Barry Becher, co-creator of the Ginsu knife and the master of the hard sell TV pitch died recently. In memory, we are re-airing an exploration of the world of television pitchmen by erstwhile OTM producer Mike Vuolo.
Weird Al Yankovic - Mr. Popeil
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. As anyone of a certain age is well aware, a Ginsu knife can cut through a penny or a tin can. For these vivid memories, we can thank Barry Becher, the father of the Ginsu knife.
BARRY BECHER: The Ginsu can cut a slice of bread so thin, you can almost see through it. It cuts meat better than an electric knife and goes through frozen food as though it were melted butter.
[SOUNDTRACK/UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Becher died recently, but in the pantheon of schlockmeisters he is an immortal. A pioneer of direct response TV advertising, he not only discovered a way to take kitchen knives manufactured in Ohio and make them seem like exotic miracles, he honed the middle-of-the-night Channel 57 sales techniques to a fine edge. Ginsu, according to Becher’s New York Times obit, has no meaning in Japanese but just sounded good. And so did the magic words, “But wait, there’s more!” The gimmickry, the impressive coinage-snipping demonstrations and the seemingly endless bonus add-ons enriched Becher and his partners, but also spawned an industry.
A while back, erstwhile OTM Producer Mike Vuolo dove into the world of television pitchmen. In memory of Barry Becher, we replay it for you now.
MIKE VUOLO: Growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1970s and ‘80s, I would make regular trips down to Atlantic City with my family when school was out. There are certain sounds that stick out in my memory from those summers on the boardwalk.
[SOUND OF SURF]
The ocean, of course.
[SOUND OF WAVES/SEAGULLS]
Seagulls screeching overhead, just outside the Planters Peanut store.
[VIDEO GAME SOUNDS]
The arcade. Oh yeah, and this guy -
BILLY MAYS: There’s no pumps, there’s no motors, there’s no batteries. It works direct from a bucket. Wash your car, your boat, your camper, your trailer, whatever you want to wash…
[SOUNDTRACK UP & UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: That’s Billy Mays, pitching the Amazing Washmatic, a portable cleaning system. If you weren’t a professional pitchman, you might call it a 10-foot hose, a simple siphon with a one-way valve. It helps you save water.
BILLY MAYS: One bucket to wash, one bucket to rinse.
[SOUND UP AND UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: Mays would set up on the boardwalk with a Washmatic and a minivan door and pitch that product all day. It earned him the nickname “Bucket Billy.” Mays says he learned from some of the best pitchmen we’ll never know, guys selling everything from fishing gear to facial cream. And he counts himself among the last of the old mold. He even uses the jargon of the hard sell during conversation. You don’t gather a crowd, you “bally” one. And it’s not a crowd. It’s a “tip.” Like a lot of pitchmen, Mays gets something close to reverential when he talks about what those in the industry call “the turn.”
BILLY MAYS: Oh, this so important turn. When you have that perfect pitch goin’, you better ask for the money, you better turn them right there because they’re ready. They’re ready to pull out the 20 dollars right then and there. They already got it wavin’ in the air. Sometimes that turn didn’t always happen so quick. You had to go [CLAPS HANDS] clap, and bring ‘em out of it. You’re number one, You’re number two. One thing you didn’t want to happen, the front of your tip break up and leave. You know, if you leave now, I’ll never talk to you. Don’t you dare do that right now. You kind of just force them to stay.
MIKE VUOLO: Mays pitched the Washmatic on the boardwalk, on the pier and at state fairs for more than ten years. It was in 1993, at the Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show, that he met Max Appel, an amateur inventor who developed a citrus cleaner in his garage in Colorado. A few years later, Appel hired Mays to pitch the product, Orange Glo Wood Cleaner and Polish on TV.
BILLY MAYS: Made with pure orange oil, it cleans, polishes and protects all at the same time.
[SOUND UP & UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: Mays sold 6,000 bottles the first day, and then Appel expanded his business, with Mays again as the pitchman, to include something he called OxiClean.
BILLY MAYS: And it’s powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water that you and I drink. In your laundry, the power of bleach but it’s safe. Watch this.
[SOUND TRAILS OFF]
MIKE VUOLO: And ever since, late at night and early in the morning, whenever TV channels have cheap air time to sell, Billy Mays has been coming into our homes.
BILLY MAYS: Hi, Billy Mays here for Mighty Putty.
BILLY MAYS: Hi, Billy Mays here for the Big City Slider Station.
BILLY MAYS: Hi, Billy Mays here for the Steam Buddy.
