How Ron Popeil Rode Reagan’s Deregulatory Revolution
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The passing of Ron Popeil has inspired countless celebrations of the chutzpah and ingenuity of a man who got millions to pick up the phone and order, say, a can of spray-on hair. But wait! There’s more to the story than a plucky individual who developed a new system of selling — one that dives deep into the deregulatory fervor of the 1970s and 1980s. Policy makers unleashed the free market on the nation’s airwaves, and Popeil channeled it with preternatural skill.
Popeil’s television career began in the 1950s just as politicians derided the medium as crass, commercial and even the source of juvenile delinquency and other social ills. These concerns got aired in congressional hearings that same decade.
The code banned advertisements for hard liquor as well as anything concerning “fortune-telling, occultism, spiritualism, astrology.” But they initially steered clear of regulating the appropriate balance between programming and advertising. This quickly changed.
The idea that advertisers like Popeil could buy up extended blocks of time and hawk their wares bothered many viewers and moralists. Doing so blurred the line between so-called “program content” and advertising, turning what was a public medium into a playground for commerce.
Pressure from the FCC and the public ultimately forced revisions in the code that strictly limited how much time advertisers could commandeer to sell their wares. In 1967, for example, new regulations came into force that defined ratios between programs and advertising (for example, no more than 9 minutes 30 seconds of advertising per hour of prime-time programming). The new code also limited the length of individual advertisements to forty seconds.
Popeil and his imitators still managed to pitch their products within the interstices of these regulations. Sometimes they bought time from one of the few stations that did not subscribe to the code. In other cases, they managed to compress their infomercials into the code’s procrustean limits.
Though Popeil became a pop-culture phenomenon around this time – witness Dan Ackroyd’s famous Bass-O-Matic sketch – it was still the dark ages for the informercial. Moreover, the Federal Trade Commission was also giving Popeil a hard time about his more exuberant promises.
In 1971, the FTC pointed out that late-night infomercials used to market Popeil’s “Veg-O-Matic” quite explicitly showed the device cutting up “raw carrots, ripe tomatoes, and other such vegetables and foods.” But purchasers of the device discovered that the instructions contained the following explicit warning: “DON’T slice raw carrots…or over-ripe tomatoes. VEG-O-Matic is NOT intended to slice these foods.”
“This contradiction,” the FTC ominously warned, “tends to mislead purchasers as to the product’s operational capacity for cutting.” Popeil’s company, the FTC warned, was guilty of “deceptively making inconsistent claims.”
If things had continued in this vein, the world might never have learned of the Pocket Fisherman, the Smokeless Ashtray, GLH (Good-Looking Hair) Formula 9, and all the other wondrous products that Popeil would bring to the market. And we might never know the joys of watching an hour-long infomercial.
But then, suddenly, things changed.
By the late 1970s, there was a growing push for deregulation of a range of industries: airlines, for example, but also broadcast media, including television. Though this movement is associated with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, it actually began earlier.
In 1979, for example, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against the National Association of Broadcasters, alleging that their code’s restrictions on advertising restricted the free play of market forces, artificially forcing up the cost of advertising. Significantly, it also alleged that these regulations had created an inflexible industry standard of 30 second spots. The government lawyer advancing the suit argued that “if advertising doesn’t cost as much, maybe the product won’t cost as much.”
By the time a federal court decided the case in 1982, Reagan’s deregulatory revolution was in full swing. The judge who handed down the decision sided with the government, striking down longstanding restrictions on the ratio of commercials to programming as well as the length of the commercials.
It was a new era. Entrepreneurs like Popeil, freed of their regulatory shackles, now began buying up large blocks of time, most often late at night when advertising rates were far lower. The modern infomercial was born.
This coincided with another significant transformation of television: the rise of cable, which underwent a comparable period of deregulation at this time. By the end of the 1980s, cable television exploded in popularity, adding massive amounts of airtime that needed to be filled.
Popeil was at the height of his powers during these years, selling everything from beef jerky makers to the famed Showtime Rotisserie (“Set It and Forget It!”). But he was hardly alone by this point, as a growing number of entrepreneurs joined the infomercial goldrush.
Sometimes celebrities joined the fun. Think of John Ritter hawking study guides (“Where There’s a Will, There’s an ‘A’”). Others sold juicers or car wax. But no one could match Popeil’s ubiquity and persuasive powers.
It is for these gifts that he is remembered, even celebrated, today. But let us not forget that without that critical drive toward deregulation, Popeil and his ilk might be nothing more than punchlines. Instead, infomercials have grown into “so much more” – an industry now worth more than $200 billion.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.
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