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Way Back Wednesday: Perfect Pitch

Posted by Nicci | Posted in Way Back Wednesday | Posted on 30-03-2011

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Last week we looked at the influential copywriting of Arthur Schiff, who coined the phrase, “But wait, there’s more,” which was destined to become a classic line in  direct response marketing.  Schiff wrote these words as part of the Ginsu Knife infomercial, a television commercial that set the standard in how as seen on TV products are promoted.  No matter how persuasive the ad copywriting, however, an infomercial will be rendered ineffective without the proper delivery.

Enter the pitchman.

Originally used to identify a traveling salesman, a peddler, or a carnival barker, the term “pitchman” has grown to embrace salesmen of television infomercial products, particularly those who utilize aggressive and persuasive marketing strategies as part of the “pitch.”

The role of the pitchman has evolved from a faceless voice-over (as in the Ginsu infomercial) to that of pop culture icon.  While many as seen on TV products use celebrity endorsements as part of the pitch (for example, Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley for Total Gym), other pitchmen have become celebrities in their own right.  Perhaps the best known pitchmen of all time include Ron Popeil, Billy Mays, and Anthony Sullivan.

Popeil has been appearing in infomercials longer, selling his own inventions, including the Showtime Rotisserie Oven.  Mays, however, perfected the art of the pitch.  In fact, Billy Mays got his start as a pitchman in the traditional sense, working as a traveling salesman and hawking the Washmatik portable washer on the boardwalk at Atlantic City before becoming spokesman for Orange Glo International.  Mays promoted Orange Glo, OxiClean, and Kaboom! using his energetic pitch, becoming one of the most widely known and highly demanded infomercial pitchmen to date.

At the time of his death, Billy Mays was working closely with fellow television pitchman Anthony Sullivan.  The two not only made frequent infomercial appearances selling a variety of as seen on TV products, but also starred in the Discovery Channel program PitchMen, in which inventors would present their products to Mays and Sullivan, who would create infomercials for the products and pitch them in test markets.  After the death of Billy Mays,  Anthony Sullivan continued the show and the search for the perfect pitch.  In a recent episode, “Sully” reminisced about his friend and marked his absence at an infomercial convention:

PitchMen was not the only show to highlight the importance of aggressive, persuasive sales techniques and the salespeople who utilized them.  In 1999, a documentary film Pitch People was released that described “the art of the pitch” and spotlighted pitchmen who sold products through visual demonstration and direct response marketing.  The film, starring Ed McMahon, bills itself as “the true story of the world’s second oldest profession.”  View the Pitch People trailer here.

Perhaps the art of the pitch can best be summed up in the words of old-time pitchman Harry Mathison:

“It’s not what you sell, it’s how you tell them the price.”

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