BILLY MAYS: Hi, Billy Mays here for the Jupiter Jack.
BILLY MAYS: Hi, Billy Mays back again with the Awesome Auger.
BILLY MAYS: Hi, Billy Mays here for the Tool Bandit.
BILLY MAYS: Hi, Billy Mays here, for the world’s greatest insole, Impact Gel. Why am I smashing my heel with this hammer? [BANGING SOUNDS] To show you the amazing protection you get from Impact Gel.
[AD SOUNDTRACK/UP & UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: That last product, Impact Gel, in case you couldn’t hear him, is featured in the first episode of Mays’ new reality show on the Discovery Channel called Pitchmen. Billy Mays.
BILLY MAYS: You know, if you ask me what I am right now, I am a pitchman. I only know how to do one thing, sell products. And it was taboo at certain times during my career where we would call ourselves “professional demonstrators.” Now I’m proud to say I, Billy Mays, am a pitchman. That’s what I am.
GLENN HINSON: I think it’s a term that historically rises and falls.
MIKE VUOLO: Glenn Hinson is a folklorist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says that during the old medicine shows of the late 19th century, a pitch man would prefer to call himself a “talker” and to call his pitch a “lecture.”
GLENN HINSON: The idea of the lecture was to somehow wrap the rhetoric of the remarkable in the framing of the familiar. You wanted to invite your audience, the tip, to think differently about what they needed in their lives, so that the audience would reach into their pockets, pull out that dollar bill for that bottle of tonic and make the purchase.
DR. FRED BLOODGOOD: I’m going to paint a word picture that the smallest boy or girl in the audience can understand. Those of you that keep house, you have sitting at your back door what we call a slop bucket or a garbage can. You get…
[SOUNDTRACK/UP & UNDER]
GLENN HINSON: One medicine show doctor, Dr. Fred Bloodgood, he used to say that the credo of many of the med show talkers was - never use one word when four would suffice.
DR. FRED BLOODGOOD: I had been putting that same food into my stomach not for a day, not for a week, a month or a year but for five years, for ten years. And I’ve never cleaned it out.
[PITCH CONTINUES/UP AND UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: The first nail in the coffin of the old med shows was the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Its stated purpose was to prevent, quote, “the manufacture, sale or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines and liquors.”
DR. FRED BLOODGOOD: Something that would pass a tapeworm, head and all –
MIKE VUOLO: That put the medicine show on notice, and it eventually died out. Glenn Hinson.
GLENN HINSON: In the history of medicine shows, if you look at those performers who went on, from there performers would move into vaudeville. They would move, more particularly, into places like the Grand Old Opry. And in the Grand Ole Opry, where you have this idea of a radio show that combined pitches with entertainment, with the advent of television, it was a very simple move to make.
MIKE VUOLO: In the late 1940s, a guy named Nat Morris was hiring people, mostly his own family, to pitch products on the boardwalks of New Jersey. Nat Morris was the head of an extended family dynasty of pitchmen - in-laws, cousins, nephews. His own son Arnold was something of a pitching prodigy. You know that gimmick where some guy cuts through metal to demonstrate just how sharp the knife is? Arnold invented that 60 years ago.
ARNOLD MORRIS: This could be a chicken bone, it could be a ham bone, frozen food. This is steel against steel. Take a look at this. [TAPS] Something has to give. You see those filings over here? Now, there’s only one way to find out if that knife [TAPS] is still razor sharp. You go back to the same tomato. [SOUNDS] Today, tonight, tomorrow, next week, next year, for the rest of your life, you never, ever have to sharpen a knife.
MIKE VUOLO: Between the years 1948 and 1954, the number of American households owning TV sets shot from less than 1% to more than 55%. It was during that time that the Morrises took the pitches they perfected on the boardwalks and filmed them as commercials, modern-day medicine show talkers beamed right into our homes. They even shot half-hour spots, what we would now call infomercials, for the old DuMont Network. They were disguised as cooking shows but the whole point was to sell a Morris Family product called the Roto-Broil, a rotisserie.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
LESTER MORRIS: Hi, this is Lester Morris, the Roto Magician. Here’s our menu for today: Smorgasbord, Swedish Meatballs, Sil Salad and Skandithis Casserole…
[AD SOUNDTRACK/UP AND UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: Remember I said “extended family dynasty?” The Morrises were related to the Popeils, who struck gold in the 1960s with a whole line of kitchen gadgets: The Veg-O-Matic, Dial-O-Matic, even a Whip-O-Matic, pushing the infomercial pitch so deep into our pop cultural psyche that Dan Aykroyd spoofed it on Saturday Night Live, in 1976.
