View from Mudsock Heights

Someday — it’s on my list of projects — I’ll write a comprehensive history of geegaws and gadgets sold on television, directly to viewers who have been convinced that their lives will thereby be made immeasurably better.

As a member of the first television generation, I remember sitting in front of the old black-and-white Philco, watching an excited, goateed man thump the tub for something called the Incredible Chop O Matic. It was a wonder. It would make coleslaw in seconds. The Satan-esque pitch man would do many things that unfortunate buyers — someone in my family was among them, apparently, because we had one — learned that they could not themselves inflict on vegetables. What the Incredible Chop O Matic did to a tomato in real life a mallet could do just as well.

It was difficult for a tiny kid — me — to sort out, because in the foggy distant past what we now know as “infomercials” (“program-length commercials” in the biz) were called “programs.” In the morning (where I lived) there would be an art instruction program by an artist named Jon Gnagy that, the careful viewer would come to learn, was a half-hour ad for the “Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Kit.” A magician named Mark Wilson would show amazing magic tricks, all of which were included in the magic kit that it turned out the program was there to sell.

There were companies that specialized in TV-marketed gadgets that often had their own shows. None was better known than Ronco, run by a man named Ron Popeil. His father was inventor of the Incredible Chop O Matic. Ron invented the Veg O Matic (which was also Incredible) and a variety of toaster ovens and cooking devices and utensils, but for many of us he will always stand tall as the man who brought us the Incredible Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman. This was a red plastic self-contained spincast reel with a dinky folding plastic rod. You would put it in your briefcase or glove compartment and then, whenever you saw water, you could just stop and catch supper. It was popular with those who didn’t think things through very well.

Everyone of a certain age remembers the Incredible Ginsu, which established the television meme of a knife so sharp and versatile that it could cut through a (thin aluminum) beer can and remain sharp enough to cut through a (very firm) tomato. It was guaranteed forever or longer and never needed sharpening.

On and on it went; on and on it still goes. There was even a television show, “PitchMen,” which told how cheap products were chosen and made available on television, with patter delivered by Billy Mays, of “Billy Mays here” fame, and Anthony Sullivan, who is British and therefore authoritative. Mays died at the end of the first season and the second season was therefore a failure.

The whole business is, really, a carnival trick, and pretty much always has been. And just as those games on the midway are set up so that you’re very unlikely to win, direct television sales are set up so that no matter what happens the company makes money. For example, there are the Incredible money-back guarantees: If you’re not satisfied, you can return the item any time for a full refund. In tiny print that you cannot read on the screen you are “informed” that your refund will not include shipping and handling, or as we in the television scam business call it, “s+h.” Shipping and handling is always far more than the gadget cost. The company makes money from you even if you return the item.

(Once, in my younger, even-more-smartass days, I called one of the companies — probably the Incredible Ginsu company — and talked to them about ordering their product. When we got to the “shipping and handling” part, I asked how much it would be without the handling, inasmuch as I didn’t want one that had been handled. They hung up on me. I believe they may have heard that one before.)

But now there’s something new. Well, new-ish. It goes like this: “But if you order in the next 10 minutes, you can double the offer. [In a fast whisper] Just pay a separate fee.” Huh? What the hell? Does this mean that I may purchase as many as two of them if I want? But only in the next 10 minutes? Do you have somebody there with a stopwatch?

The “next 10 minutes” thing is to get you to order the Incredible whatever before you have time to think about it. That’s an old and successful sales trick, with a multitude of variations. (I was amused last week to see an ad for a nearby auto dealer who actually said, “These cars won’t last long.”)

But the genius is in the separate fee, which is usually equal to the shipping and handling for the initial item. So you buy an item for $19.95. We learned from “PitchMen” that the marketers have determined that this is the maximum amount that people will cough up without thinking too much about it. (That’s also why a lot of televised charities ask for a donation of $19 per month. More people will give $19 than will give $20, enough more that the request for $19 brings in more than a request for $20 would. It’s a variation of price elasticity of demand.) Anyway, the item is $19.95. Shipping and handling are $10. The “separate fee” is $10. The item costs the company, to pick a number, $2. Shipping is another $1 at most.

Some of the companies even say that even if you return the item you may keep the second one as “our gift to you.” Right. So you buy the item for $19.95 and get the second, “free” one. Shipping for the two items is $20. You are charged $39.95. (You’re often kept on hold for awhile; with the investment of time you feel as if demand is high and you also don’t want to feel as if you’ve wasted your time. And one of the Incredible things with shipping is $29.95, which makes $39.95 for two seem cheap.)

Total cost to you: $39.95. Total cost to the company: $6 (plus some degree of overhead). If you return it — you pay return shipping, usually — you’ll get back $19.95 of your $39.95. And it’s all perfectly legal.

Pretty easy to see, isn’t it, why I’d like to do a book about the history and tricks of the business. It won’t be available in stores. But if you order in the next 10 minutes, you can get a second copy — hell, up to a thousand additional copies — for free. Just pay a separate fee.

Recommended for you

Load comments