Ron Popeil was the sizzle of American ingenuity, personified

Jul 29, 2021, 1:46 AM | Updated: 12:08 pm

Come, young ones: Gather around the glow of the smartphone’s screen for a tale of a distant time when we watched TV on big boxy machines, and switched channels when we were bored.

There were commercials — several of them — between the segments of TV shows. What’s more, in the distant era before streaming, you had to watch them all — or, if you had time, run to the kitchen or the bathroom. You couldn’t pause, or fast forward, or take the screen with you.

And in the darkest, wee-est hours, when all the real programming ran out, the night creatures emerged — beasts called infomercials that were entire TV programs about people selling products that might be useful to you but that you probably didn’t know you wanted.

These immediate forebears of home-shopping channels and, beyond them, the content marketing techniques of the 21st century were where Ron Popeil, an American original who gave the world the word “Ronco” and died Wednesday at 86, thrived.

America has always been smitten by both high-spirited inventors and yarn-spinning salesmen. Popeil was both, amplified by the airwaves into millions of homes. He was a gadget innovator like his father, yes, but a popularizer as well, a man who intuited consumers’ common-sense needs, then found accessible ways to entice them into making purchases.

He titled his 1996 memoir “Salesman of the Century,” and he was a 20th-century man to the core, a cultural descendant of both Thomas Edison and P.T. Barnum. He was a guy whose “As Seen On TV” commercials in the 1970s, from the astonishingly wireless Mr. Microphone to the Popeil Pocket Fisherman to the Rhinestone & Stud Setter, became pop-culture touchstones — because he managed to both come up with them and become their public face for the television-soaked generation we now call X.

He was CEO, sales rep and user-in-chief rolled into one. Be it the Showtime Rotisserie (“Set it and forget it”), the Food Dehydrator or aerosol cans of GLH-9 (“GLH” being short for “great-looking hair”), he was right there, barking out its virtues to us in the 1980s and 1990s as we laid in our beds and contemplated turning off the TV. He edited his own infomercials, scrawled out his own cue cards, wrote the copy for his “operators standing by.”

He would call his babies by affectionate names (The Popeil Electric Pasta-Sausage Maker became, simply, “Pasta-Sausage”), and he was known to say things like, “I created the jerky category.” Now and then he would drift into Shatner-style staccato to make his points: “A child! Can make! Homemade sausages!” he was found shouting on QVC one night in 1997.

But wait — there’s more. As 20th century as he was — a Chicago open-market barker who used TV to propel himself toward success — he also saw the possibilities that were just ahead and are now playing out in the fragmented 21st century, an era when all media blends into one big glop and advertising becomes content, then becomes advertising again.

One chief reason for Popeil’s ubiquity became evident when people decided to poke fun at him — because he chose, craftily and strategically, to always be in on the joke.

When Dan Aykroyd sent him up on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976 with the “Bass-O-Matic” commercial parody, Popeil realized it was free publicity, just as he did when “Weird Al” Yankovic recorded a parody song. Years later, Popeil guest-starred as himself on various TV shows from “The X Files” to the animated “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill.”

Most prominently, though, he cheerfully gave away his infomercial content to moviemakers looking for something to be playing on TV in the background of their films. In this way did he extend his reputation for ubiquity — and his growing wink-nudge pop-culture brand — for free, with no effort at all. Others did the work, and he got the eyeballs.

Even after success, bankruptcy and a second chapter of success, Popeil insisted that his drive to invent was more than mercantile; it was, he said, a bit obsessive. “I have enough money today,” he told this reporter for a 1997 Associated Press profile. “But I can’t stop. If there’s a need for these things, I can’t help myself.”

In that profile, Popeil demonstrated how “GLH-9” was doing on the bald spot on the back of his scalp after several hours, some of them under a shopping channel’s blistering lights. What didn’t make it into the story was that Popeil exhorted the visiting journalist: “Touch it! It even feels real.” The journalist did, and it did — sort of.