DAN AYKROYD: How many times has this happened to you? You have a bass. You’re trying to find an exciting new way to prepare it for dinner. You could scale the bass, remove the bass’ tail, head and bones, and serve the fish as you would any other fish dinner. But why bother now that you can use Robco’s amazing new kitchen tool, the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76?
[SOUND UP AND UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: If anyone could sell Aykroyd’s Bass-O-Matic -
DAN AYKROYD: The tool that lets you use the whole bass..
[AYKROYD/UP & UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: - surely it would be Ron Popeil. Of the entire clan of Morrises and Popeils, some of the best salesmen America has ever seen, it is Ron who has been the most successful. It is Ron who has elevated the infomercial to its grand synthesis of theater and commerce. It is Ron who best put to practice the old pitchman’s axiom, “It’s not what you sell it’s how you tell ‘em the price.”
RON POPEIL: You know you’re not gonna spend $400 for it, not 375 or 350, not 325, or even 300, not 275 or 250, not 225 or even 200 dollars, like you all may be thinking, not 190 or even 180. All you spend for this fabulous machine, an over $400 value, all you spend is just four easy monthly payments of 39.95.
REMY STERN: They never tell you what the full price is because psychologists have done research on this and found that breaking things into smaller payments fools the human mind into thinking that it’s really not the same thing.
MIKE VUOLO: Remy Stern is the author of But Wait, There’s More, a book about the infomercial industry. He says another pitchman’s ploy is to push the idea that time is running out, which he could do pretty convincingly on the boardwalk.
REMY STERN: Usually he has more, probably in his truck about a block away, but the boxes that you’ll see standing right next to him, there’ll be a limited number and he’ll use that to his advantage to suggest that if you don’t act now, you’re not gonna get this fantastic offer, which has since migrated to television, that same sense of creating this false scarcity.
MIKE VUOLO: False scarcity, though, is not as believable on TV. To reinforce the idea then, an infomercial might use a counter to tick down the time. Sometimes there’s a counter running up, tallying the number of items sold. This communicates what psychologists call social proof. If lots of other people are doing it, then you should too. And if you’re not, what’s wrong with you? Testimonials from people who are in a studio audience or may seem to be plucked randomly off the street serve a similar purpose.
WOMAN: I don’t have to go to the store to buy a rotisserie chicken. I can make my own now, and it comes out just scrumptious. I love it.
MIKE VUOLO: Social proof is often built right into the structure of an infomercial, where the pitchman works with a host who is ever so incredulous - at first. Remy Stern.
REMY STERN: She’ll usually start off the infomercial with questions like, I can’t really believe it does this, Jack. [CLIP]:
RON POPEIL: You can make pasta with the Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker in under three minutes.
WOMAN: From scratch?
RON POPEIL: No, no.
WOMAN: From scratch?
RON POPEIL: From scratch.
REMY STERN: She’s a proxy for the people at home who are saying the same thing, which is, “I can’t believe it does that.” Over the course of the infomercial, you’ll watch that her tone changes, and she’ll finally sort of succumb to the pitch and realize that this is the greatest machine she has ever seen.
WOMAN: It really is an exciting pasta maker, isn’t it? I mean, the Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker is sensational. Now, there’s the 1-800 number on your screen. I don’t know what you’re waitin’ for. It can’t get any better than this!
MIKE VUOLO: Near the end of an infomercial, a pitchman will make one last effort to hook you, by upping what’s called the perceived value of the deal.
RON POPEIL: In addition to that, you get a package of semolina flour. You also get a pasta fork. You get a measuring cup. You get a hundred dollars’ worth of coupons, as well as a recipe booklet with English and Spanish instructions.
MIKE VUOLO: When and how to ask for the money, false scarcity, social proof, perceived value.
RON POPEIL: Everybody that calls in the next 30 minutes will also receive, absolutely free, my new sausage-making attachment, with spices and casings included.
MIKE VUOLO: Ron Popeil has turned the art of the infomercial into a science. And if Ron Popeil has brought the half-hour form to its apotheosis, a company called Telebrands has done the same for the short form, spots that are no longer than a minute or two in length. Telebrands is headquartered in Fairfield, New Jersey. Displayed in the lobby of the building are honest-to-goodness trophies for products like the Better Pasta Pot and the World’s Safest Can Opener.
There’s even a letter from a professor of Mechanical Design at Princeton University, thanking Telebrand’s founder, A.J. Khubani, for a lecture he gave titled “Finding Winning Products.” That’s what they do at Telebrands.
