Ron Popeil, a 20th – and 21st Century Capitalist
The recently deceased Ron Popeil (1935-2021) has alternately been described as an inventor, entrepreneur, infomercial star, pop-culture figure, embodiment of the American dream, and a cross between P.T. Barnum and Thomas Edison. Yet none of those labels – or the total of them – truly capture the full measure of the man who turned “Set it and Forget It” into a catch phrase, made spray-on-hair seem almost credible, and set free would-be decorators with the device that would be known as “The Bedazzler.”
Unlike Barnum, Popiel believed in what he was selling – fervently, passionately. He wasn’t duping the American public. He was offering their money back if they were unhappy with their purchase! And unlike Edison, whose vision was so grand he helped usher in electricity and is the father of modern communications (including recorded voice and motion pictures) Popeil was interested in solving smaller problems.
It’s impossible to imagine Edison worrying about how to scramble an egg in its shell to eliminate runny egg whites or how to capture smoke in a “smokeless ashtray” back when smoking was de rigueur. Yet each of Popeil’ inventions is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
DIRECT-RESPONSE TV SALES
Yet perhaps most of all, he helped change the way things are sold, being as much of a commerce pioneer as Walmart’s Sam Walton or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Before there was QVC or HSN – television stations devoted exclusively to selling everything ranging from clothes to makeup to jewelry to home furnishings (and everything in between), there were commercials starring the charismatic and convincing Popeil. “Ron literally invented the business of direct-response TV sales,” Steve Bryant, a one-time QVC host, said in 1994. “Ron paints in very definable brushstrokes, and every doubt in the customer’s mind is wiped away.”
His “special TV presentations” (such as the three-plus-minute TV offer for the Chop-o-Matic, in the ‘50s) eventually gave way to full-fledged infomercials, presentations of as long as a half-hour, for selling a product like his famous Rotisserie, where he could demonstrate the invention’s effectiveness more in real time.
By filming his informercials before an in-person audience – asked to taste the food, or try the product – he gave a personal touch and authenticity that appealed to the at-home viewer. Of course, his at-home audience for long-form infomercials was often sleep-deprived, as infomercials were the pre-streaming version of wee-hours entertainment. He understood if not invent FOMO (fear of missing out) as he offered inducements to order now, with special add-ons that might include product upgrades, a two-for-one special, or a reduced price – available to the first 50 callers to reach the operators who were standing by.
“AS SEEN ON TV”
According to Popeil’s own website, he appeared on “more television channels for more hours in more markets for more years than virtually all other celebrities in American television history.” His sales methods were quickly picked up by other TV pitchmen (and women.) The expression and branding “As Seen on TV” was first coined to describe Ron’s his success and method of selling.
Of course, part of what fueled the excitement of both Popeil and the audience was that he was the inventor. “People always want to buy a product from an inventor, not just a salesperson,” he once said. To be fair, he did start off as a teen pitching products invented by his father, who is reported to have created the Chop-o-Matic and the V/eg-o-Matic, as well as the Pocket Fisherman. As a teenager Ron started selling his father’s inventions at a Walgreen’s in Chicago, often pulling in as much as $500 a day.
By the ‘60s, the New York City native had formed his own company, Ronco, and would eventually amass a fortune estimated at some $200 million. His lack of savvy and interest in the business likely contributed to its somewhat murky history: Ronco was forced into liquidation in 1984, according to the book, But Wait! There’s More!. Popeil bought the trademarks and inventory back for an estimated $2 million. Several years later, he spent $33,000 to make a one-hour infomercial for a food dehydrator. He later spend another $60 million to broadcast it on local stations and cable channels; resulting in more than $90 million in sales, Popeil claimed.
Ronco was sold in 2005, two years later it filed for Chapter 11. Its status at the time of his death was unclear, as was Popeil’s involvement in either the company or inventing. Yet at the height of his fame, he sold more than $1 billion in Rotisseries alone, and in 2000 established a QVC record by selling approximately 150 units each minute during a one-hour live segment.
Popeil shrewdly embraced his celebrity status. He allowed segments of his infomercials to be shown in TV and movies. He embraced parody, but never ended up being the butt of a joke. He played along – half-joking, half-serious – when late-night host Conan O’Brien sprayed “GLH” (an acronym for “Great Looking Hair” onto Popeil’s own bald spot.
One could even say that though the current fragmented media landscape was one that Popeil did not embrace, he helped pave the way for today’ celebrity inventors, brand representatives, and influencers. Would Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS shapewear have the same appeal if Kardashian were not credited as the designer? Former child actors Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have won three CFDA awards for their upscale brand The Row. Pop star Rihanna helped reshape the way makeup and lingerie are sold by offering shades to appeal to a broad range of skin tones.
The man who coined “Set it and forget it” for his rotisserie did indeed set the stage for a new way of buying and selling, and is unlikely we will forget him, his iconic products – or catchphrases – anytime soon.
Ronco’s Most Popular Products*
Chop-O-Matic is among the first products Popeil sold (though it is thought to have been invented by his father, Samuel) and trademarked using the hyphen-O-hyphen branding. This non-electric, handheld food processor promised home cooks they could have “All your onions chopped to perfection without shedding a single tear.”
Mr. Microphone was a groundbreaking product that introduced much of the U.S. to the concept of karaoke – at home, no less. A short-range, hand-held transmitter would broadcast singing over an FM radio.
Popeil Pocket Fisherman
For those anglers who never wanted to get caught without a fishing pole! Ron Popeil marketed the pocket-size fishing pole as “the biggest fishing invention since the hook … and still only $19.95!”
A lifelong hater of scrambled eggs that had runny whites, Popeil created this device that, as the name implies, scrambled eggs inside the shell.
GLH-9 Hair in a Can Spray
“GLH” stood for “great-looking hair.” Popeil demonstrated it in himself, and was known to spend hours with it on under bright studio lights.
Rhinestone Stud Setter (AKA “he Bedazzler”
Popeil’s Rhinestone Stud Setter was rebranded as the Bedazzler, with the pitch “It changes everyday clothing into exciting fashions and you don’t have to spend a fortune.”
Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker
Pasta – and sausage – could be made from Popeil’s simple, hand-cranked machine, long before artisanal and handmade pasta were trendy.
Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator
Popeil offered an alternative to sugary, salty, or over-processed foods by suggesting “Instead of giving kids candy, give them apple snacks or banana chips.” Bonus: It could also make beef jerky.
Ronco 6 Star Plus Knives
These knives could slice, dice, chop and featured an edge that never needed sharpening.
Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ
This small rotisserie was designed to cook chickens at home, competing with store-bought chickens. Pompeil came up with one of his most popular phrases to describe the convenience of this mini oven: “Set it, and forget it!”
*Adapted from Parade