Friday, October 30, 2009

90s Fitness: Exercise Fads and Ridiculous Infomercials

Riding the crest of 80s aerobic fitness trends, many entrepreneurial-minded exercise gurus took to the airwaves with the goal of convincing us to buy their complicated contraptions. Through the use of TV ads, particularly informercials, these buff business-minded bodybuilders managed to persuade us into believing that we could not live without these exercise appliances. Watching the near-immediate transformations of the testimonial hawkers on our screens, our resistance weakened and we felt increasingly compelled to rush to the nearest phone with the toll-free number and a valid credit card. In short, we were all looking for a quick fix and television ads had a unique way of making the process of getting fit seem simple and instantaneous.

Of course, getting fit is not simple or instantaneous, but we didn't know that yet. Watching these skilled salespeople describe the results possible with their product made us believe that this was indeed the fitness panacea we had been looking for. It rarely occurred to any of us that we might actually have to use the item in question. Based on the infomercials, it seemed enough to simply shell out the bills for it. It was almost as if we believed our act of exercise goodwill would immediately transform us from crumb-laden couch potatoes into tan, oiled, muscular wonders. That is to say, we were completely deluded.

So many of us fell under the spell of the fitness trends, it's no wonder many of these products made their endorsers a nice chunk of cash. Everyone's looking for that magic bullet (no infomercial pun intended*) to transform us from flab to fab, and somehow watching these 30 minute ads at 2 in the morning made these machines and videos seem like the wisest solution. As many of us were wee children during the rise and fall of these trends, we had the unique perspective of watching the infomercials, coveting the products, and having no means whatsoever to obtain them.

I don't know about you, but when I got a television in my own room it certainly didn't have cable on it. There are only so many programming options late at night, and most of them involve show-length commercials brimming with overzealous enthusiasm. Even as a kid, I was blown away by the seemingly incredible results these programs offered. If I had been 18 or older to order, I certainly would have done so. Until then, though, I'd have to settle for sitting back and enjoying the informercials.

Tony Little's Gazelle

Just when I was here thinking Richard Simmons was the king of excessive exercisical energy, Tony Little burst onto the infomercial scene gave Richard a run for his aerobics-earned money. To his credit, Little did have an adequately inspirational backstory to give him some credibility in pushing others to their physical limits. Little was a former bodybuilder who suffered a serious car crash, leaving him injured and subsequently overweight. Tired of wallowing in cheeto-tinted misery, he petitioned a small television to let him create his own personal trainer style fitness program. Not long after, he struck a deal with the Home Shopping Network and all seemed pretty peachy.

As his personal website objectively and not-at-all-awkwardly informs us, "Life couldn't have been better for the blond haired, lean, mean, energized, personal training machine." That is, until he suffered yet another car accident. Little did the whole overcoming adversity thing a second time around and came out with his signature Gazelle fitness equipment:

See? Even at 11 seconds, that clip manages to draw you in. Like a train wreck. Or car crash. Too soon? Sorry, Tony. I admire your work, I really do.

Tae Bo

Developed by Tae kwan do instructor Billy Blanks, Tae Bo combined martial arts and kickboxing to create an infomercial-driven phenomenon. In the 90s, you could catch one of Blanks's infomercials airing pretty much anytime. In 1999, they were airing 2000 times a day on cable. Now that's good exposure. And I'm not just talking about those spandex pants.

The infomercial gave us many compelling testimonials from regular people and celebrities alike, all of whom praised its "spirit" and "Truth". Selling at 60 bucks a pop, Blanks made a pretty penny of his kickboxing hybrid routine. People flooded local gyms to partake in new Tae Bo-inspired cardio kickboxing classes, and seemingly overnight a fitness fad was born. It makes sense, really. We get to punch and kick and let out aggression in the comfort of our own homes. What's not to like?

If you want to try it for yourself, here's a little 8 minute taste:

8 Minute Video series

Speaking of 8 minutes, the "8 minute" video series was a serious money-maker in the 90s, particularly its "8 Minute Abs" routine. The idea was that in just 8 minutes a day, you too could be as ripped and skimpy-pantsed as the instructor. Any rational person can tell you this is pretty much impossible if you're overweight in any way; sure, you may have rock-hard abs, but thousands of crunches won't do a thing about that beer belly.

The videos feature a cheery host, bland meandering music, and two seemingly mute demonstrators who smile with such conviction you've almost got to question their sobriety. The host constantly refers to his audience as, "gang", which I suppose is supposed to be encouraging and not indicative of any east side/west side distinction. Just to clarify.

The videos caught a bit of free publicity in There's Something About Mary, in a scene in which a lone hitchhiker details his plans to create a "7 Minute Abs" program and crush his overlong competition:


There are so many reasons to love this commercial. For one, that struggling sitter-upper in the No Pain, No Gain t shirt. Usually when I work out, I like to wear clothing emblazoned with slogans that represent my current fitness mindset. I've got to change at the gym every time I hop on a new machine.

Also, I find that doing concurrent ab exercises with a partner in tandem synchronized motion without speaking or looking at one another is usually the most effective method. And of course, we've got our requisite doctor testimonial claiming this thing is pelvically tilted in some miraculous way. That's it, I'm sold.

Buns of Steel

On the edge of the 80s aerobics craze, "Buns of Steel" gave us a means of filling out leotards or bike shorts respectively by gender. In the late 80s and early 90s, workout videos were becoming all the rage. Just think, you could get fit all from the comfort of your own home. Of course, many people overlooked the fact that you actually had to do the workout, but if you did it no doubt led to the betterment of your overall physique. At least that's what Cher told me in Clueless.

Suzanne Somers for Thighmaster

Ah, here we've got both our doctor testimonial and celebrity endorsement. Talk about your classic infomercial one-two punch. There is definitely a little something...inappropriate about it. Didn't your mother ever tell you to keep your legs closed? It's just a tad obscene. I can see why the infomercial was so popular, though.

The 90s fitness scene may have been slightly toned down from the over-the-top marketing of the 80s, but it had its own unique charm and appeal. There's a reason these items sold thousands of units worldwide. Rather than the effectiveness of the product, though, that reason was probably more about how easily swayed the public was by infomercials. Alright, I'm off to go cut up some shoes with my Ginsu knives. What? They're good knives.

*Okay, okay, a little infomercial pun intended


Gracie Beth said...

I think the funniest thing Is Suzanne Somer's hair!

Mrs. Newlywed said...

Oh, Suzanne, you made me want so many weird exercise things.

Nashe^ said...

hey thanks for the visit!

If you must know.. My mom had an Abdomenizer! And oh man, I dug the whole Buns of Steel thing because of Cher and De. LOL! I love Clueless so much.

Badass Geek said...

I watched exercise infomercials only for the eye candy.

What? I'm a guy.

Jenn said...

i actually owned a gazelle glider - mom did and i loved that thing. i imagined that my pony tail looked just as perfect as tony little's while doing it :)

Maggi said...

Oh yeah, I remember these! lol I loved Abs of Steel!

Melissa Blake said...

Ohhh, those classic infomercials! You almost can't help but love them for the cheese factor!

The Novelista Barista said...

ahhahah SO TRUE!

Sadako said...

But how can you tell if you're doing it sporadically? :D

Brunch at Saks said...

Oh the Gazelle! My friends Mom had one and she went right through the wall one time when she was using it! Such a great post- I'm addicted to watching all of these infomercials now! Have a great weekend XOXO

Melanie's Randomness said...

Hahaha!! They're ridicolous. I love it. Ohhh The Gazelle. I see them sometimes at garage sales & the thigh buster. hehehehe. Love this post.

Hope you have a nice halloween hun!! Love your blog. =)

Katie said...

Tai Bo is the best!!

smiles4u said...

Oh the memories you brought back to me with this post. As someone that has spent a lot of sleepless nights the past few months, I have never been more aware of the rediculous amount of infomercials on tv at night. It's horrible. And the thing is, there were a few times I almost got my credit card out and made that call! Ugh! When you are sleep deprived they sound so much more convincing!

PS Thanks for stopping by my place!

Andy said...

Nothing seems more outdated than the screens at the end of those commercials, asking you to send a check to the mailing address. When's the last time people did that, really, other than utilities?

Excellent recap, as always.

Nic said...

Hahaha! Nineties (and eighties, come to that) fitness fads were just...ridiculous!

My latest blog post has a nineties theme you'll probably love!

Ali said...

Ahaha, this totally makes me think of jazzercise! YES.

ali said...

Whoa, Billy Blanks, that's a blast from the past! We used to do tae bo with his videos in high school gym class. I actually kinda miss it... and I hated gym. And high school.

Demetris said...

great post, indeed!
you know, I never believed these "TV fitness", these smiling ladies and so one. for me it was better to go to the gym and listen to the trainer. i do not believe all those ladies in beautiful suits are real professionals to give me advice how to fitness actually. )

Shop Girl* said...

I tae-bo'ed and jazzercized my way through high school.

It kept my big thunders from being so... thunderous. haha

Michelle said...

My dad, a huge Chuck Norris fan (before that was a thing), loved the Total Gym. He used it faithfully for years. I hated bringing friends to my house because the stupid thing took up the entire middle of our living room. My parents still have it, but now he only uses it on occasion. The general public has yet to make jokes about my dad's ability to best anyone in combat (this comes up A LOT, too), so I would say it was rather ineffective.

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