Walter A Friedman’s Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America tells the story of the creation of a unique sales force within the US. Friedman lays out how a standardized salesman was established throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century who used tactics of repetition, intensity, and association to create a market for specialty products. (pp. 175) Salesman not only provided supply where demand existed, they also created demand where none existed before. In this way American consumerism was born.
The door-to-door salesman described by Friedman is no longer a reality in America. In our modern economy they have been made obsolete by a booming population and increased access to consumer goods for even the most secluded of places. Additionally, cultural changes have occurred making it unlikely that any contemporary American would allow a strange man into their home.
Despite these setbacks, the strategies which have been perfected over the last hundred years were not allowed to go by the wayside, and though they no longer knock on our doors, this kind of salesmen still exists. The exact tactics and methods laid out in Birth of a Salesman are still alive and well in infomercials.
Though technically an advertisement, infomercials are more like mini sales pitches. All of the same tactics and pitfalls of their sales predecessors are there. Much like door-to-door salesman they petal specialty products which may be overlooked in major department stores through “direct selling.” (pp. 201) Infomercials have a standard format; opening with a scene of some everyday task, the seller attempts to create an association with the buyer’s life. In showing how their product can make this task easier or supply a better outcome they are creating demand. Intensity in voice and body language and repetition of product names are heavily used by infomercial peddlers. Demonstration, paying in installments, and premium giveaways of additional products were all invented by the door-to-door salesman.
But beyond selling strategies, the two are also linked by buyers’ skepticism towards them. Canvassers who moved throughout the country were often seen as scammers during the rise of salesman. Similarly, the infomercial products are frequently thought of as hoaxes and the people who buy them as dupes. Traveling salesman tried to combat these negative stereotypes by associating themselves with a trusted brand name or through user’s positive reviews. Brand name connection can be seen with Billy Mays who, before his recent death, earned credibility by personally testing the products and being selective about which products he agreed to pitch. Mays himself became a trusted brand name for infomercial sales. Taking the other approach, many recent infomercials have begun taking to the streets with their products to document “real” reactions. Though likely staged, this is a grab at legitimacy by attempting to recreate the buyer’s reviews used by traditional salesman.
In this way door-to-door salesmen are still alive and well. Though we stopped opening our doors to them, we still allow them into our homes through television. The same standardized sales tactics were able to survive.