When you see the words, "As-Seen-On-TV" on a package, come across a device with "-O-Matic" in its name, or hear the phrases, "But wait, there's more!" or "Set it and forget it," you have one man to thank — inventor and king of the infomercial — Ron Popeil.
Popeil's father, Samuel, owned a manufacturing plant in Chicago, Illinois that made small kitchen products. In 1951, at age 16, Ron started selling these products at street markets around Chicago and was soon hawking the products at the Woolworth's store in downtown Chicago during winters.
During summers, Popeil sold the products at county and state fairs, and at home and garden shows. At a time when the average monthly income in the U.S. was $3,300, Popeil claimed to be pulling in $1,000 a week!
In 1964, after a year of college at the University of Illinois, Popeil teamed up with fellow student Mel Korey to found Ronco Inc. They brought out their first product, the Ronco Spray Gun, which was a sprayer that included tablets made from soap, wax, insecticide or herbicide. The Spray Gun could be used to wash and wax a car, wash windows, fertilize or kill weeds on a lawn.
The real beauty of the product was that consumers would have to keep buying the tablets long after the product had been sold, sort of like the gift that keeps on giving.
Popeil traveled down to a television station in Florida to tape a commercial for the Ronco Spray Gun, and the commercial soon began appearing in cheaper late-night time slots on television stations in Illinois and Wisconsin.
The commercials pioneered the use of "trade support marketing," wherein the names of the retail outlets that carried the product were included in the television commercial. Within four years, the Ronco Spray Gun had sold almost one million units.
The Ronco strategy
Pioneering elements of Ronco were that its products were inexpensive, usually under $20, and the fact that the company brought out a continuous stream of new products. Potential new products were rated on their ability to solve a problem, their novelty, their mass appeal, their profit margin, and their potential to be demonstrated on TV.
The phrases used by Popeil in his commercials started showing up in the public lexicon, phrases such as, "As seen on TV," "the perfect Christmas gift," "the miracle (whatever product he was promoting)" and the truly iconic, "And that's not all!"
It was Ronco's next product, the "Chop-O-Matic" that really put the company on the map. Initially created by Samuel Popeil, Ron's father, it was a "food chopper with rotating blades." Sam Popeil went on to create the "Dial-O-Matic" and the blockbuster "Veg-O-Matic," which sold over nine million units, bringing in $50 million. Today, you can see an original Veg-O-Matic at the Smithsonian museum.
Ronco's next blockbuster was its London Aire Hosiery, which were pantyhose that were "guaranteed in writing not to run." The television ads showed Popeil attacking the pantyhose with a nail file, scissors, a scouring pad, and a lit cigarette, without producing a single run.
Ronco really hit its stride during the 1970s with its sales of The Miracle Broom, the Roller Measure, the Salad Spinner, the Cookie Machine, and the Miracle Brush. The Smokeless Ashtray was advertised as, "[For the smoker who] cares about his family," and it was offered in both home and car models. The Ronco Egg Scrambler whisked an egg while still in its shell.
Another Ronco product, Mr. Microphone, allowed you to broadcast your voice over any FM radio. It spawned an iconic television commercial that has been parodied in the film, Police Academy 2 and on a The Simpsons episode entitled, "Radio Bart".
It was another invention by Samuel Popeil that really became a blockbuster for Ronco — the Pocket Fisherman. It featured a telescoping rod and could fit into a car's glove compartment. The most famous line from the television commercial was, "The biggest fishing invention since the hook ... and still only $19.95!" The Pocket Fisherman sold a staggering 35 million units.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, Popeil pioneered compilation record albums that were promoted on television. Titles included Salsa Con Yenyere - Vol. 1, The Stud, and Black Explosion. In 1983, Ronco went bankrupt, but Popeil emerged in 1989 to sell the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator. By 1993, it had sold $80 million worth.
Next up was Popeil's GLH Formula #9. It was a fibrous aerosol spray-on toupee that came in nine colors and cost $39.92 a can. Colloquially known as "spray-on hair," Popeil sold a whopping 900,000 cans within a year.
Popeil followed that up with the Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker, which sold more than 500,000 units.
Popeil gets his just desserts
In 1993, Ron Popeil received the Ig Nobel Prize in Consumer Engineering. This satiric prize is awarded annually to ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. The prizes are presented by actual Nobel Prize winners in a ceremony that takes place at Harvard University. The winners then give lectures at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1995, Popeil released his autobiography entitled, Salesman of the Century, a title that seems to be genuinely lacking in hyperbole. In his 2009 book, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, author Malcolm Gladwell included an interview with Ron Popeil.
Finally, no discussion of products sold during the heyday of the infomercial would be complete without a mention of the Flowbee. It was not a Popeil product but was invented in 1986 by a San Diego carpenter. It is a vacuum cleaner attachment that is used for cutting hair.
Widely parodied in films, such as 1992's Wayne's World, a version of the Flowbee is actually used onboard the International Space Station due to the vacuum's ability to collect hair particles while also cutting. To date, over two million Flowbees have been sold.