But Wait, There's More! Remembering Ginsu's Pioneering Pitchman

Barry Becher in 1978 (AP / PriMedia)It had been years since I'd heard the pitch and seen the knives slicing through bread and branches, two-by-fours and fresh tomatoes. Yet, as I wandered through the aisles in a general store near Mayberry, Va., it all came back in a flash.

On a shelf in front of me, I saw the amazing Ginsus, a set of knives strong enough to cut through a tin can, yet gentle enough to sliver a mushroom. I tried to walk away, but it was no use -- after years of hearing the commercials, a desire to possess those knives was hard-wired into the reptile part of my brain. I felt an inexorable call to buy the blades.

In person, they weren't all that impressive -- the plastic handles looked cheap and the glittering blades seemed flimsy -- but these were the classic Ginsu knives, tantalizingly arrayed in a handsome box and waiting for me to put them to work. The price was low, the knives were shiny, and I left the store with the box tucked under my arm.

Death of a Salesman

It's been years since I bought the Ginsus, but they came to mind again recently. Last week, Barry Becher, the man who brought those knives into my living room -- and, ultimately, into my kitchen -- died at age 71 of complications related to surgery for kidney cancer.

Becher was more than a mere pitchman. He and his partner, Ed Valenti, created a phenomenon. In the 1970's, Valenti, an ad salesman for a local television station, met Becher, who owned two Aamco transmission shops. Together, the pair began hawking products on TV. They quickly found success with a no-spill painting pad and, by the late-1970s, were searching for the next big thing to sell.

They found it in the Scott Fetzer knife company, an Ohio-based firm that had been making kitchen knives since 1920. But, while Fetzer's knives sold reasonably well, they lacked the punch, the certain something, that would make them a household name. Becher and Valenti provided that last twist. Playing off a growing fascination with all things Asian, the pair redubbed Fetzer's knives; the new name, "Ginsu," was made-up, vaguely Japanese-souding gibberish. Valenti would later tell The New York Times that Becher often joked that it meant "I never have to work again."

Creating a Phenomenon

The Ginsu name was only the beginning. On their first infomercial, seen below, Becher and Valenti combined drama (karate chops breaking boards!) with slapstick (karate chops smashing tomatoes!), surreality (a knife cutting a tin can!) with culinary dexterity (a knife smoothly sliding through a tomato!). While the original ad seems clunky today, it was fresh and exciting in 1978, and it laid the groundwork for an entire industry.



The Ginsu ads had everything that we've come to expect from our pitchmen: the vaguely scientific-sounding boasts ("The dual edge is like two knives in one!"); the endless "But wait, there's more!" list of bonus extras. There were exciting visuals, an impossibly generous guarantee, and a tantalizingly low price. Becher and Valenti offered the world; more importantly, for over 3 million Ginsu customers, they delivered at least some of it.

Ginsu: The Aftermath

It's hard to believe, but the Becher and Valenti Ginsu era only lasted for a six years, from 1978 to 1984, before the company was bought by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. Today, Ginsu is still going strong; it has several knife collections that range in price from a stunningly cheap $12.84 set to an expensive $163.55 one.

Becher and Valenti didn't rest on their Ginsu laurels. Instead, the pair went on to further sales successes with Armourcoat cookware, Vacufresh containers, and Royal Durasteel cooking bowls. More importantly, they inspired a legion of imitators, from the exuberantly geeky Matthew Lesko, who promises "FREE MONEY!" from the government to the reassuringly blue-collared Billy Mays, who pitched dozens of products, including Oxy Clean and the "Shamwow," until his death in 2009.

As for the Ginsus, the knives were better than I expected. Their finely serrated blades made short work of a beer can and actually did a pretty good job on my tomatoes. I ended up passing them on to my sister, at whose hands they finally gave up the ghost after a few years of cutting wood, plastic, metal and vinyl. In the end, the Ginsu's famous 50-year guarantee proved no match for the brutal attentions of a multi-media artist. Even so, I have no question that, in the end, Becher and Valenti more than delivered on their promise.




Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.

Learn about investing from the comfort of your own home.

Portfolio Basics

Take the first steps to building your portfolio.

View Course »

Investment Strategies

Learn the strategies you need to build a winning portfolio

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

13 Comments

Filter by:
RMS

Yes, Ralph Kramden was the original pitchman, with his Happy Handy Housewife Helper. Oh, it can core a apple!
Zip zipping, the modern way!

July 07 2012 at 4:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
HeyRobert

To everyone who remembers---Ralph and Norton; they had a question from one to the other,about the kitchen tool that they were selling? Norton asks Ralph,"can it core a apple"?What a line.

July 07 2012 at 3:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
corgi11

Please don't confuse Billy Mays with Vince Shlomi. Billy was a wonderful pitchman along with his friend Anthony Sullivan and he certainly did not pitch the Shamwow. They tried their hardest to make sure todays current inventors got a chance to get their products on television. Vince Shlomi isn't even in the same class and has also had problems with the police.

July 07 2012 at 2:17 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to corgi11's comment
Darr247

I remember Billy pitching Oxiclean, Kaboom, Magic Mendit and Magic Putty, but never shamwow.

Search youtube.com for scamnow for some good parodies of Vince, 'cause we can't do this all day. :-)

July 08 2012 at 9:42 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Davie2743

These guys proved you can sell almost anything and everything on TV.

July 07 2012 at 12:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rwilliamhoward

"Guaranteed for FIFTY YEARS!" Gee.... I wonder where you might collect on that today.

July 07 2012 at 11:31 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
arenadood

I never liked the Ginsu knives but I bought them anyhow because of his pitch lines. He was a good pitchman. May he RIP.

July 07 2012 at 11:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
yellowberry3535

r.i.p. bro

July 07 2012 at 10:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
yellowberry3535

i know hes still alive, but billy blanks was a decent pitchman as well.

July 07 2012 at 10:34 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
pseuzan1

I guess the author of this article isn't a Honeymooners fan. If he was, he would be familiar with the episode where Ralph and Norton do a late night commercial for a kitchen gadget. Ralph was Chef of the Future. These guys didn't invent this kind of pitch; they resurrected it. Check it out...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22oCaiccz3w

July 07 2012 at 9:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
aleighcat

Actually, I have a set of steak knives marked "Ginsu"....and while I've never had the need/curiosity to slice through metal with them, they are my favorite knives when it comes to slicing/coring tomatoes. I use them just about more that any other knives in my drawer. My condolences to this man's family/friends at this most difficult time.

July 07 2012 at 9:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply