I once spent a few minutes on the phone with Ron Popeil, the legendary infomercial pitchman who died on Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 86 . Naturally, he tried to sell me a gizmo to cook my Thanksgiving turkey.
To be fair, that was the point of the call. I was interviewing Popeil, the smooth-talking promoter of products ranging from spray-on hair to pasta-making machines, because I was writing a story about all the weird appliances on the market to help you prepare your holiday feast. Popeil was getting ready to launch an olive-oil fryer that he said would do justice to the big bird. He added that the world can never have enough ways to cook the fowl favorite.
“There has always been a fascination with products that do whole turkeys,” he happily told me.
That was Popeil in a nutshell, always smiling and always selling. But it would be a mistake to write off the Bronx-born businessman simply as a carnival barker for a new era. In fact, Popeil, whether by design or by dint of his sunny personality, proved to be something much more significant.
He was a visionary who changed the way America shopped.
Popeil understood the power of a good idea, as in a better (and faster) way to cook a turkey. He also understood the power of television as a narrative medium. Put it all together and Popeil made commerce into a form of entertainment.
Popeil’s infomercials shaped and defined the advertising format in its infancy decades ago, playing out like mini dramas (or sitcoms) with a homey touch. He set up the problem — say, the high cost of beef jerky ($36 a pound!). Then, he began to showcase his product as the solution, but as if he was telling a story rather than, well, selling. It was only about halfway into the infomercial that he commenced with the hard pitch. Hey, why ruin a good narrative with an actual, um, commercial?
It wasn’t long before others caught on to Popeil’s approach. Eventually, we had a wave of TV pitchmen (including celebrities) selling everything from electric grills (yes, George Foreman) to pillows (as in the My Pillow guy). We also had thriving networks, such as QVC and HSN, devoted to the idea of shopping as entertainment.
Popeil’s fame was such that he became a brand unto himself, worthy of the memorable “Saturday Night Live” Super Bass-O-Matic skit that mocked his whole concept of handy-household-helper products. Indeed, his main company was called Ronco, at least before he sold it in 2005 for $55 million.
In some ways, Popeil lived long enough to see his idea of shopping-as-entertainment fall out of favor. Internet-driven commerce is about a different form of engagement, one that is much less story-driven. If anything, it’s about the user review rather than the pitchman being the guide.
But Popeil’s influence can still be seen. When we talk about the future of brick-and-mortar retail as being “experiential,” we are really talking about Popeil’s idea. It’s selling in an indirect (and entertaining) way.
Let’s also not forget what Popeil was selling. He marketed new products (the Pocket Fisherman!, Mr. Microphone!) that promised to change the way we go about our daily lives and spend our leisure time. Of course, Popeil didn’t invent the concept of invention. That’s been around as long as the introduction of the wheel. But he popularized it for the mass-market era. Anyone who has touted their invention on “Shark Tank” owes him a debt of gratitude.
So, did I buy Popeil’s olive-oil fryer? Nah. I figured my oven was good enough for the task of cooking my turkey, even if it took longer doing so. But I watched the informercial for the product again this morning and found myself slightly tempted. “This whole turkey was fried in only 43 minutes,” Popeil says, before mentioning the special-offer price.