Have you ever been laboriously peeling potatoes the old-fashioned way when suddenly you realize: “My life has been a waste! If only I had a set of Tater Mitts, I could have saved time and done something useful, like apply rhinestones and studs to all my clothing!” Of course you haven’t. No one has. Infomercial hucksters rely on lonely insomniacs with credit cards. There’s some sort of ambience in every living room during those late night TV viewing hours that makes the allure of a food dehydrator or salad spinner irresistible. How many of these “As Seen On TV” products were you ever tempted to order?
1. THE POCKET FISHERMAN
The history of pitching unusual gadgets on television can be traced back to Samuel Jacob Popeil, known as S.J. to his family and friends. S.J.’s family had long been hawking various kitchen utensils at fairs and from roadside stands, but S.J. was the first to realize that a much larger audience could be reached via television. The first gizmo he pitched on television was the Pocket Fisherman, a fishing pole small enough to keep in your glove compartment or briefcase in order to satisfy those sudden fly-casting urges. Even though veteran anglers debated the usefulness of the flimsy rod, Popeil retorted, “It’s not for using, it’s for giving.” The Pocket Fisherman is still selling millions of units annually today, some 40 years after the first commercial aired.
2. GINSU KNIVES
Despite their Japanese-sounding name, Ginsu knives were originally manufactured in Fremont, Ohio (the plant has since moved to Arkansas). The company and the cutlery were both originally called Quikut, but Dial Media, the direct marketing company that was trying to sell them, thought that name was a little bland. So they hired an advertising copywriter named Arthur Schiff to spice up their sales pitch. Schiff not only came up with a new name for the product—Ginsu—he also coined several phrases that are still staples in infomercials today, such as “Now how much would you pay?” and “Act now and you’ll receive…” But his pièce de résistance was “But wait! There’s more!” Dial Media also hired a local Japanese exchange student to portray a chef, and his karate-chopping method of slicing a tomato has become a kitschy classic.
“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” LifeCall, a medical alert system, inadvertently launched a successful catchphrase in the late 1980s, thanks to stand-up comics and radio DJs endlessly poking fun at it. The voice of “Mrs. Fletcher” was provided by Edith Fore, a 70-something widow who had been saved by LifeCall after a tumble down her home stairs in 1989. Fore was paid a one-time fee of $500 for her work in the infomercial and never received any royalties. Even though her phrase was printed on T-shirts and parodied in songs, LifeCall never saw an increase in sales, and filed for bankruptcy in 1987. The problem was that while the public remembered the slogan, they couldn’t recall the product name. As for Mrs. Fore: she passed away in 1997 at the age of 81.
The Flowbee was invented by a carpenter named Rick Hunts. One day on the job he happened to notice how efficient his shop vacuum was at removing sawdust from his hair. Somehow he figured that the natural next step would be to add a razor to the equation and turn a vacuum cleaner into a home-based barber shop. Scoff if you will, but in 2000 a columnist for Salon.com gave himself a Flowbee haircut and then visited several local barbers and hair stylists to ask their opinions; all admitted it was a good cut.
5. K-TEL “STARS”
Long before Now That’s What I Call Music was a gleam in Richard Branson’s eye, there was K-Tel "Stars." For kids in the 1970s and early 1980s that didn’t have the cash to buy every single they liked, much less an album, K-Tel was the affordable pipeline to the hits of the day. Philip Kives was a salesman who hailed from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Much like S.J. Popeil, he started out selling kitchen gadgets then eventually branched out into record albums. His idea was to cram some 20 to 25 songs on one LP (the average album at the time held about a dozen songs) and pitch them on rapid-fire TV commercials. The ads were ahead of their time; serious musical artists didn’t advertise on television at the time, and young music buyers were mesmerized when they heard a succession of five-second snippets of their favorite tunes on TV. Then there was the price factor; at a time when a 45 rpm record cost $.69, K-Tel offered the equivalent of 20 45s for the low price of $4.99. Kives cut costs by using ultra-thin (read: cheap) vinyl for his albums, and mastered the records at a lower volume, resulting in very thin grooves that allowed for more songs on each side.
6. CHIA PET
Ch-ch-ch-Chia turned into huge amounts of ch-ch-ch-change for Joseph Pedott. In the early 1970s he became aware of a small company in Chicago that was selling Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family, for the botanists in the audience) but was losing money on the deal. He bought the company and changed everything but the name. He came up with the idea of selling the seeds with a terra cotta figure that would sprout vegetation and become known as a “Chia Pet.” Pedott is also the genius behind another infomercial favorite: the Clapper. He took an existing sound-activated device called “The Great American Turn-On,” tweaked it, renamed it, and the rest is history.
