Great Moments in Infomercial History

The Pocket Fisherman Makes it Big

The history of pitching unusual gadgets on television begins with S.J. Popeil. Born into a family of roadside salesmen, S.J. had the vision to break into a much larger audience via TV. The first gizmo he hawked on the small screen was the Pocket Fisherman -a fishing rod small enough to fit in your glove compartment or briefcase. While veteran anglers debated the utility of the flimsy rod, Popeil maintained, "It's not for using. It's for giving." He had a point. Forty years after the first commercial aired, The Pocket Fisherman continues to sell millions of units worldwide every year.

But Wait! There's More!

The Genius that Bred the Chia Pet

In the early 1970s, entrepreneur Joseph Pedott heard about a failing Chicago company that was selling seeds from the chia plant, a member of the mint family. He bought the company and sold the seeds along with a terra cotta figurine that could sprout vegetation. The result was the Chia Pet -one of the most successful infomercial products in history. But Pedott is hardly a one-trick pony, He's also the genius behind another TV favorite, The Clapper. He took an existing sound-activated device called The Great American Turn-On, tweaked it, and renamed it. The rest is "clap on, clap off" history.

The Lesson Behind "I've Fallen, and I Can't Get Up"

LifeCall, a medical alert system, launched one of the most popular catchphrases of the 1980s, when it aired the "I've fallen, and I can't get up" commercial. Radio DJs and stand-up comics endlessly made fun of Mrs. Fletcher, the elderly woman sprawled on the floor. The character was played by Edith Fore, a 70-something widow who'd actually been saved by LifeCall after a tumble down her stairs in 1989. Fore was paid a one-time fee for her performance and never received any royalties. Although her phrase was printed on T-shirts and parodied in songs for years, LifeCall never saw an increase in sales and eventually filed for bankruptcy. The problem was that the public remembered the slogan but couldn't recall the name of the product.

The Knives That Served Up Catchphrases

Despite the Japanese name, Ginsu knives were originally manufactured in Fremont, Ohio. The company, formerly known as Quikut, hired an advertising copywriter named Arthur Schiff to spice up its sales pitch. Schiff not only came up with the name Ginsu, he also coined several phrases that are still infomercial staples 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!"

All These Hits on One Giant LP

Long before there was Now That's What I Call Music, there was K-Tel, the affordable pipeline to the hits of the 1970s and 1980s. Salesman Philip Kives had the idea to cram 20 to 25 songs onto one LP and pitch them on rapid-fire TV commercials. The ads were ahead of their time, because serious musical artists of that era didn't advertise on television, and young music buyers were mesmerized when they heard a succession of 5-second snippets of their favorite tunes on TV. Kives was able to sell his LPs for less than half the normal cost by using cheap, ultra-thin vinyl. He also mastered the records at a lower volume, which produced thin grooves, allowing for more songs on each side.


Great Moments in Infomercial History was written by Kara Kovalchik. It is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the May/June 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Ahhhh...Ginsu knives! My mother gave me a set of them almost 20 years ago and I still have them. (And use them!)

They're good knives. I wish they were still being made.
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