Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In Praise of the Pitchman

I had been compiling notes on TV pitchmen this last month, and lo and behold, the Sunday New York Times Magazine ran an article on one of my favorites, Billy Mays. More on Billy later.

My first encounter with the pitchman was in my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware at the age of about thirteen years. I was with my mother in the old, downtown Wilmington Dry Goods on the south end of Market Street. She was probably doing what most Wilmingtonians did before the days of KMart, that is, shopping at the "Dry Goods" for socks, underwear, etc.

I was meandering around the old, creaky hardwood floors and noticed a man standing on a box with a very small amplification system from which I heard him extolling the virtues of a liquid one could apply to eyeglasses which kept them from getting "steamed-up" or fingerprint marked. He had a small steaming machine that shot a stream of steam into the air, and he demonstrated the effectiveness of the lotion by going back and forth to the steam with the eyeglasses before and after the product was applied. He did the same with the oily fingerprints. It worked beautifully.

I remember the tinny sound of his voice, the slicked back black hair just like Billy Mays', and mostly his ability to speak quickly and clearly with no hesitation or self-doubt. He performed his act seamlessly, gesticulating, talking, pausing, and polishing as if every word and action had been choreographed -- but not to look choreographed. And it worked. I watched the pitch several times through. I also remember wishing that I had need of such a product because if I did I would most certainly purchase it.

Actually, pitchmen are embedded deeply in the American psyche. If I say "miracle elixir", you think of a western cowboy show with the pitchman promising the listeners that his elixir will cure everything from dandruff to "rheumatiz," plus help the cows produce more milk. The traveling pitchman usually tried to get out of town before anyone actually used the product, but also usually got mixed into the plot somehow. Every show from Bonanza to the Rifleman had a pitchman episode.

A century later, in the 60's and on broadcast television commercials, the same guy was selling Ginzu knives that cut tomatoes into paper thin slices, "so thin they had only one side," and never needed sharpening. The Ginzu knife inventor wrote the unforgettable sales copy, "But wait, there's more . . ." which has been used in virtually every infomercial since. It's the kind of simple perfection that every would-be wordsmith admires enviously, I know I do.

But I'm going on too long, so I'll continue tomorrow with cable television and Billy Mays, or as the Ginzu man said -- "but wait, there's more . . ."


Andrew said...

I remember going to the state fair as a young boy and being mesmerized by the guys who would sell the super-absorbant towels, the self-cleaning mops, and the grease-busting sprays. What fascinated me was their ability to speak in a totally un-selfconscious way. I knew the guy was lying, the lady next to me knew he was lying, HE knew he was lying, yet he could still talk as if the mop were TRULY a miracle!
And, more importantly, everyone would still ine up to buy.

Good post.

Francis Shivone said...

Andrew -- the mesmerizing part is the amazing part. Have you seen the newest absorbnt towel commefcial. That guy is really good.