Interludes like that — in-person interactions that felt like moments in an infomercial — help explain the reverse: moments in his infomercials that felt like in-person interactions. Those were Popeil’s stock in trade. The best performers — and that cohort includes the best salespeople — can make you feel as if they’re not performing at all.

So in the 1970s, you believed that a Mr. Microphone could open the door to all sorts of ways to impress the opposite sex. In the 1990s, you completely bought the notion that if Ron Popeil could stand there, on the set of his infomercial, and make a delectable sausage of fresh salmon, dill, soy and crushed red pepper in two minutes, that somehow you could too.

You believed. Which has always been the underpinning of good sales. And you believed, too, that this guy — this garrulous man who was both nationally recognizable and RIGHT THERE in your room at 2 a.m., talking obviously to only you — would, tomorrow and next month and next year, keep visiting you late at night with things you never, ever knew you needed.

Or, as Popeil himself loved to say, wait — there’s more. For Ron Popeil, his feet planted squarely at the intersection of Barnum and Edison, there always was.

___

Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, spent several days with Ron Popeil for an AP profile on him in 1997. Follow Anthony on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE -  Silvio Berlusconi, leader of center-right, populist Forza Italia is flanked by his partner ...
Associated Press

He’s back! Italy’s Berlusconi wins Senate seat after tax ban

ROME (AP) — Just in time to celebrate his 86th birthday, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi is making his return to Italy’s parliament, winning a seat in the Senate nearly a decade after being banned from holding public office over a tax fraud conviction. Berlusconi, who has made personal comebacks a hallmark of Italian politics […]
15 minutes ago
FILE - The Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline and the transfer station of the OPAL gas pipeline, the...
Associated Press

Germany: Pressure drops in 2nd Russian gas pipeline

BERLIN (AP) — The Nord Stream 1 pipeline leading from Russia to Europe has reported a drop in pressure, only hours after a leak was reported in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea off Denmark, the German economy ministry said. “We are investigating this incident as well, together with the authorities concerned […]
1 day ago
FILE - AFC quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15), of the Kansas City Chiefs passes against the NFC durin...
Associated Press

NFL ends Pro Bowl; skills competitions, flag game instead

The Pro Bowl got a major makeover. The NFL has eliminated its full-contact all-star game and is replacing it with weeklong skills competitions and a flag football game. The new event will be renamed “The Pro Bowl Games” and will feature AFC and NFC players showcasing their football and non-football skills in challenges over several […]
1 day ago
A protestor holds a placard against a state funeral for former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe o...
Associated Press

Tense Japan holds funeral for assassinated ex-leader Abe

TOKYO (AP) — A rare and controversial state funeral for assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began Tuesday in tense Japan where the event for one of the country’s most divisive leaders has deeply split public opinion. Abe’s widow, Akie Abe, in a black formal kimono, walked slowly into the Budokan hall venue carrying an […]
1 day ago
FILE- Hilaree Nelson of Telluride, Colorado, left and James Morrison of Tahoe, California, raise th...
Associated Press

Famed American ski mountaineer missing in Nepal mountain

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Rescuers in a helicopter were searching on the world’s eighth-highest mountain Tuesday for a famed U.S. ski mountaineer a day after she fell off the mountain near the peak. Also Monday, an avalanche at a lower elevation on Mount Manaslu swept several climbers, killing a Nepali guide and injuring other climbers. […]
1 day ago
South Carolina Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood, talks about a total ban on abortion he has proposed ...
Associated Press

Major abortion law changes unlikely in S. Carolina after Roe

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Whether conservative South Carolina changes its abortion laws at all in the wake of this year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision may be decided by divided conservatives Tuesday in the state House. South Carolina for decades was at the forefront of passing more restrictive abortion laws that challenged Roe v. Wade. before […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Here are 4 signs the HVAC unit needs to be replaced

Pool renovations and kitchen upgrades may seem enticing, but at the forefront of these investments arguably should be what residents use the most. In a state where summertime is sweltering, access to a functioning HVAC unit can be critical.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Vaccines are safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Are you pregnant? Do you have a friend or loved one who’s expecting?
Ron Popeil was the sizzle of American ingenuity, personified