It’s the first time in an aspiring writer’s life that he’s been offered a paid writing job. My opportunity arose during a chance encounter with the infomercial editor of a community newspaper chain, who, in the interest of sparing them and me embarrassment, did not will not be named.
It was early 2007, and I was attending a reading by a local Christian author at a mega-church in Tualatin, OR, a suburban town outside of Portland. After the interview, during some announcements, a woman stood up to mention that her media company was looking for writers to write infomercials for the channel. I introduced myself and emailed, after which she gave me the details. Members of the infomercial team met with business owners whose businesses advertised in newspapers. After a brief interview, authors would submit a 250-300 word infomercial that would appear in a weekly color print edition insert. The rate was $85 per assignment.
Why not? I thought. Three or four of those coins a month would pay for my flip phone, cable, and internet. How hard could that be? Not very, it turned out. I met a few business owners and submitted my work. After a handful was published, I asked the editor how I was doing.
“Actually, you’re trying too hard,” she said. “We’re looking for simple, easy-to-understand copy here.” I quickly learned that the maxim of aiming for a second level of reading comprehension when writing for the general public applied. Nevertheless, I have not been deferred from my intention to create respectable literary snapshots of my subjects.
I was surprised to learn that many business people have trouble composing grammatically correct sentences. Successful entrepreneurs and managers used ‘there’ when they meant ‘their’ or ‘you are’ when they meant ‘your’. Example sentence sent by e-mail: “They come at ten o’clock to take pictures, can’t wait to read your article.” I began to understand why these people weren’t writing their own blurbs.
That the client always read and approve my work before publication was part of the process. No advertorial has produced the color insert without first being greenlit in its entirety by the client or its representative. Although I was given free rein to write as I pleased, two common themes recurred in terms of what the subjects wanted to highlight in their stories: (a) something about the commitment of company or company towards community involvement (such as sponsoring a youth baseball team), and (b) something about the company’s commitment to “integrity”. Whether it was a high finance advisor or the owner of a Porta-Potty delivery and maintenance business, the mention of community involvement and integrity was key..
I adapted and fell into a rhythm, visiting framing stores, boutiques, health and fitness retailers, replacement window installers. Usually in a back office, I’d ask four to five questions, type the answers on my iPad, then thank the owners and write the infomercial in my head on the drive home. Restaurants were good because you always had a free meal.
Things didn’t always go well. Assigned to the drafting of a local wood supplier, I arrived to find that I would not be meeting a sole proprietor or representative, but the entire management team. They planted me at the end of a long boardroom table and turned the tables, peppering me with questions. It was a jolt. Before putting their company’s multi-million dollar reputation in my hands, they wanted to make sure I was up to the task. I met a nice couple who ran a home-based travel agency. Everything was fine until I drove off and realized my car wouldn’t start. Wanting to relieve them of why I was still parked in front of the house, I knocked on their door again to inform them that I was awaiting roadside assistance. They asked me if I wanted to wait inside; I politely declined.
The worst came when the business owners wanted to write the infomercial themselves. When a home improvement contractor completely rewrote my article — larding my prose with community involvement and integrity — I asked the editor if he should go without a byline. It didn’t work that way. A mission is a mission. You couldn’t ask construction contractors to write their own ad copy.
The culmination of my time as an infomercial writer came with “A Very Good Ham”, a commemorative feature film about the 50e anniversary of the Honey-Baked Ham Company. I visited Oregon’s flagship site in Beaverton, met with a regional manager, sampled a plate of ham, and came up with a title that survived the editorial ax, an obvious play on the title of Frank Sinatra’s hit.
Soon I was offered more challenging writing opportunities. But I learned from infomercials. About deadlines, writing for the reader, and proper reporting behavior.
—Mark Ellis is the author of A death on the horizona novel of political upheaval and cultural intrigue.