Ronco, the Veg-o-matic and new media

Television was in it’s infancy in 1956, when Ron Popeil starred in a TV commercial, demonstrating the “Chop-o-matic,” a kitchen gizmo invented by Ron’s dad and uncle, Samuel and Ray Popeil. The Chop-o-matic sold like crazy, becoming the cornerstone of a TV-era icon, Ronco, which went on to create one unlikely gotta-have-it hit gadget after another from the 1960s Veg-o-matic to the Pocket Fisherman, plus endless broilers, bakers, dehydrators, scramblers and even spray-on hair.

In the process, Ronco became a cultural icon — and the butt of endless jokes, most famously Dan Akroyd’s “Bass-o-matic” skits on Saturday Night Live. Ronco just declared Chapter 11 today, so expect the jokes to start coming all over again, but amidst the humor, don’t forget that Ronco’s success underscores a constant in the history of media: new media forms lead to more than new media experiences — they also lead to new physical products. What did TV give us? TV trays, TV dinners and the vast empire of products billed as “as seen on TV.”

In the case of Ronco, all the wonder gizmos it sold relied utterly on being demo’d to consumers. Simply putting the gizmo on a shelf created nothing but puzzled consumers who had no idea what the strange device was good for. But show how it worked and people had to have one. Before TV this meant house visits like (think Fuller Brush Man), or pitches at county fairs. Already experienced pitchmen, the Popeil brothers immediately realized that TV was a magical blend of both: a reach that dwarfed the county fair midway, and the intimacy of a Fuller Brush house visit without even having to knock before entering their buyer’s living room.

Combine the new medium with the Popeil’s exuberant inventiveness and the result was one novelty after another that could never have sold, much less been a hit, through any other sales channel. TV and the old mass media order it created are fading, but history is repeating itself as one unlikely novelty after another spins out of the new personal media order of the Web. Apple’s iPod is a case in point, utterly dependent on a Web-based distribution system. Amazon is another, selling back-list books that traditional book-sellers could never afford to carry, much less promote. And of course there is eBay, using the web to turn garage sale dross into niche market gold.

But all we have seen so far is just the start. The web is maturing at light speed, but at least in terms of retail sales, this revolution is barely where TV was in 1955. The inventive heirs of the Popeils innovative legacy are out there, so to borrow a pitch made famous by Ronco, “But wait! There’s More.” And of course Ron Popeil is still very much around and still inventing, so perhaps one day we will log on to discover he has created a USB-powered carrot grater, or some other device we never imagined, but having seen it can now not imagine life without it.