If you never heard the original TV pitchman slinging phrases like: “Makes a great Christmas gift”; “Set it and forget it”; “Accept no substitutes”; or “Now how much would you pay … don’t answer yet, because there’s more!” you’ve probably seen some of the myriad spoofs he spawned, featuring everyone from Dan Aykroyd to Phil Hartman to “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Ron Popeil, who died last week at age 86, was equal parts inventor, entrepreneur and showman. He invented scores of products, some truly game-changing and others … well, less so. But it was his marketing sense that made him a household name. From the late 1950s, when he bought airtime to personally demonstrate his father’s invention — the six-bladed Chop-O-Matic — to the 1990s-early 2000s, when he lent star power to the QVC home shopping network, Popeil’s true talent was that even when he was pitching some schlocky gadget no one truly needed (the Inside the Eggshell Egg Scrambler? Really?), he made it seem like something no one could do without.
He was fearless, taking to talk shows to pitch his hair-in-a-can “GLH” by spraying it on himself. He was self-aware, portraying himself on “The Simpsons” and other shows later in life. And he reveled in the limelight.
One of the biggest boons to his peculiar marketing strategy was the advent of “Saturday Night Live,” where Aykroyd hilariously mocked Popeil’s contributions to American culture (“The days of troublesome scaling, cutting and gutting are over, because Super Bass-O-Matic ’76 is the tool that lets you use the whole bass without fish waste.”). That fish-in-a-blender gag led to Shimmer (“It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”) and, later, the Super Bat-O-Matic ’77 for making witch’s potions without the trouble of a mortar and pestle. (“Now, mix in the body of one whole bat. Remember what a chore that used to be?”).
Those bits worked because everyone was aware of Popeil’s pitches. He soon moved from 30- or 60-second late-night TV ads to start a new industry: infomercials, half-hour pitches for his products in front of live audiences in which someone else appeared to do the pitch while Ron played the part of the “expert,” demonstrating the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ or whatever.
The array of Ronco products ran the gamut from dated tidbits such as the Record Vacuum and the Battery Tester to items that have since proven so valuable that they’ve become standard, like the Roller Measure, versions of which are now used by carpenters and other contractors everywhere.
There was Mr. Dentist — a battery-operated rotary toothbrush of the type now routinely recommended by dentists, and the Auto Cup, a lidded, spill-proof cup for travel back before cars all had built-in cupholders. His Miracle Broom was an early handheld vacuum — think Dustbuster. And Mr. Microphone, essentially the first at-home karaoke machine.
And there were the kitchen gadgets. Chop-O-Matic begat the Veg-O-Matic, the precursor to food processors now found in every kitchen. The Electric Food Dehydrator (and Yogurt Maker) prompted a large segment of America to take up making their own jerky and dried fruits, while the Ronco Pasta (and Sausage) Maker helped spawn a make-your-own-pasta craze. All of those were the ancestors to today’s air fryers, one-pots and copper pan sets — whatever new kitchen trends home cooks can’t do without.
Other products had their niche uses — the Smokeless Ashtray, the Bedazzler, the Ronco Glass Froster, Bagel Slicer and vibrating “Back Relief” cushion all come to mind. He also pioneered “hits compilation” records, comprising an assortment of top artists’ songs packaged on a single album.
But perhaps there was never a more Ron Popeil product than the Popeil Pocket Fisherman. It was a handle with a short folding rod, and contained a hollowed compartment for the line, bobbers, sinkers, etc., needed to … to … well, to catch a fish at a moment’s notice, we guess. Truthfully, no serious fisherman would use it, and people who don’t regularly fish wouldn’t either. But somehow, it sounded like the greatest invention ever. “And only $19.95 — what a gift!”
That was the real genius of Ron Popeil — “As seen on TV.”