An advertiser's gimmick, designed to make expensive items or services seem cheap.
The purpose of infomercials is to sell products, of course. But the way infomercials sell products is not just to present the product but to get the viewer emotionally attached to it. You don't buy GLH-9 spray-on hair because you're bald; you buy it because going bald means you're getting old and probably impotent, and the product will stop people from noticing. You don't buy the Showtime Rotisserie because it can hold a ten-pound turkey; you buy it because you want the luscious, mouth-watering baby back ribs and tempting, juicy, golden-brown roast chicken that are going to magically spring forth from it.
The beauty of this method is that it can make expensive items seem inexpensive while meeting Truth in Advertising Laws. "You can feed a child in Darkest Africa for less than a can of soda a day!" And it's true. But the charity wants the payments a month at a time, and $1.50 per day just goes by so much more quietly than $46.50 all at once. (In the UK, the Darkest Africa example is famously and memetically "just two pounds a month," and such appeals are often parodied).
But there's one thing that will break the mood for almost any viewer: a high price tag. Those baby back ribs might be delectable, but are they $160 delectable? Not likely.
So what's an advertiser to do? He can't outright lie about the price; that's illegal. He could fail to mention the price, but the customer will find out anyway if and when he actually orders the product. But what he can do is reduce the emotional impact of the price by dividing it by three or four. Suddenly he's not asking for $160 of your hard-earned money, all at once; he's asking for "four easy monthly payments of just $39.99".
It works because people fall for repetition. They hear the $39.99 over and over again and convince themselves that they're being sold something for $39.99, which sounds great: after all, $39.99 isn't really that muchless than dinner and a movie for two. It never even occurs to them that they're actually spending $160, a fair hunk of change. The constant repetition of the words "easy" and "just" also reassure the reader that he can easily afford the product.
May be preceded by the presenter telling his audience the price they aren't going to pay for the item, usually referring to the "fancy department store brand" or "the price you thought you'd have to pay for this". Even after revealing the Four Equal Payments, the presenter may shock the audience further by removing one of the payments entirely. That's right, you only need to make Three Equal Payments!
In British infomercials, the full price is usually mentioned as an optionyou can pay the full amount or you can go for the payments. In North America, though, the full price may only be given at the end of the infomercial by the announcer who tells you that Operators Are Standing By, or even rushed through in the tiniest of mouse-sized legal type which is sneakily asserted as a payment option only available to those who send a check or money order through the mail, which these days is a quickly declining amount of people.
More egregiously, shipping and handling will usually only be mentioned in passing even though shipping and handling are often quite high on these items, especially in North Americaand it's usually charged in total at the time of the first payment. Cue the legions of dissatisfied customers whose first "easy monthly payment of $39.99" was well over a hundred and twenty dollars, because shipping and handling was eighty bucks.
In the UK a commonly associated phrase is "four equal payments", which doesn't sound anywhere near as sexy as the American equivalent of "four easy monthly payments"and that's deliberate, as the word "equal" is mandated by law and is expressly meant to remind viewers that they're paying in instalments. However, the UK has an additional, much sneakier variant: the amazing product that's sold for only £99.99, or 12 convenient equal payments of £10.99, plus shipping and handling. Do the math: 12 times £10.99 is £131.88, or over thirty pounds more than the purchase price for anyone who paid for it at one go. Basically you're paying about 30% interest in order to not pay it all at once. note This trick is also done with rent-to-own sales, where the total payments can end up being two to three times the original value of the item being purchased. The UK does at least have the advantage of the stated price always including tax, unlike the US where that is added on top.
A similar tactic is often used by furniture stores where payments are deferred: "Do not pay anything, not even the taxes, until 20XX!" On a more serious note, sub-prime mortgages operated on the same kind of idea on a much larger scale.
Often used with items such as computers, charitable donations, or PBS stations. Popular with the charities, even if you do realize this will add up to a not-insignificant sum, a few pennies a day still isn't much, and you'll likely spend them anywaywhy not on something that'll make the world a better place? Also popular with objects that are supposed to save more in the long run than the extra initial cost.
Gym payment plans are often structured around this kind of thing, but in reverse. $365 a year sounds so much better as "a dollar a workout" (if you even go to the gym every day — and they don't suddenly charge you any less if you don't).
- On this very site, an ad for Doctors Without Borders: "25 cents a day can help Doctors Without Borders give emergency care to those who need it most." Of course, you need to pay for at least a month at a time. Though it might be argued that $90.50 a year ($90.75 in a leap year) is still a pretty good bargain if it achieves what it claims, when a single coffee a day will probably set you back over $700 during that time!
- Parodied in a letter to British comic Viz - "A donation of just £2 a month supplies an African village with water says my water company, yet they charge me £10 a week, the robbing sods."
- ThermoSpa hot tubs say that you can own a hot tub for about $1.50 a day. That may be true, but there's still the big upfront fee associated with buying the hot tub (especially one with all the bells and whistles), no matter how low-maintenance it might be.
- The UK's television licensing authority likes to use this one as well.
- The Angry Grandpa: Grandpa parodies this, asking viewers if they have an extra dollar to help his family regain power while calling out his wife for not paying the light bill.
- Played with in an episode of The Office (US). Michael Scott buys an insurance policy that is "...only a cup of coffee an hour."
- The Saturday Night Live sketch "39 Cents" parodies Darkest Africa charity commercials of this nature, as the poor villagers in the background quickly take offense to the commercial's star asking for a donation of "only 39 cents a day." When he repeatedly refuses their urging to raise the amount asked for, they take him hostage and use the commercial to demand a $200 ransom.
Village Woman: How you gonna save our lives with just 39 cents? 'Cause I'm tryna do the math in my head but I just can't see it.
- Epic Rap Battles of History: In "Jeff Bezos vs. Mansa Musa," Bezos mocks Mali's economic decline in a way that sounds like a charity ad.
Bezos: I feed your whole country for the price of a cup of coffee per day!
- Some change politicians are proposing will generate revenue or savings of X billions of dollars — over 10 years.