The Mozart of this method is no more. RIP, Ron Popeil, maestro of the late-night infomercial, Edison of the ersatz, who died July 28 in Los Angeles at 86. His survivors include untold thousands of plastic food dehydrators, vegetable slicers and vacuum-powered ashtrays moldering on basement shelves and in the far reaches of kitchen cupboards across the land.
Apart from monks and hermits, there cannot be many people between 30 and the grave who are not familiar with Popeil and his marketing art. He’s the man who taught Americans to say: “But wait, there’s more!” and “Set it and forget it!” and “How much would you expect to pay?” and “Isn’t that amazing?!”
Yes. Yes, it was amazing that one relentless pitchman could leave an indelible mark on generations of insomniacs and get rich doing it. Popeil started on television in the days of black and white, and remained on the airwaves until late-late night was a thousand channels of infomercials playing on sofa-sized flat screens. Forests of pot were smoked and countless babies conceived while Popeil sold spray-on hair, homemade beef jerky and best-of disco record collections in the background.
A prodigy of spiel, he made his first commercial in the late 1950s, pitching his father’s invention, the Chop-O-Matic. With each bop on the plunger, turning steel blades macerated whatever food was loaded into the device. The good-looking Midwesterner pummeled onions, eggs and what looks like a canned ham into spreadable mounds while keeping up a constant patter. A star was born.
After founding his own company, Ronco, Popeil branched out to flog his own inventions and those he bought from less extroverted tinkerers. Many of his products were designed for the kitchen — but not all. What they had in common was that no one ever wanted one, or even thought of one, until Popeil unveiled it on TV and pronounced it indispensable.
My grandfather went fishing every chance he got, and never once did he say, I’d like fishing a lot more if I had a pole the length of a breadknife. But the Ronco Pocket Fisherman became as much a part of the 1970s as feathered bangs. He sold one generation of moms on the need for a simpler way to make ham spread, and the next generation on the importance of feeding their children desiccated fruit slices from a huge plastic dehydrating machine.
Operators were standing by.
Though it was far from his biggest seller, the Ronco Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler may have been his magnum opus, a virtuoso deployment of cheap materials to meet a nonexistent need. Scrambling an egg is — apart from boiling water or nuking a burrito — perhaps the easiest thing a cook can do. It requires neither time, nor talent, nor training, nor special tools. But Popeil warned Americans night after night about “slimy egg whites.” And for the low, low price of $7.77, he delivered the solution: a little needle surrounded by plastic and powered by a battery. Supposedly the needle would penetrate an egg without cracking it and spin the contents inside the shell.
No muss, no fuss. (Another Popeil signature line.) Alas, you still had to break the thing and cook it.
People bought it. We always do. For Americans, being talked into buying unneeded crap is a national pastime, a form of entertainment. Popeil actually got his start pitching products at state fairs as a teenager, where hucksters were all part of the fun. In colder months, he set up inside a Chicago Woolworth’s store, and according to one source, young women in nearby office buildings would spend their lunch breaks watching him. Later, as he refined his techniques, he began shooting infomercials in front of live studio audiences, who applauded and cheered the dripping meats from his countertop rotisseries as if they were movie stars.
Thank goodness he didn’t go into politics. Imagine the damage such a salesman might do, stirring up dissatisfaction and unhappiness just to sell us a gimcrack agenda that we’d wish we had never bought.