Ron Popeil died this week. You may not know the name, but you do know the lines “But wait, there’s more,” and “Set it and forget it.”
“As Seen on TV,” was a Popeil invention.
It slices. It dices.
You know or have heard of the products, from the Veg-O-Matic to the spray can to cover bald spots or the Pocket Fisherman. You remember the name of the company: Ronco.
And if you grew up watching TV in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, you remember the endless late-night commercials. (“Operators are standing by.”) Children of the 1980s and 1990s remember Ron on that new innovation, the 30-minute infomercial. Or Dan Akroyd’s “Saturday Night Live” parody of the “Bass-O-Matic,” the blender that ground, chopped, diced and sliced fish.
Ron was one of the great TV hucksters of our time, and he came up with some brilliant products.
I worked with Ron for a month of intensive, daily interviews in 1993 for a book that was part-autobiography, part-business advice book on how to be successful. It had a terrible title, “Salesman of the Century,” and did not sell well. But I found our meetings to be fascinating, challenging and educational. I learned a lot. That was the good part. The bad: I couldn’t stop speaking like him.
The exaggerated expressions, the pauses, the loud voice. Because I was channeling his patter in the text, I found myself thinking and speaking like him.
He’d say on a Monday morning:
“Jeff, do you have any idea how many food dehydrators I sold this weekend on QVC?” “No, Ron. Tell me.”
I was being paid a flat fee, with no royalties for the book, so it wasn’t amazing, but back to business: can you tell me more about your childhood, please?
It was a miserable one, one so bad “I blocked most of it out,” he told me. At age 3, his parents divorced, they didn’t want to deal with Ron or brother Jerry and shipped them off to a boarding school, where they never got a visit from mom or dad. They were eventually sent to live with the grandparents. Ron wouldn’t see dad Sam again until age 16, when he started hawking dad’s kitchen products (the Slice-A-Way was an early version of the Dial-O-Matic) on the streets of Chicago, hoping for some love in return.
“I yelled. I hawked. And it worked. I was stuffing money into my pockets, more money than I had ever seen in my life.”
But the appreciation never materialized. And although it was Sam Popeil who invented many of the early products, Ron’s genius was to sell them on the new medium of TV, when advertising time was cheap and anyone could pay to enter the studio, and speak directly to thousands of viewers at once. Still, Sam “never said he loved me, even when banking his Chop-O-Matic and Veg-O-Matic checks.”
Because the childhood was so painful, I couldn’t get much out of Ron on the subject. Instead, we spent much of our time together discussing “problems” and marketing.
Ron taught me that all products aim to solve a basic problem. The telephone: how to bring people together without hopping on a horse and buggy, right? Or better yet, Ron’s “Feather Touch Knife,” which was “so sharp it could shave the eyebrows off a New Jersey mosquito.”
Problem: that dull knife of yours won’t cut very well.
Ron told me that to price a product effectively, it needed to be five times the cost in order to make a profit, after you factor in production, distribution and marketing costs. So your $25 gizmo needed to cost you $5 to make.
On TV, he loved selling the attributes of the item, and build up to the price, like a barker. “It’s not $200. It’s not $100, not even $75, but…$60, or…three…easy…payments…of $20.” (Watch a good Apple presentation, and you’ll notice it’s all about the features and the problems solved, until the very end, when they reveal the price.)
Ron told viewers they could only get the special discounted price if they promised to tell a friend, even though that was bogus. There was no way to check up on whether the referral actually came through. He’d urge them to buy two or three of the items, saying his product would make a great gift. And they would. Because “all you have to do is ask.”
At the time when we met, Ron was living in Beverly Hills, in a large, airy home that doubled as a set for the infomercials, with a mammoth size test kitchen. He had gone through 3 wives, and had a young girlfriend at the time. He had fathered three children, and told me that as a pop, “on a scale of one to ten, I was probably a three.”
I got the impression that all Ron really wanted out of life then was just one more hit. His final product was the “5-in-1” chicken fryer, which didn’t hit the cultural zeitgeist. The last I heard from Ron, in 2017, was that he wanted to do a new book about why it’s so hard to create products in today’s environment, because of regulations and issues with overseas manufacturing. When we talked about it, I tried to find the positive in there and solutions. But he only had negatives. Because there was no happy ending, I didn’t think anyone would really want to read it, I told him. There had to be a payoff.
But wait, there’s more?
Ron has left the building, and while his products are mostly hard to find now, his classic TV commercials and infomercials will live on, forever, thanks to YouTube.