One of the top brass in the infomercial game was Ron Popeil. Before we had other home goods infomercial icons like Billy Mays and Cathy Mitchell, the Popeil family ran a freaking empire of kitchen gadgetry that led to the formation of Ronco.
I covered kitchen gadget fads before, but what about the people behind those fads? After all, someone had to design and market that strawberry husker that lays forgotten in the drawer and the spiralizer that only gets used once before it goes to Goodwill!
Before we had viral videos, Instagram, and content marketing, kitchen gadget fads were mostly sold through infomercials that ruled late night TV. Or for you bright young things reading, those nebulous gray blocks that showed up in the TV paper–yes Bradley, they were on NEWSPRINT and you had to OPEN it, you weren’t shown a schedule by pressing a few remote control buttons!–that were labeled as “paid programming”. Local stations that didn’t have any public access TV shows needed the income from infomercials, they were what came on after the Sunday morning cartoons if you didn’t have cable.
One of the top brass in the infomercial game was Ron Popeil. Before we had other home goods infomercial icons like Billy Mays and Cathy Mitchell, the Popeil family ran a freaking empire of kitchen gadgetry that led to the formation of Ronco. Ronco produced several notable kitchen products, one of the best-known being the Veg-O-Matic which is something like an analog food processor by today’s standards. The thumbnail image isn’t the Ronco trademarked version, but I got you covered! The Bob Ross of questionable cuisine and vintage kitchen gadgets, Emmy Made in Japan, unearthed one of these and made a video about it.
These days, anyone with a webcam and some decent editing skills can rack up a few million followers on YouTube. How you knew you left an indelible mark on pop culture back then? When Weird Al Yankovic wrote a song about you. Not even a parody of a popular tune, an original song in the style of a B-52s epic!
Ron Popeil is also an inventor, but the Veg-O-Matic and habit of placing the “o-matic” suffix after everything came from his father. Ron himself really became known for elevating the infomercial. So what happened to this titan who was so beloved throughout the 70s and 80s? How did they not hold up compared to say, Cathy Mitchell’s red copper pan line and retailers like Crate & Barrel?
The Veg-O-Matic, Pocket Fisherman, and Formation of Ronco
Of the numerous products that Sam Popeil invented and deployed through a team of salesmen, two big sellers were the Veg-O-Matic and Pocket Fisherman. The latter was a portable fishing pole that was small enough to carry around and for children to handle, and was dubbed the “biggest fishing invention since the hook”. Millions of units of the Veg-O-Matic’s predecessor, the Chop-O-Matic, were sold to department stores then Ron got an idea.
He redefined the infomercial by taping an actual demonstration of the products. After all, kitchen equipment can get bulky and it’s difficult for salesmen to easily take three different food processors or fishing poles to buyers and demonstrate how to use them. By taping how the product would be used, it not only made it easier to showcase products to stores but also gave the company some video footage that could pivot to commercials. Moreover, mix the extended cuts with additional advertising and create an infomercial.
In 1964, Ron Popeil formed Ronco with the intent to distribute his father’s products to major department stores, then started to pick up other manufacturers’ items. But in due time, the father and son became business rivals for the same clientele.
That’s where Ron realized there was a huge advantage that could be had with these infomercials: instead of reaching out to department store buyers and having to compete with other sales teams, including his own father’s, you could buy some airtime and reach millions of customers who were plopped in front of the TV.
Popeil himself even mentioned this in a 2014 interview with Tampa Bay Biz Journal: “In the ’60s and ’70s, any new product you put on TV made money,” he said. “You paid for the time, but you reached a huge audience glued to their sets. I have to tell you, those days are not today.”
If you were watching TV back then, it was a far more engaged affair that had your attention. Now that you can binge-watch anything at any time, people leave the TV on just to have some background noise. Selling direct or through retail channels is a decision that makers of home goods, and other consumer goods manufacturers for that matter, still have to make today and Popeil was able to take advantage of this unprecedented access to direct sales anywhere his infomercials could be aired.
