Its hard to explain to people under a certain age about how television used to be something you just watched instead of something you controlled. The new streaming age makes it effortless to see what you want how you want it. It wasn’t that long ago that such an idea was a luxury, where you were at the mercy of whatever television channels happened to be playing at the time.
A major part of television programming that is becoming more and more of a relic is paid programming. Nowadays, watching a 30 minute show about skincare or car insurance is a fate left only to those trapped without internet access. But there was a time, especially on lazy Saturday afternoons or at 3 am, when informercials were pretty much all you had to watch. In this magical time, you had no choice but to watch a pitchman or former athlete wow a paid audience with the latest and greatest in knives, appliances or hair regrowth formulas.
These programs became part of the culture, where you could have something like the George Foreman Grill or Cher’s makeup line be its own sort of proto meme, laughed about around the old water cooler. The absolute king of this era was Ron Popeil, who was an icon in the art of selling you sometimes useful but mostly pointless junk.
It was announced on Wednesday that Popeil had passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 86. By now, he had not graced television screens for several years. However, there were several decades where this guy was pretty much always on a TV somewhere in the country.
Ron had his own corporate empire, Ronco, which pretty much sums up how he was in the business of selling himself. Ronco would either create or license a variety of inventions and then buy up hours of adspace to delude you into thinking you needed a smokeless ashtray or food dehydrator. They were perfect items practically invented to be given as Christmas gifts and then collect dust in your attic. His selling style and game show voice became instantly recognizable, and at his peak would have several informercials running at the same time.
Products like the Chop-O-Matic, or the Showtime Rotisserie became permanent parts of pop culture. One invention, The Mr. Microphone, was such a big deal that it was became its own episode of The Simpsons.
Some of his informercials even had catchphrases that people simply knew because it was on all the time. In the 90’s, you could say “Set it and forget it!” and everyone would know what you were talking about. Be the mid 2000’s, his presence was mostly gone, but his legacy stayed long after.