A.J. KHUBANI: A lot of people see these commercials on TV and they say something like, “Well, you know, if that blanket with sleeves can sell, then anything will sell on TV.”
MIKE VUOLO: Telebrand’s President and CEO, A.J. Khubani.
A.J. KHUBANI: Well it’s really not that simple. It’s actually quite challenging to come up with a, a winning TV product. Even for us, we’ve been in the business for 26 years and we still fail 90 percent of the time.
MIKE VUOLO: One of the first products Khubani advertised on TV was a pair of sunglasses, in 1987.
ANNOUNCER: Introducing Amber Vision, the most amazing breakthrough in vision technology since glasses were invented.
[AD SOUNDTRACK UP & UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: He figured out that he could build brand recognition by blanketing the airwaves with cheap direct-to-consumer commercials and then take the product into retail stores where he slapped an “As Seen on TV” logo on them, which he designed himself. It’s a very lucrative formula, he told me, so that’s what he’s been doing ever since. But Khubani says he has a few key requirements for any idea before Telebrands will even consider developing it into a product.
A.J. KHUBANI: They all solve a common problem.
WOMAN: Are there places in your home where you wish you had a light, but you don’t?
A.J. KHUBANI: The other thing is that they have to be innovative or at least perceived as being innovative.
WOMAN: Oh no, that tired old style’s been around for a while. But now there’s EZ Combs, the easy, new way to create dozens of dazzling new hairstyles instantly.
A.J. KHUBANI: It has to be easy to manufacture en masse, which means that they’re usually low tech.
MAN: Fed up with spending hundreds of dollars on purses that just get soiled by dirty floors? Then you need Purse Hook!
A.J. KHUBANI: Ramping up high-tech products can take a long time, and we don’t have that kind of time.
MIKE VUOLO: That’s because the life cycle for a product, from the time it hits the air to the time it leaves the stores, can be as short as a few months. But every now and then, Telebrands comes up with a big seller than may linger for a few years. These are the products that pay the salaries of the 40 or so employees and have made Khubani a wealthy man. Maybe you’ve heard of the Ped Egg. That’s P-E-D, E-G-G. Khubani.
A.J. KHUBANI: It’s a product that removes calluses or dead skin from the bottoms of people’s feet. It works the same way that a, a cheese grater does, except it’s better blades and it catches the, the shaved calluses so it doesn’t make a mess.
MIKE VUOLO: Last year, more than 20 million people bought the Ped Egg. When I think back to the boardwalk of Atlantic City, as much as I can remember even the voices of some of the pitchmen out there, I can’t remember if we ever bought anything. It turns out we did.
BELLA VUOLO: I bought knives, I bought choppers, I bought a blender.
MIKE VUOLO: My mother, Bella Vuolo.
BELLA VUOLO: They had the gadgets that made fancy vegetables, which I bought, and could never do when I brought it home. They made it look so easy. You know, they sliced the tomato with one sweep. No, never happened.
MIKE VUOLO: My mother even has a few gadgets still tucked away in her closet. They’re just waiting to transform her kitchen and change her life.
BELLA VUOLO: This is the, the Vidalia Chop Wizard that I was telling you about. It does not do an onion as good as they say. It, it’s faster and easier by hand. I have a Quick Chopper, which I don’t think I ever used. It’s good for chopping but you’re a pretty good chopper. Oh, another one. [LAUGHS] This is a mixer jar. As you can see, I never used this one either. Some of the things I never used, brought it home and said, “Why did I buy it?” and some things I did use.
MIKE VUOLO: Why did you buy it?
BELLA VUOLO: He was a good pitchman. [LAUGHS]
MIKE VUOLO: Ron Popeil likes to tell a story about his cousin who sold a number of gadgets on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in the 1950s. This cousin of his was such a good pitchman that one customer stood there and bought every item he had, only to walk away with two big shopping bags and toss the whole lot of it into a trash can not far away. Maybe that story’s true, maybe it isn’t, but it was in the 1950s that television took notice of the lowly pitchman for his ability to sell and lifted him up off the boardwalks and the street corners. Television, you could say, saved the pitchman. If TV ad rates keep slipping and traditional advertising becomes a thing of the past, maybe it’ll be the pitchman’s turn to save TV.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
For On the Media, I’m Mike Vuolo.
[CLIP/“MR. POPEIL”/WEIRD AL YANKOVIC]:
AL YANKOVIC: I need a Vegematic. I need a Pocket Fisherman. I need a handy appliance that’ll scramble an egg while it’s still inside its shell.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]