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

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 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.

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]

When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

Before Nicholas Meyer's made-for-television film The Day After had its official airing on November 20, 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan and his Joint Chiefs of Staff were given screening copies. In his diary, Reagan recorded his reaction to seeing Meyer's graphic depiction of a nuclear holocaust that devastates a small Kansas town, writing:

"It's very effective and left me greatly depressed. So far they [ABC] haven't sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled and I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the 'anti-nukes' or not, I can't say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war."

Just a few days later, the rest of America would see what had shaken their president. Preempting Hardcastle and McCormick on ABC, the 8 p.m. telefilm drew a staggering 100 million viewers, an audience that at the time was second only in non-sports programming to the series finale of M*A*S*H. According to Nielsen, 62 percent of all televisions in use that night were tuned in.

What they watched didn't really qualify as entertainment; Meyer stated he had no desire to make a "good" movie with stirring performances or rousing music, but a deeply affecting public service announcement on the horrors of a nuclear fallout. He succeeded … perhaps a little too well.


The idea for The Day After came from ABC executive Brandon Stoddard, who had helped popularize the miniseries format with Roots. After seeing The China Syndrome, a film about a nuclear accident starring Jane Fonda, Stoddard began pursuing an "event" series about what would happen to a small town in middle America if tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated to catastrophic levels. Films like Dr. Strangelove had depicted moments between politicians debating whether to use powerful weapons of mass destruction, but few had examined what the consequences would be for the everyday population.


Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union "the evil empire" in 1982, so the time seemed right to bring such a project to TV viewers. Stoddard hired Barnaby Jones writer Edward Hume to craft a script: Hume drew from research conducted into the effects of nuclear war and radiation fallout, including a 1978 government report, The Effects of Nuclear War, that contained a fictionalized examination of how a strike would play out in a densely populated area. Stoddard also enlisted Meyer, who had proven his directorial chops with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but considered the assignment a "civic responsibility" more than a creative endeavor.

Meyer and the film's producers selected Lawrence, Kansas (pop. 50,000) as the setting for the movie and got permission from city officials to turn their town into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Throughout the summer of 1982, tons of ash, dirt, and rubble were trucked in and spread over the ground; food coloring blackened farming crops. Thousands of locals were enlisted to portray victims of a nuclear attack, agreeing to roll in dirt and have their hair shaved off to simulate a miserable death via radiation poisoning.

Meyer believed that setting the film in a small town would make it more impactful and relatable to audiences. "Other movies that had attempted to deal with the subject of nuclear holocaust had always been set in big cities," he recalled in 2003. "But a great number of people in the United States do not live in big cities, so they were witnessing an event that seemed to bear scant relation to them."

That pursuit of realism wasn't always to the network's benefit. ABC originally planned a four-hour film to run on two consecutive nights, but filling up that much commercial time proved to be a challenge. Fearing a graphic and partisan display of anti-nuclear propaganda, many loyal advertisers refused to let their spots air during The Day After. (Meyer later joked that all the "generals" pulled out, including General Mills and General Foods.) They were ultimately able to sell a little over 10 minutes of commercial time, which prompted executives to condense the movie to a two-hour presentation. Meyer, who thought the script was padded to begin with, agreed with the decision.

ABC sensed that the film would be provocative and took unprecedented steps to handle the inevitable viewer response. A 1-800 number was set up to field calls from people concerned about an actual nuclear disaster; the network also issued pamphlets that acted as viewing guides, with fact sheets on nuclear weapons. Psychologists warned audiences would experience "feelings of depression and helplessness." Meyer was, in effect, making a disaster movie with the characters being offered no help of rescue. The film had been openly endorsed by anti-nuclear organizations as being a $7 million advertisement for their stance, and some TV industry observers wondered whether ABC would even air it at all.


Prior to The Day After's November 20 debut, actor John Cullum appeared onscreen and delivered a warning. Calling the film "unusually disturbing," he advised young children to be led away from the television and for parents to be prepared to field questions older kids might have.

A still from 'The Day After' (1983)

With that, The Day After commenced. It was every bit as terrifying as viewers had been told it would be. For the first 50 minutes or so, actors like Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Steve Guttenberg established their characters in Lawrence, largely oblivious to an incident on the border of East Germany that triggered an armed response from both Russia and the U.S. As missiles fell, a mushroom cloud vaporized the community; those who survived were doomed to brief and miserable lives as radiation destroyed their bodies.

Dramatizing what had previously been a sterile discussion about nuclear defenses had its intended effect. Viewers shuffled away from their televisions in a daze, struck by the bleak consequences of an attack. The people of Lawrence, who had a private screening, were particularly affected—it was their town that appeared destroyed. Residents exited the theater crying.

What ABC lacked in ad revenue it more than made up for in ratings. The mammoth audience was comparable to Super Bowl viewership; the network even presented a post-"game" show of sorts, with Ted Koppel hosting a roundtable discussion of the nuclear threat featuring Carl Sagan and William F. Buckley. Sagan is believed to have coined the term "nuclear winter" on the program, while Secretary of State George Shultz argued the necessity of harboring nuclear weapons to make sure the nation could protect itself.

The experience stuck with Reagan, who signed a nuclear arms treaty—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty—with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, leading to longstanding speculation that The Day After may have helped sober political attitudes toward mutually assured destruction.


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