.

Laugh if you want — after all, Mantra founder and now multimillionaire Joe Francis is laughing all the way across the tarmac to his two owned planes — but “Girls Gone Wild” has helped change the face of infomercials.

For starters, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill Ab Roller/Ron Popeil/veggie slicer-style ads. The “Girls Gone Wild” spots look more like E’s “Wild On” series or syndicated TV’s ubiquitous dating shows, with plenty of cleavage (money shots covered up, of course), pulsating dance music and a tramped-up, overly excited host.

According to the Electronic Retailing Assn., infomercials generated $14 billion via TV sales last year, and 300,000 infomercials air each month via broadcast and cable.

The majority of infomercials peddle fitness and beauty products — but some industry players believe the success of “Girls Gone Wild” may convince other sectors to give the genre a try.

“Infomercials are a great place to sell a video series…I’m surprised a lot of majors haven’t picked up on that,” says Tim O’Leary, whose Portland-based outfit Respond2 partnered with Carson Prods. to sell videos of “Tonight Show” clips via infomercial. “If I were HBO, I’d have an infomercial out there selling box sets of ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Sex and the City.’ “

“Girls Gone Wild” has already made the infomercial form acceptable for A-level celebs from the music world. Hip-hop king and “8 Mile” star Eminem, who stars in an upcoming “Girls Gone Wild” video, will soon be seen all over latenight TV hawking the series.

Eminem joins fellow hip-hop star Snoop Dogg, whose “Girls Gone Wild — Doggy Style” is already a bestseller.

“When you start seeing the kind of money an infomercial like that is putting out for a celebrity spokesperson, it adds credibility to the format,” says the Electronic Retailing Assn.’s Barbara Tulipane.

Although Nielsen doesn’t rank infomercials, Francis is willing to provide plenty of anecdotal evidence that the “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials are popular among the insomniac set.

“Late at night, when I’m flipping around, I always stop at the Spanish station because there are so many hot chicks on that station all the time,” says Francis, who prefers to call his spots “enter-mercials.”

“When you’re flipping around, you want to see hot chicks,” he says. “My original concept was I wanted to catch channel surfers. Every three or four seconds we feature a hot girl — and you’re going to stop.” Mantra says the infomercial only runs between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The company clocks most of its sales between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., when viewers are more likely to be watching alone and willing to pick up the phone and order the product.

Further giving the “Girls Gone Wild” franchise a mainstream push, MGM recently announced plans to develop a feature based on the concept.

And just last week, a U.S. District Court judge in Florida ruled that Mantra didn’t violate the rights of a woman who claimed the “Girls Gone Wild” series included a shot of her baring her breasts without her permission.The “Girls Gone Wild” infomercial currently runs on cable outlets such as E! Entertainment Television, Fox Sports Net, BET, Comedy Central, Tech TV and Style, as well as local broadcast stations around the country.

Jennifer Varallo, who places the infomercials for Mantra as its VP of media, says she avoids buying time on stations in Bible Belt country or cablers that don’t fit the demo, but that outlets initially against selling time to the boobfest have slowly changed their minds.

“With each day, there’s less fear of ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ ” she says. “We’re pretty much everywhere and people know us at this point, so stations are foolish to pass on the revenue.”

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