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What is a Huckster?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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As the late comedian George Carlin once observed, if you nail two things together that have never been nailed together before, sooner or later someone will buy it. Most likely, the person who actually sells it would be considered a huckster. A huckster essentially sells products you don't need for a problem you didn't know you had, at a price you can't afford. The reason you buy it anyway is the showmanship and seduction behind the sales pitch. A good huckster is a consummate salesman who can sell products and services to practically anyone.

One prime example of a huckster at work can be found in advertising for radio and television. Hucksters may star in slickly produced infomercials, hawking anything from steam cleaners to miraculous laundry detergents to colon cleansing programs. They may use personal testimonials from satisfied customers, interviews with experts and live demonstrations to convince viewers to buy their products, preferably within the next thirty minutes. A huckster knows that he or she only has a short window of opportunity to make an impulse sale before the potential customer cools off and reconsiders the purchase.

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The term huckster is often used negatively to describe an unscrupulous pitchman who will say or do anything, legal or illegal, to close the deal. A huckster's products may not live up to the over-the-top claims and hyperbolic promises of the huckster's enthusiastic sales pitch. The stereotypical image of a plaid-jacketed used car salesman touting the "benefits" of a lemon car or a local appliance store owner producing frenetic "Crazy Joe with Insane Prices!" television spots would be considered familiar forms of hucksterism.

Although modern customers may have a dubious opinion about hucksters, the term originally referred to legitimate sellers of low-end goods. Although the actual etymology is not clear, it is believed that the word huckster is related to an old Dutch word, hokester. An original huckster during the Middle Ages would have been a seller who set up his station in the town square and sold goods, as opposed to a peddler, who would carry his inventory on his back and sell door-to-door.

The all-too-frequent use of slick pitchmen and glittering generalities to sell products and services has led to a public aversion to the practice of hucksterism. Political campaigns often use the same advertising techniques to sell their candidates to voters, building up their "product" with fantastic but largely unverifiable claims and deliberate exaggerations of the truth.

An effective huckster uses a number of persuasive techniques to convince potential customers of their need for the product or service. One popular technique is the direct action approach. Once the product has been proven to be safe, effective, healthy, time-saving, economical and/or a great Christmas gift, the next step for the customer is to take action and order it right away. This direct action advertising technique exploits a customer's fear that the product will never be available at this price again and must be purchased immediately.

A huckster may be selling a perfectly acceptable product or he may be peddling junk, but the principle is the same for each scenario; sell the sizzle, not the steak. It is up to consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to purchases, so it pays to be aware of the tricks of the trade favored by hucksters everywhere.

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