He showed off the amazing capabilities of the Veg-O-Matic around the nation, and totally set the stage for YouTube content such as BlendTec’s infamous “Will it blend?” series, which pioneered how brands use video marketing. Before home video was as ubiquitous as it is now, the infomercials had to be of significant enough quality to piggyback off of the success of the Veg-O-Matic. Since it cost far less to film in Tampa than Hollywood, Ron Popeil took his innovative gadgets and scintillating camera presence to Florida and began shooting infomercials. Shit son, he even came up with a SMOKELESS ASHTRAY!
Shooting infomercials and buying airtime wasn’t as expensive as it seemed, and bore less risk than retail sales channels: they could have the right to return goods and might not always place more orders. So what was the next step?
The Home Shopping Club and Ronco Teleproducts to Ronco Inventions
By the late 1960s, Ron Popeil had sold almost $9 million worth of home goods, raising $750,000 from Ronco Teleproducts’ IPO in 1970 (this would be almost $5 million in 2020 money) and $5.5 million worth of stock to the public, which would be about $36.5 million nowadays. Yes homebodies, that is a crap ton of money. That is a lot for home goods by today’s standards, let alone 1970.
Nowadays, we may think of those “As seen on TV” products to be laughable garbage that wind up in bargain bins and decorating the shelves of your local Marshall’s next to the Whole Foods rejects and ratty bottles of TIGI conditioner, totally desperate for a sale. But Ronco products not only sucked you in with their captivating infomercials that showed how the product would take your home life and kitchen prowess to the next level, they were pretty high quality products for the time. And if you had a little too much drink on a Saturday night and decided that a Dial-O-Matic (it wasn’t a mandolin slicer, it had a special name!) would make your life easier, all you had to do was call the number on the screen and get it shipped to your door.
Just like how watching TV was a far more engaged process at the time, the same was true for ordering from TV. People bought things from print catalogs and ads that had clippable order forms in magazines and newspapers, but home delivery hadn’t hit the dot-com scale of things just yet. Before Amazon normalized getting a package within a few days, ordering by phone or through the TV was a riskier and lengthier process. You had to wait at least three weeks at minimum to get your order, there was no automated process for chargebacks like there is with the countless e-commerce platforms we have today. So if you planned on dicing a bag of onions on your Friday night staying in to go fill your new freezer and always have diced onion on hand, you had to plan that at least a month in advance!
Ronco Teleproducts fell on hard times in the early 80s, after taking on too much debt and Ron Popeil had to bail out his own company. He looked for inventive new ways to sell and keep the company going. With the infomercial and mail order infrastructure that he had down pat, the next logical step was to get in on the home shopping channels: which were NOTHING BUT a series of infomercials. You had to take your chances on stoned college kids watching CBS at 3AM and bored housewives getting the TV back from the kids on weekend afternoons, but you had a golden goose with the home shopping channel. Why else would you be tuned in unless you were going to buy shit? A new company, Ronco Inventions, was born in order to take advantage of this unprecedented new opportunity he already had a natural advantage with.
Home shopping became huge in the late 80s and early 90s. I remember my mother would constantly have the Home Shopping Network on, where movie stars from the 50s and 60s would try to resuscitate their Hollywood credentials by hawking jewelry and skincare products. Ron Popeil had designed an electric food dehydrator for making your own dried fruit, vegetable chips, beef jerky, and other non-perishable goods, and agreed to sell them through USA Direct. QVC was another popular channel that created its own programming in addition to having select retail outlets. Through home shopping networks and his own infomercials, the Popeil direct sales empire seemed indomitable.
Ron Popeil and his employees would graduate to even more out-there inventions like the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler, which was borne of his distaste for inconsistent scrambled eggs and got a mention in Weird Al’s song. Then he secured his immortality in pop culture with the phrase “Set it and forget it!” with the rollout of the Showtime Rotisserie oven, the home rotisserie grill that could fit on a countertop.
