This marketing revolution began with a karate chop. “In Japan,” declared the famous Ginsu voiceover, “the hand can be used like a knife.” The claim made no sense, but was still oddly persuasive; two marketing geniuses in Warwick, R.I., used it to sell 3 millions sets of Ohio-made knives with a made-up Japanese name. In the mid-1970s, Barry Becher was running two auto transmission shops and Ed Valenti was an account executive for a Providence TV station when the two decided to sell products through primitive proto-informercials. Becher’s death at 71 recently has prompted an outburst of nostalgia for the pair’s most famous product, Ginsu knives, and it offers a reminder that even preposterous ads can tunnel deep into the American psyche.
But wait, there’s more! The Ginsu ads, which ran from 1978 to 1984, pioneered many of the conventions of today’s infomercials; the pitch began by touting a knife capable of all manner of improbable feats, then extended outward to include a host of semi-related products — a meat cleaver, a unique spiral slicer — all for a mere $9.95. (The 50-year guarantee, presumably, is still in force.) And if the hammy ads with an insistent tone were roundly mocked on late night TV, around water coolers, and in living rooms across the nation, well, so much the better; it was viral marketing before the concept even existed. Even today, operators are still standing by.