“Pitch People” Offers Heartwarming Nostalgia with Minimal Reflection

We’ve all bought something we’ve seen on TV. Perhaps it was a radical vegetable dicer, a super-absorbent towel, a stain-removing serum, or a manicure set. And why did we buy these likely useless products? Most likely a pitch person with a magnetic charm. These specialized sales people excel at convincing us that not only is their product the best on the market, but our lives will be infinitely better once we have it in our possession. They sell to the masses by capturing attention, rattling off a self-effacing joke, then breezily passing on the product in exchange for our cash. The industry has morphed over the years to fit a series of new mediums, but what hasn’t changed are the likable and hard-working faces of these forgettable products – the people who pitch us their various wares.

The “second oldest profession” in the world is chronicled in Pitch People, a delightful documentary from Stanley Jacobs. Filmed and compiled in 1999, this nostalgic true story has been fully restored in 4K and is now available in full for the first time. Reaching back to the early 20th century with traveling salesmen in decorated wagons, experts and industry veterans revisit iconic tricks of the trade while explaining how they’ve evolved to keep up with a shifting market. We learn about the grueling hours of a pitch person’s day and the importance of always showing a fresh face to the world. It’s a fascinating peek behind the curtain of a unique type of performance that often goes overlooked. 

In addition to archival footage dating back decades, we watch practiced salesmen explain the secrets of their success. Genre icons like Nancy Ann Nelson and Arnold Morris remember accidental innovations developed out of necessity as well as the importance of competition and advantageous locales. Colleagues remember experiences working with Ron Popeil and Ed McMahon and we’re treated to behind the scenes footage of ubiquitous infomercials. 

Of course, any growing industry is bound to have its skeletons. With such a close-knit group of hard-working salesmen always on the go, it’s only natural that families and feuds would be born out of the intense conditions of this unusual world. We learn just a bit about the legendary Popeil family and what sounds like a relatively lighthearted battle with the Morris clan, but Jacobs stops short of fully investigating serious corruption or scandal. Though he is featured in the documentary, we also learn surprisingly little about Ron Popeil, who coined the iconic “Set it and forget it!” line and is arguably the most recognizable pitch person of all time. Like a practiced salesman, Jacobs keeps the story moving, focusing our eye on the positive while using a cinematic sleight of hand to distract from less savory information.

The film also refrains from exploring the products themselves. We join our pitchmen with product in hand and never learn much about how they came by these wares. Focusing mainly on the process of pitching, Jacobs does not concern himself with the cost of selling essentially useless items to a captivated audience or the ethical implications of championing flimsy products destined to end up in a landfill.
Despite these omissions, the film is nostalgic fun and will likely remind viewers of lazy days watching TV on the couch. We’re reunited with familiar faces from our childhood and gain fascinating insight into how they became household names. Like the products they sell in the best infomercials, there’s not much substance in this lighthearted documentary. But Pitch People dazzles us with charming faces and captures our attention for a brief moment in time before we inevitably move on to something else.

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.