Millions of units were sold and Popeil was a likeable and charismatic business leader, salesman, and TV personality who maintained stringent control over Ronco’s operations. It seemed like a golden age that would never end, with one innovative product that sold well after another.
The Fall of the Ronco Empire Post 9/11 to the 2010s
Just like how ancient Egypt fell to the Romans, then the Romans to the Germanics, small homegrown tech to giants like Google and Amazon: the Ronco fiefdom had to come to an end, although Popeil is still a venerated figure who is still inventing and selling new products well into his eighties. The hungover college students of yesteryear now had real kitchens where they could buy more advanced food processors with dishwasher-safe parts, while the current set wasn’t watching infomercials at 3AM, they were taking part in early Internet culture on Newgrounds, AIM chats, or downloading grainy RealPlayer files of Daftpunk videos on Kazaa. The new generation of potential appliance buyers didn’t like the feeling of being sold to, no matter how engaging the guy on the screen was.
Despite TV advertising waning after the turn of the millennium, Ronco Inventions was still selling tens of thousands of units per day in the early 2000s. Once he saw the pivot to Internet-based orders, which were even cheaper and easier to administer than phone orders, a Ronco website was built. Better yet, because the company was already operating on a direct-to-consumer model with all of their mailing addresses on file, the transition was really easy for them. Which makes their eventual fall even more puzzling, because failure to adapt is often a kiss of death for seemingly-indestructible industry titans.
There’s still some interesting takeaways from the Ronco empire’s story, no less. Unlike publicly-traded companies of today where a faceless board of directors makes most of the decisions, Popeil maintained an iron grip on how the company operated.
He wasn’t a siloed CEO collecting a gargantuan paycheck from a golf course while ordering the worker bees around, he was heavily involved in every single product launch that he personally invented or helped design. He didn’t hire teams to manage his infomercials, not even producers or actors. While this strategy nowadays would be fairly batshit crazy for a larger company from a business standpoint, he was in that magical era where things were simpler and we were less obsessed with metrics but still did a great job at keeping the operating budget down. And for a while, it worked. There were about 200 employees, which is a pretty decent size workforce for a mid-size company, opposed to many modern retailers which operate “lean” (read: making a small force each do the jobs of three people) or have workforces the size of small Eastern European countries. So, there was enough work that was outsourced while the heartbeat of the operation actually laid with the CEO. With the exception of small businesses and cooperatives today, you just don’t see that anymore.
Ron Popeil sold Ronco in 2005 for $56 million to Fi-Tek VII, a holding company, although he still personally holds the trademark to “Set it and forget it” as well as being listed on dozens of US patents as inventor. But Ronco’s third iteration, Ronco Corp, filed for bankruptcy in 2007 to seek protection from creditors, with Ron Popeil himself being owed millions of dollars.
Over the next few years, the Ronco company and name were thrown around between numerous holding and consumer products companies like a hot potato that could’ve used one of his inventions. Popeil was still active in consulting roles with some of these later iterations of the brand. But in 2018, Ronco went from Chapter 11 bankruptcy (which is usually just meant to restructure debts, but the company survives) to a complete liquidation and ceasing operations.
Popeil stated that the new owners changed the schematics of the best-selling Showtime Rotisserie and sent manufacturing to China, which he believes led to the company’s demise along with creating new product lines that were total crap just to pad the brand’s portfolio. But he still owns the rights to the old products and his own name, and the last we’ve heard, he was trying to get a 5-in-1 cooking system to the market though he might’ve been beat by the Instapot or Ninja Foodii there. But he’s still working on a turkey fryer!
So, Ron Popeil himself still holds titan status well into his eighties where he’s still happily inventing new things, even though the company on paper is gone. Ultimately, this is a great lesson on how important it is to own your labor and intellectual property because private equity ruins everything. THEY RUIN EVERYTHING.