Pitch People


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Pitch People
"Funny, sharp-witted and keenly observational."

Can you imagine a world without adverts? In truth we can trace them back to ancient times, when they took the form of papyrus posters or were simply painted onto rock. This is a long way, however, from the dynamic of the salesperson’s patter. This film follows that development of that patter as it first emerged in the US, and its journey from fairground stalls to trade shows and TV screens, paying tribute to those who excelled at the art of the pitch.

It opens with a cluster of ads. Kitchen gadgets feature of course, and wonder diets and miracle hair loss treatments. Suddenly a man says authoritatively “I’m going to reproduce an atomic explosion. Now don’t get nervous. Don’t get alarmed or excited.” There is nothing, it seems, that cannot be made into a product, reframed, made desirable. 90% of what they sell is trash, the pitch people agree. Some customers seem to know that too, and to buy not so much because they want or need the products as because they want to pay for the entertaining experience of being sold them. One woman tells a pitch man decisively that if she were not already married she would marry him.

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Could you stand up in a public place and sell a random product to strangers? Most people find it very difficult. Without enthusiasm on the part of the pitcher, nobody will buy. The salesperson has to be confident, passionate, fluent, able to talk non-stop for prolonged periods without ever missing a line or running out of ideas, able to take on any challenge. Some of those interviewed admit to being terrified to begin with. They often took it up out of financial desperation. They need some natural charisma, but the film makes clear that to a large extent, charisma is a learned skill. The most successful pitchers, they all agree, are those who really enjoy it.

In these days of late capitalism, when people are increasingly suspicious of materialism and exploitation, it’s easy to forget how much fun it once was. There’s a kind of purity and innocence about the early footage used in Pitch People. The technique developed from the selling of herbal medicines sold at county fairs in the early days of European settlers in North America, sometimes as part of a carnival, we are told. 209th Century pitch people explain that they made most sales really early and really late, at the fairs. They discuss technique and the tricks of the trade, such as freezing food when selling knives to make it harder so the knives will cut through it cleanly and look sharper. They show a deep affection for one another, admiring each others’ skills, talking about the legendary figures now gone, the showbiz aspect of it all.

“Television was designed to sell products,” we are reminded – something that may not be true everywhere but makes sense in the context of the US. Programmes were an afterthought, but that might not have mattered when the pitch people were at their best. Some of their work was clearly easier with customers low on general knowledge and scientific understanding – there is talk of the enormous success of gadgets with names ending in ‘-matic’, whilst the supposed properties of others are explained in ways which sound dubious in the extreme – but that’s not to downplay the art. Over time, of course, it would be transformed by television, which would also see the trade available at fairs diminish to the point where there was no longer a living in it. Nostalgia for the thrill of live performance is mixed, here, with an appreciation of innovation and the new possibilities it created, the new careers which opened up for some.

Funny, sharp-witted and keenly observational, Stanley Jacobs’ documentary, which travelled the festival circuit in 1999 but is now reaching general audiences for the first time, does a good job of getting to know people who are experts in distraction, digging beneath the razzle dazzle to find out what makes them tick. In doing so, it captures something of the essence of the American Dream, and it will give you a fresh appreciation of the brave, adventurous, smooth-talking hustlers who made it happen.

Reviewed on: 17 May 2024
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Pitch People packshot
Men and women perfect the art of the pitch to make their livelihood selling various products with visual demonstrations.

Director: Stanley Jacobs

Writer: Stanley Jacobs

Starring: Arnold Morris, Nancy Ann Nelson, Lester Morris, Sandy Mason, Garrett Bess, Jan Muller

Year: 1999

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US


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