He Sliced and Diced His Way Into Pop Culture
Saturday, September 2, 2006
Arthur Schiff, who died of lung cancer last week in Coral Springs, Fla., at 66, was a businessman who ran his own marketing company for 23 years. And his passing, like the man himself, was altogether quiet, with not a single newspaper noting his death.
But wait, there's more!
Arthur Schiff was an ingenious salesman, a veritable artist of American capitalism. He sold everything, and sold it by the trainload: pots and pans, pantyhose, wrinkle cream, teeth whiteners, windshield wipers, scratch removers and weed whackers. Anyone who ever watched television in the graveyard hours knows Schiff's work. Likely as not, it enchanted, amused, appalled or got them to reach for their wallets and their phones.
Over more than 30 years, Schiff created some 1,800 "long-form" or "direct response" TV commercials. He was the unseen king of the infomercial, the hidden hand behind the "amazing" Steakhouse Onion Machine, the "miraculous" Ambervision Sunglasses and the "revolutionary" Shiwala car mop.
"But wait, there's more!" was Schiff's signature creation, his "Hamlet" and "Moby-Dick." It eclipsed his other immortal catchphrases: "Isn't that amazing?" "Now how much would you pay?" and "Act now and you'll also receive . . . " He wrote "Wait, there's more" for a spot for Ginsu knives (a product Schiff himself named, supposedly in his sleep), which has become one of the best-known commercials ever, and surely one of the most parodied.
Schiff was a copywriter for a Providence, R.I., ad agency in the mid-1970s when he met Edward Valenti, a radio ad salesman who worked in the same building. Not long after, Valenti and a partner, Barry Becher, were starting a direct-marketing company, hoping to use rapid-fire TV commercials and toll-free phone numbers to sell household goods the way K-Tel was selling record compilations.
Valenti and Becher had the product and marketing smarts, but they needed Schiff -- "an extremely creative guy," as Valenti put it yesterday -- to dream up the copy. The company, Dial Media, specialized in finding offbeat products and hammering viewers with wacky and oft-repeated TV spots. Their sales techniques evolved, but several features were standard: the elaborate product demonstrations (and the fevered praise after each one), the "call to action" and the ordering information -- all packed into two minutes. The ads' style was a contemporary version of the old boardwalk salesman's pitch.
Among their first successes was the Miracle Painter, a no-drip brush that the company sold by showing a man painting his ceiling in a tuxedo. There was also the Miracle Slicer, the Miracle Duster, Armourcote Cookware and the "Chainge," a line of adjustable necklaces.
In early 1978, Valenti decided to market a line of kitchen knives, perhaps the most prosaic and conventional product it had yet tried to sell. Worse, the knives had a dull brand name: Quikut.
As Schiff later recalled, in a self-promotional piece he wrote for the company he started in 1983, he couldn't get excited about writing a commercial for knives.
"I went to sleep that night, still wrestling with the problem," he wrote, in typically fervid style. "And then it happened! I bolted out of bed at three o'clock in the morning and yelled, 'Eureka! I've got it. Ginsu!' I wrote the bizarre word down on a piece of paper and went back to sleep. When I got up again four hours later, the paper was still there and that strange word was still on it. I stuffed it into my shirt pocket and headed off to work."
The name was nonsense, but highly useful nonsense. "Ginsu" carried a whiff of Japanese precision, a suggestion of samurai swords and Benihana steakhouses. The partners decided to run with it, hiring a local Japanese exchange student to appear as a chef. The first and most famous Ginsu ad began with a hand karate-chopping a two-by-four board. "In Japan," began Schiff's copy, "the hand can be used like a knife. But this method doesn't work with a tomato" (cut to a hand squashing a tomato).
As Schiff recalled: "By giving that set of knives a Japanese identity, I somehow managed to convince people that no matter how many knives they already owned, these were something special. Of course, I neglected to mention that the knives were manufactured in Fremont, Ohio."
A Ginsu knife could cut anything; the famous ad shows the cutlery tearing through a tin can, a radiator hose and, of course, a tomato. After all that -- "But wait, there's more!" -- Dial offered to throw several smaller versions of the knife "at no extra cost," thereby enhancing the sales proposition. The "there's more!" addendum, a clever piece of consumer psychology, is now a staple feature of most direct-response ads.
Ginsu became not only a huge seller -- the line was later sold to a company affiliated with Warren Buffett -- but the ad became a cultural touchstone. It was the subject of Johnny Carson bits and "Saturday Night Live" sketches and a punch line of stand-up routines (Jerry Seinfeld: "Do you need a knife that can cut through a shoe and a can?")
Without Schiff, American kitsch would be poorer and TV's off-hours would be unbearably duller. He didn't invent the infomercial's rat-a-tat, hard-sell style. He just made it irresistible.