Exhibit / December 4, 2019
During broadcast television’s heyday in the 1970s, the American airwaves presented a series of advertising strata over the course of the broadcast day. The mornings and early afternoons would see household and kitchen products meant to appeal to housewives; toys and snacks and sugary breakfast cereals appeared once the kids got home from school; cars and medicines and other products with broad appeal would show up during prime time. As for late nights and overnights, no one haunted the cheap television commercial breaks quite like Ronco. For two decades—from 1964 to 1984—the company, founded by second-generation gadget salesman Ron Popeil, zapped countless catch phrases into the brains of the American TV-viewing audience. Presenting its array of multi-purpose household gadgets in a breathless, urgent style to fit into a half-minute or full-minute commercial slot, Ronco set the standard for the late-night direct mail sales pitch.
This type of TV ad came directly from Ron Popeil’s experience as an in-person hawker of the kitchen vegetable slicers that his father Sam and uncle Raymond had invented. Ron sold the slicers everywhere in his twenties: from the counter at Woolworths locations in Chicago to county and state fairs throughout the Midwest. By the early ’60s, Ron saw the potential of doing demonstrations on television, and bought cheap airtime on regional stations in Tampa, Florida and the Midwest in 1964, branding his father’s and uncle’s choppers as the now-legendary Veg-O-Matic, giving pop culture the first of many Ronco catchphrases: “It slices! It dices!” The Veg-O-Matic was only the beginning. By the early 1970s, Ronco Teleproducts had dozens of products on offer, none of which had a price point higher than $19.99.
The video above is an internal product reel featuring the kinds of products that Ronco presented from its 1970s heyday right up until the company’s first bankruptcy and dissolution in 1984. Many of these ads are Christmas-themed, as the modest Ronco price points made their products “great Christmas gifts.” The “Ronco Gift Center” (with its “As seen on TV” legend) featured in the first ad demonstrates that while Ronco made a good chunk of its sales through direct mail thanks to its TV ads, the company also used brick-and-mortar discount outlets to replicate the “impulse buy” mood that its TV ads so expertly cultivated. The consumer electronics revolution in the mid-to-late 1970s allowed Ronco to supplement its purely mechanical gadgets (such as the Ronco inside-the-eggshell Egg Scrambler and the “amazing no-spill” all-temperature Ronco AutoCup) with more and more electronic items. The gradual turn against public smoking in America in the ’70s led to the design and sale of Ronco’s various air purifiers like the Ronco Smokeless Ashtray, and no Ronco electronic toy is better known than “Mr. Microphone,” a low-power radio transmitter in a hand-held microphone that allowed the user to broadcast their voice out of a nearby FM radio. America’s love of home entertainment equipment in the late ’70s also allowed Ronco to capitalize by carving out a niche of gadgets for your gadgets, like the Ronco Battery Tester and the Ronco Record Vacuum.
The second half of this commercial reel features Ronco’s various music compilations on LP records; the array of artists and songs on offer (a mix of disco and funk hits, easy-listening hits from long-haired sensitive songwriters, and occasional hard rockers) show that Ronco’s music division, like its gadgets, peaked in the late 1970s. Like its rival K-tel, Ronco bought the rights to recent middling hit singles and put them all on one themed LP, making sure the consumer knew these were no sound-alikes (“Original hits by the original artists!”).
With the rise of cable television in the 1980s, Ronco’s approach of buying cheap late-night commercial time on over-the-air stations became diluted. The decision to expand into electronics also had an effect, as Ronco gadgets like the CleanAire air purifier didn’t match up to similar products on offer from big electronics makers. As mentioned above, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1984. But Ron Popeil himself and countless imitators would find new homes on the late-night airwaves during the rise of the full-length half-hour infomercial in the early 1990s, as well as on dedicated home shopping cable networks.