Depending on your age, Philip Kives, who died at 87, was a constant presence in your life. He brought the Veg-O-Matic -- it slices and dices! -- into your home. The K-Tel Records compilation album of explosive hits. The Miracle Brush that wiped away pet hair from anywhere and lasted for years and never needed a refill.

Kives wasn't someone who got his MBA without learning how to sell. He was a salesman almost from day one. And in the process of searching for success, he took a chunk of our collective past and brought it into the electronic age.

Here's an example of those explosive hits:

That bit of the past he grabbed was the rhythm and structure and art of the midway pitchman. The easy recitation of the introduction, pitch, short story, presentation, close, and rehash were done at carnivals and state fairs as the pitchmen demonstrated the amazing features of whatever product they were selling, whether a vegetable peeler or the last mop you'd ever own.

The pitch is down so pat it would keep flowing if the presenter dozed. But all that time, he -- it was almost always a guy -- eyed the crowd, looking for the buying signals.

What Kives did was take a very personal event and package it for television. He wasn't the first. Vitamix blenders got their start in the late 1940s on TV. The Honeymooners had an episode in 1950s during which Ralph and Norton were supposed to sell a kitchen gadget in a commercial that went very, very wrong.

In 1962 Kives decided that TV would be the way to reach many more prospects. His first 5-minute spot sold a non-stick frying pan coated with Teflon. The pan sold well but was ultimately a bust when the coating flaked off. But the format proved itself.

Soon he was buying products from Seymour Popiel like the Veg-O-Matic (chop onions without shedding a tear!) and Dial-O-Matic for cutting and slicing vegetables. (Popiel's son Ron would eventually take over and become another major name in the infomercial business.)

Popiel eventually stopped selling to Kives because he was "getting 'too big,'" so Kives started his own product lines, including record compilations.

The business was hugely successful. The Miracle Brush? It sold 28 million units in the late 1960s. Compilations? Hooked on Classics sold over 10 million, and is still going. In the early 1980s, the record company sold more than 500 million records.

Eventually bad investments would drive K-Tel into bankruptcy, but Kives turned it around -- and, because they had the rights to 20,000 songs -- became a big early supplier to Apple iTunes.

He remained CEO of the company until his death. Kives helped make the infomercial a staple of television. How many times late at night or on a sleepy Sunday afternoon have you watched one, because you just couldn't help yourself?

It's enough to make you say, sham-wow.

Published on: May 2, 2016
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