Documentary Review: ‘Pitch People’

by | Feb 29, 2024 | Featured Post, Movie Reviews, Movies | 0 comments

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 25 years since this documentary from Stanley Jacobs made the festival rounds, and now his 1999 film has gained an “anniversary” release in theaters and on 4K digital. Those of us of a certain age recall our favorite TV shows being interrupted with commercials for the latest “As Seen on TV” products. Ginsu knives and Pocket Fisherman were two of the most prominent, yet there were dozens more that gained airtime. What stood out was the excitement of those presenting the products, making that day’s miracle seem like a must-have for everyone … well except the Ronco Salad Shooter held little appeal for my younger self. But a Ginsu knife that cut through tin cans? I could find a use for that!

Jacobs’ tracks the origins of pitch people back to the days of traveling ‘Medicine Men’ and their cure-all potions, to the untrusted ‘Snake Oil’ salesmen (who were often the same folks). What’s clear is that we humans have always (and continue to) been enticed by anything promised to make our daily lives easier and better … or as PT Barnum (supposedly) said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Of course, one need not have traveled in a covered wagon or even grown up with limited network TV in the 1970’s to have been mesmerized by the best (or even mediocre) pitch people. Every county and state fair, and most every trade show, car show, and conference, features the entertaining sideshow of a pitch person and their slight-of-hand, fast-talking presentation of some gadget. What Jacobs shows us is that these masters of oratory skills typically take great pride in their talent and results.

Pitchers, hawkers, grafters, barkers, salespeople … it matters little what label is applied. Their job is to draw folks in, set the hook, and make the sale. The more fun you have with the pitch, the more likely you are to part with greenbacks (or tap your card these days). Ron Popeil (and his RonCo) may be the most famous and successful, and here, Jacobs details Popeil’s dad as well as the birth of the infomercial. Ed McMahon of Johnny Carson fame gets his own segment, and we experience how the pitch, once mastered, stays within the pitch person. We also hear from many others who work in this profession, some you’ll recognize, others you’ll feel like you should.

Slicers and dicers, miracle mops, and cookware, as well as anything “-O-Matic”, are big players in this market, and we find it entertaining to watch the pitch, but also see the reactions of those gathered around the booth at the fair. It’s quite a phenomenon, and one that Stanley Jacobs expertly captured in this documentary from many years ago … one certainly due a resurgence.

Opening in select theaters in 4K beginning March 1, 2024.

David Ferguson
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