Malcolm Gladwell has a wonderful article on the art of pitching and in particular the art of pitching as practised by the Popeil and Morris clan in the US in the mid-late 20th Century and epitomised by Ron Popeil, the man who invented the infomercial with products like the Showtime Rotisserie and Grill and the Pocket Fisherman. The traveling salesmen of the early 20th century kick started the art of pitching, engaging audiences in the desirability of objects through demonstration. The TV was made for these pitchmen who were able to engage a mass audience around the key attributes of a product:
How you go about selling a product rarely figures in the creation of it. But Gladwell makes an interesting point regarding pitching in product design, in reference to the VCR:
Thirty years ago, the videocassette recorder came on the market, and it was a disruptive product, too: it was supposed to make it possible to tape a television show so that no one would ever again be chained to the prime-time schedule. Yet, as ubiquitous as the VCR became, it was seldom put to that purpose. That’s because the VCR was never pitched: no one ever explained the gadget to American consumers–not once or twice but three or four times–and no one showed them exactly how it worked or how it would fit into their routine, and no pair of hands guided them through every step of the process. All the VCR-makers did was hand over the box with a smile and a pat on the back, tossing in an instruction manual for good measure. Any pitchman could have told you that wasn’t going to do it.
Thinking about how someone will use a product is wired into most design processes. However, there is, as far as I know, only one company that follows this through into the selling of the product and one person who’s synonymous with this; Steve Jobs who owes his pitch process to the Popeils. Look at his keynote from the iPad launch earlier this year:
Forget the superlatives, I now know how it feels to use this thing, I can connect with the product. Here is Arnold Morris (one of the last of the old Pitchmen) selling the Dial-o-Matic food slicer (an old Poeil product) to Gladwell:
“Come on over, folks. I’m going to show you the most amazing slicing machine you have ever seen in your life,” he began. Phyllis, sitting nearby, beamed with pride. He picked up a package of barbecue spices, which Ron Popeil sells alongside his Showtime Rotisserie, and used it as a prop. “Take a look at this!” He held it in the air as if he were holding up a Tiffany vase. He talked about the machine’s prowess at cutting potatoes, then onions, then tomatoes. His voice, a marvellous instrument inflected with the rhythms of the Jersey Shore, took on a singsong quality: “How many cut tomatoes like this? You stab it. You jab it. The juices run down your elbow. With the Dial-O-Matic, you do it a little differently. You put it in the machine and you wiggle”–he mimed fixing the tomato to the bed of the machine. “The tomato! Lady! The tomato! The more you wiggle, the more you get. The tomato! Lady! Every slice comes out perfectly, not a seed out of place. But the thing I love my Dial-O-Matic for is coleslaw. My mother-in-law used to take her cabbage and do this.” He made a series of wild stabs at an imaginary cabbage. “I thought she was going to commit suicide. Oh, boy, did I pray–that she wouldn’t slip! Don’t get me wrong. I love my mother-in-law. It’s her daughter I can’t figure out. You take the cabbage. Cut it in half. Coleslaw, hot slaw. Pot slaw. Liberty slaw. It comes out like shredded wheat . . .”
This could be Jobs doing the slicer pitch, it’s the same empathic pitch style focused on the stuff you would use the product for. Why are there not more products being pitched this way?