An entrepreneurial icon who once convinced me to buy an Electric Food Dehydrator that I never even opened for “only four easy payments of just $9.99” died last week. He had me at, “Wait, there’s more!”
Ron Popeil, a true American original, was 86. He died of a brain hemorrhage in a Los Angeles Hospital. Popeil was the master of the infomercial, those addictively persuasive half-hour commercials that dominated airwaves on fringe TV stations — before the arrival of 24/7 shopping channels took over the direct response industry.
Popeil, living up to the title of his autobiography, Salesman of the Century, could make you jump on your phone at 3 am to buy something you didn’t want, didn’t need, but couldn’t live another day without. Spray-on hair. Really? (Editor’s note: Don’t judge us, Ken.)
Comedian Jim Gaffigan drew big laughs observing, “We all have the same attitude about infomercials, ‘Who’s watching this crap?’ Then three minutes later, ‘That’s a good point.’ Maybe I do need a knife that can cut a penny.”
The Viceroy of Value
The self-anointed “Viceroy of Value,” mostly sold kitchen gizmos and gadgets like the Chop-o-Matic, Slice-o-Matic, Veg-o-Matic, the Showtime Rotisserie, Electric Home Pasta Maker, Inside the Egg Scrambler, and Six Star 20-piece Cutlery Set.
I bought the knife set for $39. According to the infomercial, if I bought all the knives separately, they’d cost me “over $844, and Ron will gladly sell them to you individually,” including a heavy-duty cleaver that normally sells for $70.
I was tempted to call Popeil’s “operators standing by” and insist that I didn’t want the whole set of knives for $39, I just wanted to buy the cleaver for $70, just to see what they’d say.
My friend Reg “Third Degree” Burns purchased the Popeil Home Pasta Maker for $199. He used it one time and the spaghetti came out mushy and bland and went straight into the garbage.
Of course he could have bought Barilla professionally made, dependably delicious spaghetti for 99 cents a box at the supermarket, but doesBarilla make “chocolate dessert pasta” like Popeil’s machine promised?
Third Degree dispatched his $199 Home Pasta Maker to the back of a kitchen cabinet. The next time he rummages past six bottles of ketchup he didn’t know he had, the Home Pasta Maker will be on a table in his driveway with a sticker that says “$1 or best offer.”
As Seen on TV
Contrary to legend, Popeil didn’t invent all of his “As Seen on TV” products. In fact, his first product, the Chop-o-Matic (“the greatest kitchen gadget ever made”) was invented by his father. Early in his career, Popeil took the Chop-o-Matic to department stores and supermarkets where he demonstrated how it “chopped onions to perfection without shedding a single tear.”
A few years later, Popeil was on the road selling his Veg-o-Matic, which could produce “tomato slices so thin they have only one side.” Onions? “The only tears you’ll shed will be tears of joy.”
If you time it right on a Saturday afternoon at Costco, you can catch a modern-day Ron Popeil demonstrating how the same “amazing” Vitamix blender can make icy Margaritas one minute and piping hot butternut squash soup the next. I stand there hypnotized the whole spiel, waiting for my thimble-sized free sample banana smoothie. The guy’s good, but he ain’t got nothing on Ron Popeil.
Popeil and his infomercials became part of pop culture, satirized brilliantly by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. The comedian Gallagher practically made a career smashing watermelons with his “Sledge-o-Matic.” Popeil’s catchphrases are part of our language, “But wait, there’s more,” “Call now, operators are waiting,” and “Set it and forget it.”
But wait, there’s more...to Popeil
He was nerdy and corny and easy to poke fun at, but he was a member of the Direct Response Hall of Fame, recipient of the Electronic Retail Association’s “Lifetime Achievement Award,” and Self Magazine profiled him as one of “25 People Who Changed the Way We Eat, Drink and Think About Food.”
Oh, and he sold more than $1 billion worth of products — like the Ronco Pocket Fisherman, the Bedazzler, and Mr. Microphone. You know, I may break out my Electric Food Dehydrator, if I can find it, and make a batch of homemade beef jerky to honor Popeil’s passing.
Or, I could drive to Buc-ee’s and buy 25 different kinds of their world famous beef jerky for cheaper and better than I could make it.
But wait, there’s more … I don’t even like beef jerky. Hey, why did I buy this thing anyway?