7. MR. DENTIST
Sure, we laughed when we saw the commercials for Mr. Dentist, especially when it was suggested that families should purchase a second one to use on their dogs. (Maybe Ronco was trying to create a market for “Mr. Suture.”) But Mr. Dentist isn’t that dissimilar to the “spinbrushes” currently on the market, so maybe Ron Popeil was just ahead of his time. (Although dental hygiene products probably still don’t rate as “perfect” on anyone’s Christmas wish list.)
8. MR. MICROPHONE
Ensure your catcalls are always heard by passersby loudly and clearly with Mr. Microphone in your car! What “good looker” wouldn’t wait around at the promise of being picked up later by a rogue gang of strangers when hours of amplified fun are in store? Mr. Microphone’s transmitter broadcast on the low end of the FM radio dial, and since it had a very short range (not to mention the fidelity of a trophy wife), the user had to remain within a foot or two of the receiver for it to actually work.
9. RECORD VACUUM
The Ronco Record Vacuum’s name was misleading, because there was no actual suction device involved. Instead your valuable LPs and 45s (those are types of records, the way we used to listen to music, for you youngsters in the audience) were spun around and gently wiped by a felt strip that was glued inside the lip of the machine. Hopefully it removed all those oily fingerprints the demonstrator is leaving on his album by touching the bands with his fingers! By the way, Ronco’s Record Vacuum should not be confused with the Vac-O-Rec made by Robins, which really did “vacuum” your records.
10. EGG SCRAMBLER
Using a fork or whisk to scramble your eggs is oh so … wait for it … eggshausting. Ovaphiles who prefer texture and color consistency in their omelets scramble their eggs while they’re still inside the shell. One problem with the Egg Scrambler (other than it being hard to clean, and often breaking after four or five uses) was that it created a tiny hole in the shell, so if the user had any plans to hard boil said egg, there was a leakage problem. Not to worry; according to actual instructions included with the gadget, you simply needed to cover the hole with a piece of Scotch tape prior to boiling.
11. GREAT LOOKING HAIR
Great Looking Hair, or GLH, is sort of a spray-on version of mascara; the tiny colored fibers cling on to any existing hairs to give your noggin a fuller-haired look. Apparently it looks pretty convincing from a distance, but if any of those “babes” who are smitten by Mr. Mullet’s new look try running their fingers through it, they’ll need to apply some industrial solvent to get their digits unstuck.
12. HEAD ON
The commercial for Head On used to mention that the product was intended to relieve headache pain, but that line had to be axed from ads after the manufacturer couldn’t provide any clinical testing data to that pesky Better Business Bureau. Those customers who insisted they’d felt better seconds after applying the stuff directly to their foreheads were simply exhibiting the placebo effect, since the “active ingredients” in Head On were in miniscule concentrations.
13. BATTLE OF THE BOTTLE CUTTERS
Both Ronco and K-Tel marketed a product designed to recycle those old wine and beer bottles into attractive juice tumblers, vases, and ashtrays. What a great craft project—they had everything, from a blade sharp enough to etch glass to the occasional flying shards when the bottle didn’t break just so.
The K-Tel version even had the added hazard of an open flame! In an era where parents pad their youngsters in layers of protective gear before allowing them to climb astride a bicycle, it boggles the mind that these gadgets were promoted as appropriate gifts for the kiddies.
14. BATTERY TESTER
Have you ever switched on your flashlight during a power outage only to find that the batteries are dead? With the amazing Ronco Battery Tester, you can find out that your flashlight isn’t going to work before you even install the batteries! If you want to be pedantic you could point out that a dead battery is pretty useless whether you find out it’s a dud by switching on your portable radio and getting no sound or by placing it in the battery tester. In either case you’re stuck rifling through the junk drawer trying to find that package of Double-As that you know you bought just a few months ago (but Ron Popeil didn’t get rich by relying on consumers using logic).
15. SIT-ON COMPACTOR
Those electric trash compactors that use 3,000 pounds of brute force can be a bit pricey, so an affordable solution to your garbage-compressing problem is the Popeil Sit-On Compactor. There’s no electricity required, just the cooperation of the heftiest person in your household. The cushioned top allows the device to double as a handy stool, and you can also customize it to match your kitchen decor. Imagine how flattering it would be for your hostess to invite you (after carefully sizing up all her guests) to do your part for ecology and squish the dinner party refuse while she loads the dishwasher.