Oct 13, 1999 at 12:00 am

After decades of hand-wringing by parents’ groups and reams of studies by sociologists, the medical community has at last weighed in on television and the young. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that not only does media violence do harm but, more importantly, the simple act of sitting in front of the idiot box for hours on end will tend to make little Billy a porker. Every minute spent watching someone take a bullet on screen is a minute not spent kicking a soccer ball.

One would think that parents would have enough sense to send the tots outside. But adults are highly ambivalent about their relationships to exercise and the maintenance of good health, physical or otherwise. If mommy and daddy are supine on the couch, stuffing their faces with Chee-tos, why not junior?

Infomercials are, by their very nature, the most ruthless of all television advertising. There’s neither time nor money to spare on finessing the product or charming the customer. The hard sell is a must. Thus, producers of infomercials work from a rather crude set of assumptions about the audience: a) something must be wrong with viewers if they are tuning into the infomerical; b) said damaged viewers have money to burn; and c) pick at the scab and the viewers will turn over the loot.

While American popular culture obsesses over a cult of beauty in which buff studs and vixens abound, the American populace at large grows larger still. People dream of washboard abs as they stuff another sweet into their gob. This obscene incongruity at once puts Freud on the ropes while working TV snake oil salesmen into a lather.

Consider the "You Gotta Eat" diet plan. The inventor, a fast-talking beach boy, has hit upon the bright idea of peddling his wares aboard a Carnival cruise, sans Kathie Lee Gifford. For many a vacationer, cruise ships spell lots of food and no room to move. The diet itself incorporates the common sense idea of eating a number of small meals throughout the day instead of three squares. What’s patently bogus is the exercise regimen: one minute of lunges and stretching! We are shown wild success stories of people who lost more than 100 pounds courtesy of this scheme, but no doubt they signed up for a gym membership. Indeed, the fine print at the bottom of the screen tells us that theirs are unique results. No kidding.

The gist of the Showtime Rotisserie BBQ is that everyone will get the same results: healthy eating. I loathe this infomercial for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the relentless pandering of the inventor to the studio audience about how easy it is to "eat healthy." As he sets a leg of lamb awhirl inside his rickety contraption, he turns to the rabble and on cue they scream, "Set it and forget it!" Occasionally we’re shown some poor schlep outside in the snow tending to his gas barbecue as if he were changing the oil of his Edsel. The ad is so banal, so hopelessly suburban, it sticks in your craw. This is convenience taken to its absurd extreme.

Then we have the Juice Man. With his snowy brow fluttering and his voice rife with emotion, a geezer in obvious rude health holds forth on the "life-giving properties" of fruits and vegetables. This guy would make a great shaman if he wasn’t hawking juicers. Again, there’re all kinds of testimonials from people whose lives have been changed, nay saved, thanks to the power of fresh juice. How I long for the days of yore when exercise guru Jack La Lanne used to shill for a similar machine, only using far more panache and brio, including his signature motif of filling a salad bowl with all the awful things the average person eats in a day and then mixing them together.

The question begs though: Who has time to pump carrots and beets into a noisy gizmo? Indeed, the cardinal theme of the infomercial is saving time because time is the most valuable commodity to people overworked and burnt-out from the ravages of daily living. The genius of infomercials is that the perpetrators know that they can come back next month with another piece of rubbish and people will snap it up, hoping against hope that it’ll be the miracle worker, that suddenly their day book will open up thanks to the Grillamatic 2000. It’s no accident that both leading contenders for the White House like to prattle on about the "time poverty" of average Americans. Alas, the long-term maintenance of health and fitness require real time and effort.

So it’s all the more amazing to watch martial arts expert Billy Blanks look right into the camera and warn his potential customers that "if exercise was easy, everybody would be in great shape." Anyone who has tried Tai-Bo knows that he tells no lies. And Blanks is no dummy. He’s not selling Thighmasters to housewives in Muskegon. His audience is young stereo salesmen and their molls dreaming of making the scene at Venice Beach.

Blanks seems uneasy at times talking about his product, as if conscience is about to get the better of him. Perhaps he’s just sad, knowing full well that soon his tapes will be gathering dust next to Jane Fonda’s on many a bookshelf.