Barry Becher, the co-creator of the classic over-the-top Ginsu knife commercials of the 1970s, and who, with his business partner Ed Valenti, helped develop television infomercial marketing, died June 22 at a hospital in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
He was 71 and had complications from surgery for kidney cancer. His wife, Leslie Becher, confirmed his death.
Mr. Becher (pronounced BESH-er) owned a couple of AAMCO transmission franchises in Rhode Island when he and Valenti, a TV advertising executive, teamed up to sell knives, kitchenware, jewelry and drip-free paintbrushes through two-minute TV ads.
All of their products sold for an amazing, low, low price, and viewers were urged to “order now” because “operators are standing by.”
But wait, there’s more!
With their homespun commercials, Mr. Becher and Valenti built a demand for items people didn’t realize they needed — until they saw the remarkable things those products could do. They were also among the first TV advertisers to use 800 numbers.
“We were mindful,” Valenti told the Palm Beach Post in 2001, “that the last thing anyone wanted was another set of knives. The challenge was to position the product so that it made every other knife you owned obsolete.”
The original Ginsu commercial, first aired in 1978, opened with a narrator intoning, “In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife,” as a hand — Valenti’s — broke two boards with a karate chop.
“But this method,” the narrator continued, “doesn’t work with a tomato.”
“Can it really cut through a nail and still go through a pineapple like this?” the commercial asked rhetorically. “Incredible!”
To sell their various products, Mr. Becher and Valenti flooded the airwaves, buying as much as $20 million in commercials a year — more than Coca-Cola. The outlandish demonstrations of their products’ durability, coupled with their cheesy but unforgettable slogans — Isn’t that amazing? — became an indelible part of American pop culture, often parodied on late-night comedy shows.
Over a 15-year period, the endlessly rerun commercials helped Mr. Becher and Valenti sell as much as $500 million worth of knives, kitchen bowls, pots and pans.
The most successful product line that Mr. Becher and Valenti sold was a set of Armourcote skillets, pots and pans, which contributed an estimated $80 million to their company’s bottom line. But their most memorable wares were, by far, the Ginsu knives.
With the Ginsu, Mr. Becher and Valenti came up with what Syracuse University television scholar Robert Thompson called “the pitch of all pitches.”
Barry Harris Becher was born April 24, 1941, in Brooklyn. He moved to Warwick, R.I., after high school, bought a couple of AAMCO franchises and dreamed of greater things. Valenti approached him one day to advertise on a local TV station.
Valenti, who handled the Ronco and K-Tel direct-market music accounts for his TV station, was looking for something else to sell in the same no-frills manner.
Within a week, Mr. Becher came back with an idea: a thick mohair pad that could apply paint without dripping. He used it on his own ceiling.
“Barry was not handy,” Valenti said. “The only thing you could imagine Barry using a brush for was putting barbecue sauce on his steak in the backyard.”
They tried to interest New York advertising firms in making a commercial, but to no avail.
“We marched up and down Madison Avenue so many times,” Valenti said, “the panhandlers almost started to give us money. We decided we would go home and make it ourselves.”
Their first commercial — for a product they dubbed the Miracle Painter — aired in 1975 and showed a man painting a ceiling while wearing a tuxedo.
Mr. Becher and Valenti went on to make commercials for their other products, such as the Miracle Slicer, Lusterware silverware, Armourcote and Royal DuraSteel mixing bowls.
They ended their direct-marketing efforts in about 1990 — although many of their products, including Ginsu knives, are still available. They started an advertising firm, PriMedia, which Valenti still leads.
Mr. Becher moved to Florida 11 years ago. Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Leslie Friedman Becher, of Parkland, Fla.; two daughters from his first marriage; four stepchildren; a sister; and 10 grandchildren.
In 2005, Mr. Becher and Valenti wrote a book together, “The Wisdom of Ginsu.”
Their famous cutlery began as Quikut knives, made by a company in Fremont, Ohio (since bought by Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company).
“Who would buy a set of knives made in Ohio?” Mr. Becher once mused.
“We had to add some mystery. We thought about where we could say they came from.”
He and Valenti and copywriter Arthur Schiff kicked around the idea of samurai warriors and somehow came up with the name Ginsu.
“It doesn’t mean anything in any language,” Mr. Becher said in 2005. “We like to say that it means, ‘I never have to work again.’ ”