He may not be Ron Popiel, made famous — or infamous — by hawking the Pocket Fisherman, spray-on hair and food dehydrators, but Hal Wing wants more people to know him as "the ladder man."

Wing, owner of Wing Enterprises, has been taking to the airwaves via infomercial to let people know more about his Springville company's Little Giant Ladder Systems. And while he won't go into detail about how much business the infomercial has brought in, he makes it clear that it's, well, climbing fast.

The evidence? The company had about 127 employees before running the infomercial in only a few markets. Last week Wing said his company had more than doubled that amount, hiring 200 people in a four-week period.

"We've had a fair share of new hires from it," Wing said. "We would be hiring anyway, but not at this scale. I can't tell you exactly what it's done (for business), but it's caught us almost flatfooted. We've been scrambling to keep up with demand."

It's a high-risk, high-reward approach, but other Utah companies have used or are turning to the infomercial, the combination of "information" and "commercial," as a way to make some bucks.

Provo-based Whole Living Inc., for one, said in February it would produce and air an infomercial in the top 30 U.S. metro markets and in Australia, Canada and New Zealand to show consumers its "Food First" products.

Utah also has companies involved in infomercial consulting and production, and Cincinnati-based Convergys Corp.'s Utah facilities handle tons of calls to 800 numbers tagged onto the half-hour programs. Stilson and Stilson, of Draper, has launched many infomercials, including those for HealthRider, Bowflex, NatureSleep bedding, Ab-Doer, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pilates Performer, Ab Trainer, Nordic Track and the ProWedge Angel golf aid.

But bleary-eyed viewers — up late at night or taking a TV break from a weekend afternoon siesta — have apparently responded to seeing Wing's ladders. The Little Giant line of extendable ladders has cut through the television forest of weight-loss regimens, reclining beds, "hits from the '70s" CD collections, grease-draining grills, ab-builders, memory enhancers, juice machines and exercise devices.

"We just wanted to let people know, even if we didn't make a cent, that we make the best ladder in the industry, and it's made in America and it's everything we say it is," Wing said.

"That's all we were shooting for. Was it a financial investment? Yep. But any advertising you do, you sit down and weigh the cost. I guess had I known that 99 out of a 100 tank, my feet may have been a little colder than they were.

"As a businessman, I'm not afraid to take a chance, but before I go off the high dive, I really truly want to know if there's water in the pool and like to know how deep it is and, believe it or not, I like to know what the temperature is. I probably wouldn't have taken as much of a leap of faith if anyone had told me up front that 99 out of 100 don't make it."

So why is it working for Wing? Molly Alton knows, even if she's not referring directly to the ladder company.

"A product needs to be very demonstrable and almost 'wow' the audience," said Alton, director of communications for the Electronic Retailing Association, a trade group representing producers of direct-to-consumer content delivered on television, radio, Internet and wireless media.

"Time and time and time again, what we find is not just having a perfect product but having it perfect for the TV medium. It can be difficult to determine that from the onset, but certain products do very well."

Wing believes that's why the results for his infomercial have yielded results quicker than a ThighMaster.

"People don't understand the product when you say it's an articulated ladder product — not until they see what it can do," he said.

"You can't advertise a product as demonstrable as ours in a magazine, a newspaper or even a brochure like you can in something living, breathing, moving. There is synergism and flow to that infomercial."

That was borne out, he said, by focus groups previewing the half-hour ad. Armed with channel-changers and encouraged to switch away when they tired of the Little Giant program, "we only had one guy push the button, after 12 minutes," Wing said. "He said he already owned a Little Giant."

Wing said he balked at the infomercial idea a few years ago but recently decided to give it a try. "It's nothing more than a trade show, just on a larger scale," he said.

Some folks questioned his sanity for opting for an infomercial to market a 30-year-old product. "When it was brought up at a board meeting, I tell you what, whistles and bells went off in my head and I'm glad they did," Wing said. "I had people who were naysayers, but I believed in my products enough to say, 'OK, guys, it's my money. I'll risk it.' "

One reason for the risk is that as its patents expire, Little Giant is facing competition from knock-offs. Wing didn't want Little Giant lost in the ladder crowd.

"I thought, we've been around 30 years, so we'll make sure people understand that Little Giant is the touchstone, the one everybody else is measured against. I thought, I don't care if I don't make a dime on this, I just want to get our branding out there. And it's surpassed my highest expectations."

The infomercial has aired since Jan. 24 in a few test markets. Wing knew or has learned since then that infomercial audiences are suspicious about products — that's why the failure rate is so high — and that even if the infomercial works, it may not lead to direct sales through the toll-free phone number.

"Even if you have a great product that comes over well, seven of 10 people that see it and decide to buy it won't buy it off the infomercial. Seventy percent want to see it, touch it or get information off a Web site and look at it a little further. I'm one of those types of people," Wing said.

That need for further investigation led to the company's Web site traffic jumping from "a couple of hundred a month to well over a million" during the end of February, he said.

"If people see something they think will enhance their lifestyle, I encourage people to check out the company first. A lot of infomercials are for things like trying to cover up the bald spot with spray paint. Give me a break. But people unfortunately are going to spend their money for it. I welcome them to check my company out all day long."

If it continues to generate interest, the company may expand the ad's airings or move to a two- or one-minute ad. But Wing said he realizes that infomercial investments require close monitoring to determine if the show needs to be freshened.

Despite the success so far, he's still wary of the infomercial-success odds and

may not tempt them further.

"We're not a single-product company, but when I see figures about how few succeed, even though I've got this fantastic product, I'm not even sure I'm going to do an infomercial on my own second-best product," he said.

Potential pitfalls and all, many other products are finding their way onto the air. The 20-year-old infomercial industry — born in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan signed the Cable Communications Policy Act, which deregulated television — is part of what's known as the direct-response television industry. Including infomercials aired nationwide, DRTV grosses more than $106 billion annually, and that figure is expected to rise, according to the Electronic Retailing Association.

Alton noted that viewership of infomercials got a boost after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because people were glued to TVs for news but also clicking through other channels. Research has indicated that one of the strongest infomercial viewing groups is people ages 25 to 34 — a prime demographic. And growth in acceptance of Web commerce has helped infomercials, as people go there for more information and to make a purchase, she said.

Infomercial buyers also have fallen in love with how quickly they can see the results of their campaign. "In other media, sometimes you go weeks or years without knowing the response," Alton said. "Here, you often can know within the first week, and then you can tweak it. Sometimes even a minimal change can change the profitability of that campaign."

Advances in technology and creativity might eventually lead to "clicking onto a sitcom you're watching and being able to buy the sweater your favorite character is wearing and having it shipped to your house," Alton said. "That's very possible."

In the meantime, Wing, featured in his own company's infomercials, may some day have his "ladder man" persona as well known as Tony Robbins, (Body by) Jake or Carleton Sheets.

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"I did not want to be in that infomercial," Wing said, listing a bunch of reasons why he's "not very photogenic."

"But I have a passion for the product because I believe in it, and that's the one thing we tried to bring to the audience."


E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com