Ron Popeil, king of late night infomercials, dead at 86

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.

Masterful taglines

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 Gen X.

A graduate of the University of Illinois, Popeil, a tireless inventor and founder of Ronco, was also a CEO, sales rep and user-in-chief rolled into one. Be it the Showtime Rotisserie of “Set it and forget it!” fame, or the Food Dehydrator or aerosol cans of GLH-9 (short for “great-looking hair”), Popeil was right there throughout the ’80s and ’90s, dishing out masterful taglines and no-brainer sales pitches for the kitschiest inventions known to mankind. 

All the while, we laid in our beds, or leaned forward in our dorm rooms, lulled by the oohs and aahs of the studio audience, elicited by Popeil’s effortless product demonstrations alongside a politely cynical, yet doting cohost. 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 William Shatner-style staccato to make his points: “A child! Can make! Homemade sausages!” he was found shouting on QVC one night in 1997.

The “Bass-O-Matic”

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.

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Dan Aykroyd’s 1976 “Bass-O-Matic” sketch on Saturday Night Live made Ron Popeil a pop culture celebrity. thejobofmarketing.com

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 then 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 the Associated Press for a 1997 profile. “But I can’t stop. If there’s a need for these things, I can’t help myself.”

“Touch it! It even feels real” 

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.