30 years later, this iconic knife still carving its name

Faux-Japanese knife a Rhody creation

Friday, March 7, 2008

The modern TV infomercial started with a karate chop.

“In Japan,” begins the dramatic voice-over in the 1978 commercial, “the hand can be used as a knife.” A man in a white karate suit splits a stack of wooden boards with his hand.

The image changes: The same hand is now poised above a ripe red tomato on a cutting board.

“But this method doesn’t work with a tomato,” the voice continues. The hand smashes the vegetable into a pulpy mess. “That’s why WE use the Ginsu,” the voice intones, as the scene cuts to a knife cleanly slicing a tomato.

The hand belongs to Ed Valenti P’98, as does credit for these marketing catchphrases, which Valenti jokingly called his “literary classics”: “But WAIT – there’s more!” “NOW how much would you pay?” “Operators are standing by,” “Limit one to a customer,” and, “So you don’t forget, order before midnight!”

In marketing the Ginsu knife, a supposedly ever-sharp cutlery set with a faux-Asian name, Valenti changed the way products are sold on TV. He essentially created the dialect of today’s late-night television ads, the language of vegetable peelers and singing wall fish and Chia pets. If you’ve ever bought an Ab Roller or a George Foreman grill from an 800 number because you couldn’t fall asleep, you can blame Valenti.

“That Ginsu commercial, when all is said and done … has to be up there in the top 10 of the greatest single pitches,” said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “To this day, if you watch TV on local channels, especially late at night, you still see the Ginsu idioms. The breathless demonstrations are still present.”

Between 1978 and 1984, when Valenti sold his advertising company to investor Warren Buffet, the Ginsu earned $50 million in sales.

But wait, there’s more: Thirty years after hitting the airwaves, the Ginsu name may carve its way onto a Warwick street sign. In January, representatives in the Rhode Island General Assembly introduced a bill proposing that an unnamed side-street by Valenti’s Warwick office bechristened “Ginsu Way,” in recognition of Rhode Island’s role in the company’s success and influence.

‘What the hell was that?’

In 1975, Valenti was an account executive at an NBC affiliate in Providence, but he was looking to make a few dollars on the side. Inspired by ads hawking music compilation tracks but looking for something with more universal appeal, Valenti and his friend, Barry Becher, bought a painting pad roller gadget from a home goods show to sell on TV.

After he was turned down by New York City’s Madison Avenue ad agencies, Valenti decided to make his own commercial for the product, which he named the Miracle Painter. “There was historical precedence for making that decision because the Titanic was built by experts, but Noah’s Ark was built by amateurs,” Valenti said.

Valenti’s commercial opened with a man painting a ceiling while wearing a tuxedo. The voice-over asked, “Why is this man painting his ceiling in a tuxedo?”

The arresting beginning caught the public’s attention – and Madison Avenue’s as well.

“Since then it has been endlessly imitated – maybe the right word is stealing – to do something very imaginative and very astonishing in the first few seconds of the commercial, such as a man painting a ceiling in a tuxedo,” Valenti said. “What better way to illustrate ‘no drip’?”

The style of the commercial became known as “grease copy,” Valenti said, “because if you can capture (the audience) in the first few seconds, they say, ‘What the hell was that?’ and you can slide them into the rest of the commercial.”

Valenti decided to use 800 numbers and credit cards to deal with orders, and said he created the phrase “toll-free” for the call-in lines. With Becher’s basement and garage as their warehouse, Valenti and Becher sold Miracle Painters to the likes of Johnny Carson, John Wayne and the Russian embassy, Valenti said.

‘A great sense of foreplay’

In the late 1970s, when Valenti and his Warwick-based ad agency Dial Media decided to sell a knife from Fremont, Ohio, called “Eversharp,” they knew they had to come up with an alluringly exotic story for the product. After playing with the idea of pretending the knife was from Scandinavia or the Middle East, they settled on Japan.

So where did the name Ginsu come from?

“Drugs were great in the ’70s,” Valenti joked.

Actually, he and his friends were “sitting around, being silly and speaking fake Japanese,” when, “someone uttered ‘Ginsu’ and it just seemed to fit,” he said.

Valenti credits the knife and the commercial’s success to the fact that, “at the end of the offer, you don’t know what you’re getting, but you know it doesn’t cost a lot.”

The 1978 commercial first touts the knife’s ability to stay sharp, even after slicing through a tin can. Buyers were also promised a carving fork, a “six-in-one kitchen tool,” a set of six “precision steak knives” (“their handles match the Ginsu!”) and a “spiral slicer.”

“It’s the most incredible knife offer ever!” the informercial voice-over exclaims.

The knife has cut itself a slice of American pop culture. Valenti said it was the inspiration for John Belushi’s Saturday Night Live skit “Samurai Delicatessen,” and it was also the subject of a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine. It has been mentioned on shows and movies from “The Sopranos” to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Thompson, the Syracuse professor, said the signature line, “But wait, there’s more!” created “a great sense of foreplay.”

“By the time the commercial was over, you’d think, ‘How could I be so stupid to not take advantage of it?’ ” he said.

Thompson admitted that he bought a set of Ginsu knives off an infomercial when he was younger. “I’ve never used them to cut myself out of a safe, but they’ll cut through a tomato,” he said.

According to Thompson, the “But wait, there’s more” idea is not new. He compared the late-night infomercial’s shock and entertainment tactics to those of a 19th-century “snake-oil salesman.” But the Ginsu commercials perfected the art, Thompson said, and have “transcended cutlery to become an American icon.”

Valenti’s latest marketing efforts have focused on a 2005 book he wrote with Becher, “The Wisdom Of Ginsu: Carve Yourself A Piece Of The American Dream.” The book combines the story of the Ginsu knife with Valenti’s business and life advice, he said.

The advice is “back-to-basic personal and business strategies I’ve used over the last 30 years,” Valenti said. “Those Ginsu-isms let me take a knife … and make 50 million in sales.”

‘A sharp idea’

Bald Hill Road in Warwick is a major retail street and state highway lined with strip malls. Near a recently built state courthouse and a parking garage, a 500-foot strip of pavement connects Bald Hill Road with nearby Quaker Lane.

It also happens to run right past Valenti’s office at PriMedia, the company he currently runs. The short street has no name, but Act 7312 in the Rhode Island General Assembly is trying to officially dub the road “Ginsu Way.”

“It would be a nice gesture to recognize the fact that … the father of the infomercial, the inventor of Ginsu, is a Rhode Islander who became successful and raised family here,” said Rep. David Caprio, D-Dist. 34, who represents Narragansett and is one of the representatives who introduced the bill in January. Caprio said Valenti first suggested the idea to him last summer.

Caprio said no addresses would change if the street were renamed, since all the buildings have addresses on the adjacent streets.

“It’s more symbolic than functional,” Caprio said.

“I just think it’s a sharp idea,” Valenti cracked. Caprio said the bill had been introduced in a committee hearing and was well received. “Anyone who said anything thought it was a good idea,” he said.

“Everyone remembered the commercials,” Caprio added. “But they didn’t know it was born here in Rhode Island.”

The bill has not been voted on yet a
nd still needs to pass through committee and the Assembly, Senate and governor. In the meantime, the story has received worldwide attention. The story about the bill appeared nationally in an Associated Press article, and, according to Valenti, in international newspapers ­- in Japan.

And though Valenti said he thought the gesture of renaming the street was “wonderful,” his highest aspiration is for a different kind of namesake.

“I won’t have lived until there’s a sandwich” named after him, Valenti said. “I’m fortunate enough to have the respect and acclaim of everyone in the business … but I don’t have a sandwich.”

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