Funny Business with Jane Wells

Suzanne Somers wins honors for 'ThighMaster' work

Back in 1977, Suzanne Somers was one of the most famous women in Hollywood. The then-31-year-old, sexy star of "Three's Company" played Chrissy Snow, a ditzy blonde. Somers, however, was not ditzy. Even back then, she was thinking like an entrepreneur.

"The character Chrissy was so huge," she said. "I went to the producers, and I said, 'You know, this character is so flamboyant ... we should merchandise her. We should sell Chrissy hot pants and T-shirts and snap-on ponytails."

Suzanne Somers, informercial queen
Suzanne Somers, informercial queen

She even suggested they create a movie franchise around the character (she did not own the rights to Chrissy herself). "I kept going to them, and they would get mad at me and say, 'This is not a business, this is a show.' And I would think, 'Mmmm, not really. It's called show business,'" she said.

These days studios are constantly looking for new revenue streams for their "content," but Somers was ahead of her time. She also broke ground demanding to be paid salaries similar to those of male TV sitcom stars, which led to an acrimonious firing by ABC.

Best thing that ever could have happened to her.

After leaving network television, Somers worked in Las Vegas for a while. It was a grueling schedule. So she and her husband, Alan Hamel, decided to start branding products she could sell and create passive income.

In 1990, they began selling the "ThighMaster," and the rest is infomercial history. Somers' empire of books and products aimed at helping women has made her far more successful than if she'd stayed in acting. "At one time we were manufacturing over a thousand products," Somers said, adding that she stopped counting how many ThighMasters sold "after 10 million."

Last week in San Diego, Somers was inducted into the Direct Response Hall of Fame. "Direct response" is another name for an infomercial, which, technically, is a program that explains and demonstrates what a product does and then requires a direct response from you, the consumer—either call or go online and make your purchase.

However, 30 years after the Federal Communications Commission relaxed rules allowing infomercials of 30 minutes or longer to air on television, the industry is changing. "It's definitely more challenging," said Tim Hawthorne of Hawthorne Direct, an infomercial advertising agency. Hawthorne, too, was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

'I sell to my age group'

Suzanne Somers pictured in Thighmaster webpage
Source: Thighmaster

Hawthorne said that back in the '80s, the industry would measure an infomercial's success by noting how many sales were generated immediately after an ad aired. It's hard to measure that now with so much retail business on the Web, and with a new generation of consumers who are less likely to watch a 30-minute program on TV ... or anywhere.

"Linear television is getting fewer and fewer eyeballs. Interactive television, or video, on the Internet is getting more," he said. "That makes it more difficult for us to actually get that immediate response, but we can still drive retail."

Somers acknowledged that young consumers need to be marketed to differently. However, "I sell to my age group, that's what I know."

Her secret to successful selling?

"Always tell the truth," she replied. "The public is smart, and they can smell BS."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells.