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Whether it was a Ginsu knife, George Foreman Grill, Tony Robbins' motivational book, kitchen device by Ron Popeil, or any of the countless other famous products that have been marketed on infomercials over the years, admit it: you or someone you know has bought one—and you're not alone. Last year, one out of every three Americans picked up the phone and ordered a product from a television infomercial or home shopping network, and in But Wait . . . There's More! journalist (and infomercial addict) Remy Stern ...
Whether it was a Ginsu knife, George Foreman Grill, Tony Robbins' motivational book, kitchen device by Ron Popeil, or any of the countless other famous products that have been marketed on infomercials over the years, admit it: you or someone you know has bought one—and you're not alone. Last year, one out of every three Americans picked up the phone and ordered a product from a television infomercial or home shopping network, and in But Wait . . . There's More! journalist (and infomercial addict) Remy Stern offers a lively, behind-the-scenes exploration of this enormous business—one that markets the world's most outrageous products using the most outrageous tactics.
Don't let the kitschy exterior fool you: behind the laughable demonstrations, goofy grins, and cheesy dialogue lies an industry larger than the film and music industries combined. The first book of its kind, But Wait . . . There's More! exposes the never-before-told story of the infomercial and home shopping phenomenon in all its excessive glory and its meteoric rise to become one of the most profitable businesses in America.
Along the way, Stern details the history behind the classic products and introduces readers to some of the most famous (and infamous) pitchmen and personalities in the business, including Tony Robbins, Billy Mays, Ron Popeil, Tony Little, Suzanne Somers, Kevin Trudeau, and Joe Francis. He also presents an in-depth look at the business behind the camera—the canny sales strategies, clever psychological tools, and occasionally questionable tactics marketers have used to get us to open up our wallets and spend, spend, spend.
Stern's eye-opening account also offers a penetrating look at how late-night television conquered the American consumer and provides insight into modern American culture: our rampant consumerism, our desire for instant riches, and our collective dream of perfect abs, unblemished skin, and gleaming white teeth. Both a compelling business story and a thoroughly entertaining piece of investigative journalism (with a touch of muckraking and social satire), But Wait . . . There's More! will ensure that you never look at those too-good-to-be-true deals the same way again.
But Wait ... There's More!
County Fair to Cable Fare
Ron Popeil's assistant had sent me directions to his home in Beverly Hills, but as I climb the steep streets above Los Angeles, I'm having trouble finding the dead-end street off Coldwater Canyon.
If there's one person that Americans associate with a late-night TV pitch, it's Ronald S. Popeil. He's been on the air in one form or another for a half century. If you've watched any TV at all over the past, say, three decades, it's unlikely you've missed him. Popeil is the man who pitched Mr. Microphone, the Ronco Food Dehydrator, and the Showtime Rotisserie. He's the man who introduced the world to spray-on hair. He's the guy who popularized ubiquitous catchphrases like "Operators are standing by" and "But wait, there's more," and made the names Popeil and Ronco synonymous with gadgets and gizmos. Popeil is the grandfather of the infomercial, not because he was the first or has made the most money, but because he's the most famous TV pitchman that has ever come along. It was Ron who inspired Dan Aykroyd's famous "Bass-O-Matic" skit on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. He's played himself on The Simpsons. "Weird Al" Yankovic even wrote a song about him. Still not jogging your memory? Turn on the TV. Although he hasn't filmed an infomercial for nearly a decade, there's a good chance the infomercial for his Showtime Rotisserie will air on some distant cable channel this evening.
Popeil is now in his early seventies and semiretired. He no longer runs the company he founded, Ronco, having sold his stake to a group of investors in 2005. He spends his time with his youthful wife andtheir young children on an estate he's owned for years. He's supposedly hard at work on a new invention, which may be the rousing finale to his six-decade career or may never see the light of day, depending on whether he sorts out the legal and financial issues that have thus far kept the project in limbo.
After nearly getting lost trying to find Popeil's house, I make a couple of quick turns and find my bearings. I pull on to the small street and arrive at a tall wooden gate. After ringing the buzzer, the gate opens, and I park my rental car in the driveway. A maid meets me at the door and escorts me inside, where I find the infomercial king sitting in the kitchen eating a bagel. I'm hardly surprised. What other room would Ron Popeil be in?
Ron looks a bit older since he last appeared on television with his rotisserie oven in the late 1990s, but he's in excellent shape. His thinning hair is painted a dark shade of brown. His skin is tan and wrinkle-free. As he bounds up from the kitchen table to greet me with a mouthful of lox, he doesn't seem to have lost a bit of the energy that propelled him to once stand on his feet for sixteen hours a day and demonstrate kitchen products in front of crowds at the Woolworth's in Chicago.
For the past sixty years or so, Popeil has been thinking of things to invent and sell. It's a family tradition: his father, uncles, and many cousins all did precisely the same thing. His approach hasn't wavered much over the years. He takes notice of life's small annoyances and minor inconveniences...the sort that you didn't even know you had until you flipped the channel one night and landed on one of his programs...and then heads home to his garage-cum-workshop to figure out a solution. Unlike other men with big dreams who tinker away in their garage, Popeil has never been the sort of inventor to engage in flights of fancy. He's never tried to build a jet pack or a robot. He's never tried to construct a time machine or find a cure for cancer. He has, however, spent years obsessing over how to improve the spatula.
Few of his products have been revolutionary. Many of his most successful items were updated versions of products his father and great-uncle once sold; others were around long before Ron came along and slapped them up on television. But his gift for packaging products and marketing them to the public with catchy ads and slogans has made him both very famous and very rich. His perfect timing has helped! When he noticed people becoming increasingly concerned about the threat of secondhand cigarette smoke in the '70s, he debuted the smokeless ashtray, which collected the smoke in a filter. The growing popularity of the bagel three decades ago led him to come up with a bagel cutter, which, rather appropriately, he named the Bagel Cutter.
Popeil has had his share of losers, to be sure. He was clearly on to something in the mid-'70s when he came up with Hold-Up, a bulletin board that was covered with adhesive that you could use to attach notes and other little reminders. Unfortunately, 3M introduced Post-it Notes around the same time, relegating Ron's invention to the dustbin of infomercial history. His Glass Froster was a clever concept: inspired by a beer commercial, Popeil came up with a device that applied a thin layer of frost to your favorite mug. Alas, the gizmo relied on Freon, the environmentally toxic coolant that was later banned by the government. (These days Ron frosts his glasses the old-fashioned way: he dunks them in water and puts them in the freezer.) But he's had more hits than failures. Over the course of his career, he estimates he's sold well over $2 billion in products, and many Popeil products continue to sell, even though they haven't been marketed in decades. Popeil's Pocket Fisherman, for example, which Ron's father was responsible for inventing, can still be found at Ronco.com for $29.99. (Adjusted for inflation, it's a relative bargain: it retailed for $19.99 when it debuted in 1972.)But Wait ... There's More!. Copyright © by Remy Stern. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.