Ron Popeil, the infomercial pioneer and inventor who served as the enthusiastic pitchman for products like Chop-O-Matic and the Showtime Rotisserie, has died at the age of 86.
Popeil’s rep confirmed his death to the Associated Press, noting that Popeil died “suddenly and peacefully” Wednesday at Los Angeles’ Cedars Sinai Medical Center. No cause of death was provided.
According to Popeil’s official website, he was instrumental in the invention of unique products like “the Chop-O-Matic, Mr. Microphone (the first Karaoke machine), the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, the Veg-o-Matic, the Buttoneer, the Smokeless Ashtray, Popeil’s Electric Food Dehydrator, the Inside-the-Egg Scrambler, GLH-9 (Great Looking Hair Formula #9) Hair in a Can Spray, Rhinestone stud setter (Later called the Bedazzler), the Cap Snaffler, the Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker, the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, the Ronco 6 Star Plus Knives, and the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ.” Sales of his products, according to his website, grossed in the billions.
But Popeil’s cultural reach extended far past his products, with many of his consumerism colloquialisms entering the popular lexicon: “Set it and forget it!” “Call now!” and “But wait, there’s more!” Popeil had a natural marketing gift, inventing the practice of tacking on free extras as incentive to purchase the product, like including a recipe book and $100 worth of coupons with his Automatic Pasta Maker (all for just four easy payments of $29.99, plus shipping and handling).
The son of an inventor, Popeil first began hawking products as a teenager in Chicago, eventually earning his way to a presence in the city’s Woolworth’s department store. After establishing his company Ronco in the 1950s, Popeil first reached a nationwide audience with his minute-long ad for the Chop-O-Matic, which he claimed was the first televised infomercial. The product sold millions of units and launched Popeil’s career as an “As Seen on TV” pitchman.
It was in the late-1980s — when regulations relaxed on advertising — that Popeil became a fixture on TV, with the inventor producing lengthy ads for products like a food dehydrator, Great Looking Hair Formula #9 — essentially spray-on hair — and his Automatic Pasta Maker.
Popeil became such a pop culture icon that he was parodied by Saturday Night Live (the Bass-O-Matic ’76, a fish blender), name-checked by the Beastie Boys (“I got more product than Ron Popeil,” they say on “Crawlspace“), and appeared as himself on The X-Files, The Simpsons and dozens of late-night TV appearances. (“Weird Al” Yankovic recorded the 1984 song “Mr. Popeil” about Ron’s father, though many mistakenly attribute the titular character to Ron.)
Popeil remained a staple on home shopping channels like QVC, where he sold over $1 million worth of his Showtime Rotisseries in just one hour in 2000.
As Syracuse University television professor Robert Thompson told the Associated Press in a 1997 profile on the pitchman, “This is the ultimate late 20th-century guy. What Henry Ford was to industrial strength and genius, Ron Popeil is to the next generation of American ingenuity. He’s figured out the very complex negotiations that go on between what American culture produces and how we consume it. People 100 years from now are going to be writing dissertations on him.”