It had been years since I'd heard the pitch and seen the knives slicing through bread and branches, two-by-fours and fresh tomatoes. Yet, as I wandered through the aisles in a general store near Mayberry, Va., it all came back in a flash.
On a shelf in front of me, I saw the amazing Ginsus, a set of knives strong enough to cut through a tin can, yet gentle enough to sliver a mushroom. I tried to walk away, but it was no use -- after years of hearing the commercials, a desire to possess those knives was hard-wired into the reptile part of my brain. I felt an inexorable call to buy the blades.
In person, they weren't all that impressive -- the plastic handles looked cheap and the glittering blades seemed flimsy -- but these were the classic Ginsu knives, tantalizingly arrayed in a handsome box and waiting for me to put them to work. The price was low, the knives were shiny, and I left the store with the box tucked under my arm.
Death of a Salesman
It's been years since I bought the Ginsus, but they came to mind again recently. Last week, Barry Becher, the man who brought those knives into my living room -- and, ultimately, into my kitchen -- died at age 71 of complications related to surgery for kidney cancer.
Becher was more than a mere pitchman. He and his partner, Ed Valenti, created a phenomenon. In the 1970's, Valenti, an ad salesman for a local television station, met Becher, who owned two Aamco transmission shops. Together, the pair began hawking products on TV. They quickly found success with a no-spill painting pad and, by the late-1970s, were searching for the next big thing to sell.
They found it in the Scott Fetzer knife company, an Ohio-based firm that had been making kitchen knives since 1920. But, while Fetzer's knives sold reasonably well, they lacked the punch, the certain something, that would make them a household name. Becher and Valenti provided that last twist. Playing off a growing fascination with all things Asian, the pair redubbed Fetzer's knives; the new name, "Ginsu," was made-up, vaguely Japanese-souding gibberish. Valenti would later tell The New York Times that Becher often joked that it meant "I never have to work again."
Creating a Phenomenon
The Ginsu name was only the beginning. On their first infomercial, seen below, Becher and Valenti combined drama (karate chops breaking boards!) with slapstick (karate chops smashing tomatoes!), surreality (a knife cutting a tin can!) with culinary dexterity (a knife smoothly sliding through a tomato!). While the original ad seems clunky today, it was fresh and exciting in 1978, and it laid the groundwork for an entire industry.
The Ginsu ads had everything that we've come to expect from our pitchmen: the vaguely scientific-sounding boasts ("The dual edge is like two knives in one!"); the endless "But wait, there's more!" list of bonus extras. There were exciting visuals, an impossibly generous guarantee, and a tantalizingly low price. Becher and Valenti offered the world; more importantly, for over 3 million Ginsu customers, they delivered at least some of it.
Ginsu: The Aftermath
It's hard to believe, but the Becher and Valenti Ginsu era only lasted for a six years, from 1978 to 1984, before the company was bought by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. Today, Ginsu is still going strong; it has several knife collections that range in price from a stunningly cheap $12.84 set to an expensive $163.55 one.
Becher and Valenti didn't rest on their Ginsu laurels. Instead, the pair went on to further sales successes with Armourcoat cookware, Vacufresh containers, and Royal Durasteel cooking bowls. More importantly, they inspired a legion of imitators, from the exuberantly geeky Matthew Lesko, who promises "FREE MONEY!" from the government to the reassuringly blue-collared Billy Mays, who pitched dozens of products, including Oxy Clean and the "Shamwow," until his death in 2009.
As for the Ginsus, the knives were better than I expected. Their finely serrated blades made short work of a beer can and actually did a pretty good job on my tomatoes. I ended up passing them on to my sister, at whose hands they finally gave up the ghost after a few years of cutting wood, plastic, metal and vinyl. In the end, the Ginsu's famous 50-year guarantee proved no match for the brutal attentions of a multi-media artist. Even so, I have no question that, in the end, Becher and Valenti more than delivered on their promise.
The Becher Bunch: A Collection of Great TV Pitchmen
But Wait, There's More! Remembering Ginsu's Pioneering Pitchman
The Godfather of TV marketing, Popeil was the original pitchman, selling dozens of products from the Chop-O-Matic to the Veg-O-Matic, the Drain Buster to the Pocket Fisherman. Starting out as a carnival barker, he took his patter to TV when he discovered that a taped, replayed pitch could reach far more viewers. To this day, his catchphrase, "It slices, it dices!" is shorthand for a slick, hard sales push.
While Popeil brought carnival barking to the airwaves, Becher and his partner, Ed Valenti took TV sales to the next level, bringing in a baroque showmanship that tended toward the surreal. Their Ginsu, Royal Durasteel and Armourcoat ads featured knives cutting beer cans, cakes with fish baked in, and eggs getting cracked on diamond rings. Those alone would earn them a place in the TV marketing hall of fame, but wait, there's more: The pair also helped create the pushy, energetic language of TV sales -- a legacy that lives on today.
If pioneers like Becher and Popeil laid the groundwork for TV marketing, Mays turned it into a science. Hawking products like Orange Glo, OxiClean, and the Shamwow, the grating, hypercharged Mays was a force to be reckoned with. Unlike his predecessors, many of whom had to search out products to sell, Mays was actively sought after as a pitchman, and his imprimatur was a key to guaranteed sales. This, in fact, became the cornerstone of PitchMen, a Discovery channel series that documented Mays' process of finding and pitching new products.
Selling novelties on TV is only the tip of the direct-response marketing juggernaut. Lesko, an author and researcher, promises to connect customers with U.S. government grants that they can use to realize their dreams. Unfortunately, much of this "free money" comes from public assistance programs and, according to his critics, Lesko is encouraging his customers to take advantage of America's poverty safety net.
While pitchmen often make a lot of money, they rarely manage to cross over into mainstream respectability. One exception is Robbins, a motivational speaker, who graduated from promoting self-help books and seminars on television to promoting self help books and seminars at TED conferences.
Selling vegetable juices may seem like a thankless task, but Kordich has made it into an inexorable, full force push for health and wellness. According to Kordich, daily consumption of apple and carrot juices cured him of bladder cancer, which helps explain the near-religious zeal that he brings to pushing fresh juices. As a side note, his hyperbolic pitch inspired the classic "Juice Weasel" skit, in which Jim Carrey portrayed a psychotic juicer salesman on In Living Color.
Even at its best, TV marketing carries a slight scent of sleaze. On some level, even its most trusted salesmen seem to be a little too slick, a little bit questionable. This was certainly the case with Lapre, a pitchman who sold vitamins and claimed to have made $50,000 per week from placing "tiny classified ads" in newspapers. In 2011, while facing charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering, he died of self-inflicted wounds.
The successor to Billy Mays' pitchman mantle, Sullivan is a British-born television marketer who got his start selling the "smart mop." Nowadays, he is the main spokesman for TeleBrands and the star of PitchMen.