It Slices, It Dices, and It Never Loses Its Edge!: 6 Must-have Facts about Infomercials

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Have you ever been laboriously peeling potatoes the old-fashioned way when suddenly you realized: "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 an in-the-shell egg scrambler irresistible.

1. The Pocket Fisherman Breaks the Seal

Picture 2.pngThe history of pitching unusual gadgets on television can be traced back to Samuel Jacob Popeil, known as S.J. to his family and friends. Popeil'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 TV. The first gizmo he pitched on television was the Pocket Fisherman, 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. Be sure to watch the video here.

2. The Guy Behind the Chia Pet is the same genius behind The Clapper

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.

3. But Wait! There's more!: Where infomercial phrases are born (and what Ginsu knives have to do with 'em)

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. 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.

4. Why Name Recognition is Important: The Tragedy Behind "I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up"

"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'd been saved by LifeCall after a tumble down her home stairs in 1989. Fore was paid a one-time fee 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 eventually filed for bankruptcy. The problem was that while the public remembered the slogan, they couldn't recall the product name. Mrs. Fore passed away in 1997 at the age of 81.

5. The Dark Secret Behind the Hoover Haircut

The Flowbee was invented by a San Diego carpenter named Rick Hunt. 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 logical next step would be to add a razor into the equation and turn a vacuum cleaner into a home-based barber shop. Scoff if you will, but here's the scary truth: in 2000 a columnist for Salon.com gave himself a Flowbee haircut and then visited several local barbers and hair stylists to ask their opinion, and all admitted it was a good cut.

6. All These Hits on One Giant LP

Long before Now That's What I Call Music was a gleam in Richard Branson's eye, there was K-Tel. 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'd started out selling kitchen gadgets, and eventually decided to branch out in to record albums. His idea "“ 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 of that era didn't advertise on television, 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 at time when a 45 rpm record cost 69 cents, 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.

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March 6, 2008 - 4:20am
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