I was born a Cockney in East London and, though we moved to Chiswick in West London before I had a memory (when the whole borough was still a mix of Victorian houses turned slums and spit-and-polish-clean workman’s cottages, not the chic area it has become), my mother liked to take me back to the east end; especially to Petticoat Lane, the Smoke’s great flea market along Wentworth Street and Middlesex Street.
I’m not sure what she went there for, but I grew to love the spielers, the stall-holders who sold their goods through their showy talk. The kings of the trade were the china salesman who, in the course of a rambling sales pitch, could pile an entire china dinner service on a large serving platter and throw it in air, catching it again with a huge clatter. And by that time, you were so entranced by his storytelling and feats of strength that you took out your purse and bought a plate or two. So the theory went; and I’m sure it worked because they kept at it throughout my youth.
When I came to live here on the west coast, I was immediately drawn to the pitchmen I saw on TV: Cal Worthing ton “and his dog Spot”, the classic used car salesman; Ron Popeil, the grandmaster of kitchen appliances and spray-on hair; Billy Mays, king of the infomercial, with his beard and trademark “Billy-back” guarantees; and the up-and-comer selling absorbent cloths. I love listening to the pitches, analyzing the creative, reading the disclaimers, and never buying anything (OK, in the interests of full disclosure, I did buy a pasta maker from Ron Popeil in the 1980s: it was great to use and good value).
Anyway, this whole musing was kick-started by a fascinating Lloyd Grove interview of Billy Mays in Conde Nast Portfolio. Billy turns out to be a single-minded money-making machine, happy to launch into a detailed analysis of “direct response” advertising, and with a keen sense of the downstream revenues he can plug into. He has developed his art of pitching, worked hard at it, and I don’t begrudge him anything he can make out of it.