A jerk you'll want to buy rags from.

Advertising deconstructed.
May 13 2008 12:01 PM

Salesjerk

Meet the next great TV pitchman.

The Spot:A man demonstrates an absorbent towel called the "Shamwow." It cleans up spills, polishes cars, washes dishes, and so forth. "Eight Shamwows for $19.95," goes the salesman's closing argument. "Comes with a 10-year warranty. Here's how to order." (Click here to watch the ad on the Shamwow site.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

There's something captivating about Vince, the Shamwow pitchman. I always perk up when I hear those initial, outer-borough syllables: "Hi, it's Vince wit Shamwow. Dis is fuh da house, da car." A friend of mine—a guy who's never succumbed to an infomercial come-on—says he finds himself strangely tempted to order a Shamwow each time he watches Vince's spiel.

There are zillions of ads like this on late-night TV. A pitchman (or -woman) demonstrates a household product, then issues an aggressive "call to action" (as the marketing lingo goes). You're urged to "act now" and given a phone number or Web site through which you can order the product. Often, there's a time limit ("call in the next 20 minutes"), and you're promised free bonus items for beating the deadline. Ads of this ilk generally wash right over me. What makes the Shamwow ad different?

In part, it's the astonishing capabilities of the product. (Holds 20 times its weight in liquid! Instantly extracts cola spills from your carpet! Lasts for 10 years! I'm certain all of this is 100 percent true!) But lots of products make impressive claims. The real star here is Vince, who demonstrates an impressive and subtle mastery of the pitchman's art.

The first thing I notice is the physical grace. Vince puts the Shamwow through its paces with the fluid dexterity of a three-card monte dealer. Cleaning up spills appears not just effortless, but fun.

There's a genius, too, in his hectoring tone. He makes us feel like idiots for even entertaining the notion of not buying a Shamwow. "You're gonna spend $20 every month on paper towels, anyway," he says, palms up and head tilted back. He seems truly dumbfounded that anyone might fail to see the wisdom of dropping 28 bucks (including shipping) on a set of rags.

Vince also conveys a street-smart persona—with his headset microphone, rat-a-tat phrasing and fuhgeddaboutit confidence—that's intended to get the viewer thinking, "Hey, this guy's sharp. He knows a good deal." (It may also get us thinking, "Hey, this guy's a douche. He needs a better haircut." But that's a secondary issue.)

I've made several attempts to get in touch with Vince, hoping to quiz him about the finer points of his delivery. As of this writing, my phone calls have not been returned. But Internet sleuthing suggests (and a Shamwow spokesman confirms) that Vince is a man named Vince Offer. (Key pieces of evidence: the photo attached to this press release, and the fact that Offer once pitched kitchen vegetable choppers at swap meets.)

Offer's history includes lawsuits waged against the Farrelly brothers, Anna Nicole Smith, and the Church of Scientology. He also wrote and directed the 1999 film The Underground Comedy Movie. The New York Post review gave the film zero stars, said it "may be the least amusing comedy ever made," and asked, "How can the War Crimes Tribunal indict Slobodan Milosevic but let Vince Offer still walk the streets?"

Harsh! But hey, Vince is certainly not boring, and therein lies a significant component of his effectiveness. The guy's jerky, aggrieved attitude jumps off the screen—particularly when he berates his own crew, snapping, "You followin' me, camera guy?" Vince manages, in the course of a minute spent swiping counters and dabbing at carpets, to make us wonder, "Whoa, what's the deal with this freak?" That makes the ad an attention-grabber, and it helps the Shamwow stand out from a crowded field of useless doohickeys.

Vince's abrasive manner might also mark a unique, new strategy in the annals of pitchdom. TV salespeople tend to be warmly enthusiastic, not confrontational. Watch the crew of hosts on the Home Shopping Network. Their role is to serve as easily wowed surrogates for the viewer. They'll run their fingers along the jeweled necklines of a knit separates collection, rapturously whispering, "Look. At. That." The constant ruse is that the hosts covet these products for themselves.

Billy Mays—likely the most famous pitchman of the last decade—also traffics in friendly excitement. A black-bearded fellow who shills for OxiClean, Hercules Hooks, Ding King, and other as-seen-on-TV dreck, Mays' celebrity no doubt stems from his signature, high-decibel style. (He locks into his upper vocal register and stays there for minuteslong, breathless monologues. Check out the YouTube clip of Mays doing multiple takes as he seeks the perfect way to yell, "You don't need a cabinet full of cleaners!") But through all the screaming, Mays is always an upbeat pal of the viewer—never a sneering bully.

Can Vince become the next Billy Mays—a ubiquitous, mercenary pitchman hawking products up and down the TV dial? I don't see why not. If anything, the current moment's more suited to Vince's smooth-talking condescension than to Mays' earnest fervor. Jaded consumers expect to get snowed and almost distrust the very pretense of trustworthiness. As my friend who's been tempted by the Shamwow puts it: "What I think I like about Vince is that he is upfront and seemingly comfortable with his schtick. He appears to be saying, 'I am a carnie huckster, you know it and I know it, but that's OK because this product is that good.' "

Grade: B-. It's by no means revolutionary, but the Shamwow ad gets the job done. Just pay no attention to the slew of quick edits going on as that spilled cola miraculously evaporates from that swatch of carpet. Also, ignore the fact that Billy Mays once pitched a near-identical product called Zorbeez using a near-identical set of demos. And, of course, be sure to ascribe no significance to the Shamwow's unfortunate first syllable.

Got an ad you'd like to see reviewed? E-mail your suggestions to adreportcard@slate.com.

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