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'As seen on TV' exercise gadgets thrive despite being often discredited

A stool with winglike handles. A lounge chair with a metal footrest. A small chair with hook-shaped handlebars.

Shopper Venicia Shoniregun ran her hand indecisively over the large boxes containing the Red Exerciser, the Ab Lounge and the AB-DOer Extreme. Standing in the fitness section of a Target store in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., Shoniregun couldn’t choose between the products, which she had seen on TV infomercials. She read some of the words on each box. “Reduces the entire waistline without crunches or sit ups . . . Just three exercises . . . Amazing results . . .”

In an attempt to trim her waistline after pregnancy, she had already tried another device on the shelf, the one that looks like a small cage. It hurt her neck, Shoniregun said.

More than a century after home exercise machines first appeared and two decades after infomercials helped exercise gadgets attract a large number of willing buyers, "as seen on TV" exercise machines still have strong sales, surviving scrutiny from watchdog groups and a more challenging media environment. Customers like Shoniregun keep the machine makers in business.

A student nurse and mother of two boys, 9 and 2, she has little time for exercise routines. “I do enough running up and down all day,” she said. “All I really need to do is work on my stomach.”

Home exercise machines emerged in the middle of the 19th century, said Ellen Roney Hughes, a cultural historian. In the early 1900s their popularity took off, as did the number of different types of machines. The intense competition led some companies to maker outlandish claims for their contraptions. One of the stranger ones was a vibrating belt that was stretched between a machine and a part of the user’s body and was supposed to shake off weight.

“They worked through popular culture,” Roney Hughes said. “There were songs about them. They were the magazine equivalent of infomercials, where a celebrity would say, ‘I look like this because I used this.’ ”

The birth of the infomercial in the mid-1980s brought an explosion in the number of these gadgets, which could now be marketed quite cheaply to a large audience. The entertainment value of the extended commercials caused them to be watched and talked about like TV shows. But the crowded market also paved the way for even more outrageous claims, as manufacturers tried to set their products apart from the competition.

But these days, for a number of reasons, it’s not as easy for a fly-by-night machine manufacturer to dupe consumers. Since the late 1990s the Federal Trade Commission has intensified efforts to stop false claims. In 1999 the commission cited Fitness Quest Inc., the company that produces the Ab Lounge, for making “unsubstantiated claims” about five of its infomercial-promoted gadgets.

Ads for three of them, the Airofit, the SkyTrek and the Gazelle Glide, claimed the machines burned 1,000 calories an hour. As part of a settlement, Fitness Quest pledged to no longer make claims without presenting scientific evidence.

The commission launched Project ABsurd in 2002, targeting three ab devices, the Ab Tronic, AB Energizer and Fast Abs. These electronic muscle stimulation belts were advertised as giving “washboard abs” without exercise. That case was also settled.

Customer review sections of Internet retail sites and online sites like infomercialscams.com mean complaints about products can reach more people faster. In addition, the self-regulating Electronic Retailing Association was launched in 1997.

Putting further pressure on manufacturers is the nature of television today. The greater number of viewer options created by cable and satellite television has meant audiences have become more fragmented. Cable and satellite advertising has also become more expensive.

“It’s much harder to make a success today on TV than it used to be,” said author and infomercial expert Stephen Dworman. “Basically you’re paying more money for the media time, but you’re reaching far fewer viewers.”

As a result, the machines that satisfy customers are the ones more likely to survive. The Total Gym, a multiworkout bench endorsed by action movie star Chuck Norris and former model Christie Brinkley, is one of the infomercial industry’s great success stories for a simple reason. “It really is a good machine,” Dworman said.

This doesn’t mean infomercials have become bastions of truth. Fitness experts blame them for perpetuating the myth of spot reduction--toning a part of the body by working out that area alone--and for encouraging consumers to dole out money for complicated gizmos when diligent application of simple exercises would get the same result.

“They tend to promise people the impossible,” said Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, “and people, because they’re looking for that quick, effortless fix, will fall prey to some of the faulty advertising out there.”

Meanwhile, manufacturers are making use of the Internet and various video formats to let people know about their products.

“It’s going to be a constantly evolving realm,” said Karla Crawford Kerr, senior account executive with Hawthorne Direct, a direct response media company that has worked with Fitness Quest and other exercise equipment manufacturers. “We’re really excited about it.”

E-mail: epa2106@columbia.edu