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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.