Infomercial king Ron Popeil died “suddenly and peacefully” Wednesday at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a statement provided to CNN by Popeil representative Eric Ortner.
He was 86.
Popeil started his sales career in Chicago-area flea markets at the age of 16, according to his official biography.
In 1959 he appeared in his first TV commercial, hawking the Ronco Chop-o-Matic food dicer. Debuting the earnestly dramatic style that became his trademark, Popeil said, “I’m going to show you the greatest kitchen appliance ever made.”
Popeil followed with a flurry of other made-for-TV inventions, dizzying in both their number and variety. They included the Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone and the Electric Food Dehydrator. Popeil said he was not just a salesman, but also an inventor who designed many of the products himself.
Although his company Ronco was already a household name in the 1970s, Popeil’s fame exploded in the 80s when looser federal regulations on TV ads allowed him to go from brief commercials to 30-minute self-contained “infomercials,” which soon dominated late night and weekend schedules.
Popeil developed a formula that became dominant in infomercials: Present an invention that addressed a minor problem as “revolutionary” technology, throw in “free” bonus products to the delight of an in-studio audience and warn viewers that supplies are low, so they have to “call now!”
In this era, Popeil became known for GLH-9, an aerosol powder designed to cover bald spots. (Critics referred to it derisively as “spray-on hair.”) But Ronco’s best-remembered infomercial was for the Showtime Rotisserie, thanks to Popeil’s repeated and enthusiastic reminder that you could, “Set it and forget it!” The catchphrase became a pop culture earworm, and Ronco said it sold more than a billion dollars’ worth of rotisseries.
Popeil became the subject of frequent parody, which he proudly acknowledged. His bio notes the most famous send-up was Saturday Night Live’s “Bass-O-Matic ’76” commercial, in which Dan Aykroyd chopped up an entire raw fish in a blender, bragging that “the days of troublesome scaling, cutting and gutting are over!”
Popeil sold the Ronco company in 2005, but was still closely associated with its products. He marketed later inventions through a new company, Ron’s Enterprises, Inc.
Popeil was survived by his wife Robin, four daughters, and four grandchildren.
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