Do you remember the first Christmas present you bought with someone else’s money? You know how it is – you’re five or six, you really want to get someone something, but you can only do it if Mom or Dad fronts you the cash, and you can’t believe when they actually do, and you’re so excited for that moment when you can say “I got you that!”
Well, for me, that present was an Auto Cup. My dad regularly took a cup of coffee into the car with him, or a thermos, and even as a wee tyke I knew it was more likely than not he was going to spill it. Then I saw an ad for the Auto Cup by Ronco – it’s the first ad in this collection – and knew that’s what I wanted him to have. “Available at these and other fine stores,” the ad promised, and sure enough, it was at our local Laverdiere’s Super Drug Store. Dad was very pleased with it, using it for years, and I had happily if unwittingly been inducted into the group of people who’d been talked into buying an item that straddled the fine line between stupid and clever.
Chalk that up to the salesmanship of Ron Popeil. His father Samuel started the business, developing the Veg-O-Matic and the Pocket Fisherman, but Ron showed a genius for advertising them that even his father couldn’t match. Malcolm Gladwell explains it in his New Yorker article on Popeil: “When Michael Jordan pitches McDonald’s hamburgers, Michael Jordan is the star. But when Ron Popeil… pitched, say, the Chop-O-Matic, his gift was to make the Chop-O-Matic the star.” Again and again, Popeil brings the message home about why the product is so great, demonstrating it in numerous ways so that the viewer completely understands and wants the product. Watch him in action, selling the Chop-O-Matic here.
Popeil could sell anything, and throughout the ’70s he pretty much did. Among his products were such gold mines as record vacuums, to get dust off your thirty-three-and-a-thirds; smokeless ashtrays, speed tufters (“Teenagers will have fun making colorful rugs and pillows, even handbags!” Um, no they won’t either), glass frosters, in-shell egg scramblers, and lots lots more. All of these gadgets were both ridiculous and somehow indispensable, things that you never knew you always wanted, making your life easier even when you couldn’t help but spot the impracticality.
Example: the first time I saw the now-legendary Mr. Microphone ad, I couldn’t help noticing that you couldn’t be more than five feet away from the radio – and I was just a kid. But that’s not what anyone remembers now – they all remember the line, “Hey, good-looking! We’ll be back to pick you up later!” That’s because it was on The Simpsons, just one of many pop-culture salutes to Ronco, ranging from A (Dan Aykroyd pitching the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76) to M (Eddie Murphy hawking the Galactic Prophylactic) to Y (Weird Al Yankovic’s B-52s-inspired “Mr. Popeil”).
Speaking of pop-culture, these commercials introduced more catch-phrases into the lexicon than you realize – “It slices! It dices!” “Four easy payments!” “Now how much would you pay? Well, don’t answer yet…” “But wait! There’s more!” “Set it and forget it!” “And it really really works!” “Isn’t that amazing!” “Makes a great Christmas gift!” (You could always tell Christmas was coming when the number of Ronco ads on TV skyrocketed, all of them ending with the zesty version of “Deck the Halls” by Ferrante & Teicher.)
Ironically, in an era when most of the stores advertised at the end of his ’80s ads have gone out of business, Ron Popeil is still going strong (he’ll be 82 in May), semiretired but still inventing. His Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ sold over 8 million units (and that’s just in the United States). He’s the greatest salesman alive, in no small part because he believes in what he’s selling – read the end of the Gladwell article, which shows him selling a million dollars’ worth of rotisseries in an hour. Oh, and Popeil also appears in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest collection of olive oil bottles. Truly, the man’s greatness knows no bounds. As far as I’m concerned, the greatest thing he did was get me started on giving gifts that people were grateful to receive. Now how much would you pay for that?