You’ve probably never heard of Collette Liantonio, but you likely know her work. The George Foreman Grill occupying space on millions of kitchen countertops? Her doing. The inescapability of Topsy Tails and Pajama Jeans? Credit (or blame) her. A trim, 63-year-old, this maker of infomercials also has bragging rights for luring Fabio to New Jersey for a blow-dryer spot. The Brooklyn native, mother of three and grandmother of two, has lived in New Jersey for more than 40 years, teaching at Rutherford High School before switching to advertising in the late 1970s. By 1983, she was running her own company, flashing 800 numbers across TV screens nationwide. The Montville resident talked with New Jersey Monthly recently at the Boonton headquarters of her company, Concepts TV Productions.
New Jersey Monthly: Why informercials?
Collette Liantonio: I originally wanted to direct theater at the university level…but you know how life is. I went into this business in 1979, working for someone else, and I got spoiled: It’s a quick fix. I make my commercial, I have total creative control, and I know the very next day whether it was a success or a flop. If I were working at a big agency, I’d send my commercial for Pepsi or McDonald’s out into the world and it wouldn’t matter if anybody bought the product. With direct-response, it’s high risk, high reward. I love that.
NJM: So you’ve had flops?
CL: Oh, yes. One out of five commercials makes a fortune, and the other four will
be miserable bummers.
NJM: Your work is not exactly highbrow. Do you face much criticism?
CL: Our industry is kind of in your face—and very Jersey that way, I might add. Some call it cheesy, which
is a word I don’t use.
NJM: What do you consider your biggest hits?
CL: Well, obviously everybody knows what a George Foreman Grill is. The younger generation doesn’t even know he was a heavyweight champion, they just know he has this grill. I’m also really proud of the Amish fireplace [the Heat Surge, a portable fireplace made by Amish craftsmen in Ohio]. That was a hit, and an amazing cultural experience for me, going into Amish country. I did the first abs commercial—the Abdominizer. And depending on how old you are, you might remember the Bedazzler. That was a sort of staple gun that lets you put jewels on your clothing. Almost everybody wanted one.
NJM: You’ve worked with a lot of celebrities, including Montel Williams, Joe Namath, Jim Cramer, Jack LaLanne, Wayne Gretzky and Fabio. What’s that like?
CL: Having a celebrity doesn’t necessarily make a product successful. They have to be well invested, like with George Foreman, who owns the product. A lot of them are athletes or fading B actors or minor celebrities like Fabio.
NJM: Do they come to New Jersey to film the commercials?
CL: Sometimes. Fabio did. That was maybe 10 years ago. We went to Roller Coaster Studios in East Hanover for a Con-Air hair dryer commercial. I brought my daughter and her best friend to the shoot…. I was like, ‘Who’s Fabio?’ and they were like, ‘He’s this hot Italian guy!’ When they got around him, neither one of them could speak.
NJM: How often do you shoot in New Jersey?
CL: We do a lot of shooting in Morris County. We research homes, and then we pay people to use them. We want well-appointed rooms, big rooms but average…so people can relate to what a product might look like in their own home. We shot part of Pajama Jeans a few years ago in my house in Montville. And some of the butts you see in that commercial are people who work here, who have good butts.
NJM: What makes your work unique?
CL: Sometimes people recognize what they call my “voice” in a commercial. I tell you something, I tell you again in a different way, and then I tell you a third time. I also do what I call “show-and-tell” moments, like when we brought in a pair of sumo wrestlers for Furniture Fix, a product that you put under your saggy couch to lift it.
NJM: What did the sumo wrestlers do?
CL: One was 600 pounds, the other was 400 pounds. They sat on the couch. One thousand pounds of sumo couldn’t make the couch sag. It was magic. We shot that in Mountain Lakes.
NJM: You said you originally hoped to direct theater. Any plans to switch careers?
No. People keep asking me if I’m going to retire, and I say, “Why would I do that?” I’m in the middle of culture. Or lack of it, if you want to look at it that way.Click here to leave a comment