Marketer of Ginsu knife created a TV niche

By 

Dennis Hevesi

The New York Times

Sunday July 1, 2012 10:51 AM

“In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife,” the off-screen narrator of a TV commercial
intones as a board is karate-chopped in two. “But this method doesn’t work with a tomato.” Suddenly
the hand tries to cleave a plump tomato. Splat!

That commercial was the first of a hokey series for Ginsu knives, broadcast from 1978 to 1984.
And masterminding them were Barry Becher and Ed Valenti, business partners who made a fortune
marketing the knives as ultrasharp and versatile. They helped to pave the way for the infomercial
and other kinds of direct-response TV.

Both had a hand in the commercials, literally. That was Valenti’s right hand chopping the board
and smashing the tomato.

“Barry had various cutting roles: slicing ham, cutting a tin can, a hose,” Valenti said on
Thursday, seven days after Becher had died at 71 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., reportedly of cancer.
The partners’ two-minute Ginsu commercials — offering “an amazing, low, low price!,” urging viewers
to “Order now!” because “Operators are standing by,” and sweetening the pitch with their trademark “
But wait, there’s more!” — were an inescapable staple of television, mostly in the late hours.

Becher and Valenti reaped large profits for their companies, Dial Media and Ginsu Products,
based in Warwick, R.I. They racked up more than $30?million in sales by the time Ginsu was acquired
by Warren E. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 1985.

But Ginsu was not made in Japan. Searching for a product they could market, Becher and Valenti
came across a sturdy set of knives manufactured by the Scott Fetzer Co. in Westlake, Ohio.
Wondering who would buy a knife called Fetzer, they renamed it with hopes of evoking samurai swords
and the dashing knife-work in Japanese steakhouses — even though Ginsu has no meaning in
Japanese.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse
University, once said the Ginsu commercials occupied a special niche in television history.

“It remains close to the top of the Hall of Fame of those types of commercials,” he said, “along
with the Chia Pet and the Clapper.”

“Barry had a great saying,” Valenti said. “Whenever someone would ask, ‘What does Ginsu mean in
English?’ he would say, ‘I never have to work again.’??”

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