Reed Saxon / AP
Come on, young people: gather around the glow of the smartphone screen for a tale of a distant time when we watched TV on big square machines and changed channels when we were bored.
There were commercials – several of them – between segments of TV shows. Plus, back in the days before streaming, you had to watch them all – or, if you had the time, run into the kitchen or bathroom. You couldn’t pause, fast forward, or take the screen with you.
And in the darkest, smallest hours, when all the real programming ran out, the creatures of the night emerged – beasts called infomercials that were entire TV shows about people selling products that you might find useful. but that you probably did not know you wanted.
These immediate ancestors of home shopping and, beyond them, 21st century content marketing techniques were where Ron Popeil, an American original who gave the world the word “Ronco” and died. Wednesday at 86, flourished.
America has always been seduced by both spirited inventors and spinning vendors. Popeil was both, amplified by waves in millions of homes. He was a gadget innovator like his father, to be sure, but also a popularizer, a man who sensed the common sense needs of consumers and then found accessible ways to get them to make purchases.
He titled his 1996 memoir “Seller of the Century” and he was a 20th century man at heart, a cultural descendant of Thomas Edison and PT Barnum. He was a guy whose ‘As Seen On TV’ commercials in the 1970s, from the amazing wireless Mr. Microphone to the Popeil Pocket Fisherman to the Rhinestone & Stud Setter, have become cultural touchstones. pop – because he managed to find them both. and become their public face for the TV-soaked generation we now call X.
He was CEO, sales representative and lead user all at the same time. Whether it was the Showtime rotisserie (“Set it and forget it”), the food dehydrator or the aerosol cans of GLH-9 (“GLH” being the abbreviation of “a lot of hair”), it was there, barking its virtues. for us in the 1980s and 1990s as we lay in our beds and considered turning off the television. He edited his own infomercials, scribbled his own cue cards, wrote the copy for his “operators on hold.”
He called his babies by affectionate names (the Popeil Electric Pasta-Sausage Maker became, simply, “Pasta-Sausage”), and he was known to say things like “I created the jerky category”. From time to time, he indulged in a Shatner-style staccato to make his point: “A child! Can make ! Homemade sausages! he was found screaming on QVC one night in 1997.
But wait – there is more.
While in the 20th century – a Chicago free market barker who used television to propel himself to success – he also saw the possibilities open to him and are now playing out in the fragmented 21st century, an era where all media merge into one. big glop and the ad becomes content and then becomes advertising again.
One of the main reasons for Popeil’s ubiquity became evident when people decided to make fun of him – because he cleverly and strategically chose to always know about the joke.
When Dan Aykroyd sent it on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976 with the commercial parody “Bass-O-Matic”, Popeil realized that it was free publicity, just as he did when “Weird Al “Yankovic recorded a parody song. Years later, Popeil played the role of himself in various television shows, from “The X Files” to animated “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill”.
More importantly, however, he happily gave his ad content to filmmakers looking for something to play on TV in the background of their films. In this way, he extended his reputation for ubiquity – and his growing brand of nod to pop culture – for free, without any effort. Others did the job, and he got the eyes.
Even after success, bankruptcy and a successful second chapter, Popeil insisted that his will to invent was more than mercantile; it was, he said, a little obsessive. “I have enough money today,” he told this reporter for an Associated Press profile in 1997. “But I can’t stop. for these things, I can’t help myself. “
In this profile, Popeil showed how “GLH-9” performed on the baldness on the back of his scalp after several hours, some under the glaring lights of a chain store. What didn’t go down in history was that Popeil urged the visiting journalist: “Touch it! It even looks real.” The reporter did, and he did – sort of.
Interludes like this – in-person interactions that resembled moments in an infomercial – help explain the reverse: moments in her infomercials that resembled in-person interactions. It was Popeil’s business. Top salespeople – and this cohort includes top salespeople – can make you feel like they’re underperforming at all.
So in the 1970s you thought that a Mr. Microphone could open the door to all kinds of ways to impress the opposite sex. In the 1990s, you completely bought into the idea that if Ron Popeil could stand there on the set of his infomercial and make a delicious sausage of fresh salmon, dill, soy and crushed red pepper. in two minutes you could too.
You believed. Which has always been the foundation of good sales. And you also thought that this guy – this chatty man who was both nationally recognizable and RIGHT THERE in your room at 2 a.m., obviously only talking to you – tomorrow, next month and year. next, would continue to visit you late at night. with things you never thought you needed.
Or, as Popeil himself liked to say, wait, there’s more. For Ron Popeil, with his feet firmly planted at the intersection of Barnum and Edison, there always have been.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, spent several days with Ron Popeil for an AP profile on him in 1997. Follow Anthony on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted