But Wait! There's More!

March 10, 2005
TV takes it to a new level when it comes to pitching products.

Harkening back to product demonstrators that barked their pitches at fairs across the country, infomercials are the modern day platform for such pros as Ron Popeil, Susan Powter and Billy Mays.

According to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, infomercials proliferated in the U.S. after 1984 when the Federal Communications Commission eliminated certain regulations, which were established in the 1950s and '60s, on the commercial content of television -- specifically, the FCC lifted the 12-minute-per-hour limit on TV ads.

Opening the airwaves for late-night and early-morning "TV shows" on local stations and dedicated home-shopping channels, infomercials are a way for pitchmen and women to demonstrate their products. The catch phrases they chant -- "Set it and forget it," "Stop the insanity" and "It's powered by the air you breathe" -- are branded into our minds -- literally and figuratively.

Products from cold cream to ice cream makers, fitness products to flashy baubles are scrutinized, glamorized and commercialized before the consumers' eyes.

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An unshakeable confidence in the quality of their products -- and a little bit of ego -- have some head honchos hawking their own wares. Lending their faces lends credibility, just as long as they keep their noses clean.
In his book, "The Salesman of the Century" (1995, Delacorte Press), Popeil, the granddaddy of tchotchke sales with such classics as the Chop-O-Matic, the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone and the Showtime Rotisserie, chronicles his half-century, in-your-face sales career that has taken him from a kid hawking gadgets to the chairman and CEO of Ronco Inventions LLC -- from the fair circuit to Woolworth's to television.

The son of an inventor, Popeil says, "I used to drum up the business and show how easy it was to sell my father's product [at Woolworth's or Sears]. The stores would jump on the bandwagon and order product from him."

Popeil's success as an in-person pitchman was at its height in the mid-1950s. By the early 1960s Popeil found a new pulpit from which to preach his products' promises -- TV.

His first spot was the Chop-O-Matic, a gadget that promises to dice vegetables faster and more efficiently than grandma could. Because he had demonstrated the product at Woolworth's hundreds of times, Popeil didn't write a script for the commercial -- a practice that he still uses today.

"Why bother?" says Popeil. "If I've been chopping away for 10 hours a day, giving the same pitch over and over again, refining it a little bit each time, why would I need a script?"

While his inventions certainly made an impression with the consumers, it wasn't his gadgets that made Popeil a household name. In 1976 Dan Aykroyd, playing a Ron Popeil-like character, performed a skit on Saturday Night Live that touted the Bass-O-Matic -- a fish-blending machine. You know you've arrived when you've been spoofed on national television.

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