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Shill Game

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Top pitchmen get about $20,000 upfront for each commercial they tape, but Mays makes even more money from a commission on gross revenue. He won't get specific about his annual income other than to say he can't retire anytime soon. What's known is that he is easily the most sought-after spokesman in the business.

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Yes, marketers risk annoying huge numbers of viewers when they hire Mays. But they need just a small percentage to call in, and they believe that nobody stops more channel surfers in mid-paddle than the genial, Brutus-bearded man who can't stop hollering. He's said to have a core of faithful who buy products simply because he has endorsed them.

"He's developed a loyal fan base," says Scott Sobo, the president of SAS Group in Tarrytown, N.Y., makers of a gardening device called the Awesome Auger. ("It takes the hard work out of yard work!") "We analyze the data on an ongoing basis, and there's no two ways about it. He adds value to the product."

"You're in a media environment that is crowded with millions of messages," says Jordan Pine, a consultant to infomercial makers. "Billy Mays is going to cut through that clutter."

Because of this, Mays is in the highly unusual position of getting to pick and choose which products to sell. He says he passes on nearly half of what he's offered.

"I'm always asking, does it have mass appeal?" says Mays. "Is it easy to afford? Is it easy to use? Does it solve a problem?"

That meant he said no to the Propane Caddy, no to a contraption called the Grill Tamer, no to an assortment of bug lights, wheelbarrows and collapsible shovels. He passed on a dog leash with a light attachment. He couldn't bring himself to sell a thingy that hooked up to a toilet seat and turned red when the seat was up and green when down. He was put off by a birthday candle that chimed "Happy Birthday" and set off a large flare.

"I showed it to my 3-year-old daughter," he says, "and it scared her."

A yes from Mays doesn't always mean you've got a winner. He will candidly admit that he was wrong about the Cargo Genie, which was supposed to help shoppers organize bundles in car trunks. In hindsight, maybe the Zip Wrench, a crescent wrench that opened and closed with the touch of a button, just didn't have enough appeal.

But Mays's track record is superb. The world of the two-minute commercial is a bit like the music business: There are 50 new ads released in the United States each week, and two or three of them will catch on. Those that do show up on Top 10 charts -- at such Web sites as http://jwgreensheet.com-- and the more your "show" appears on TV, the higher up the chart you go. Nobody has had more success on those charts than Billy Mays. He's become the Elvis of TV ads. He's racked up so many hit singles that nearly everyone wants him to sing their song.

"What Billy does is really a very simple form of old-school marketing," says Opfer, the director. "You set up the problem, you offer a solution, then you build an offer of incredible value. The art and talent is basically convincing people you've never met to get off the couch and give a stranger their credit card number. That takes some skill, and I think Billy is the best there is."

The Reviews Are In

It's hard to imagine a sales technique more out of fashion than the yell and sell. Marketing today is all about stealth, sex, pratfalls or smug postmodernism. Mays offers none of those. He's your overcaffeinated buddy, dressed in Regular Joe casual and he's just bolted into his kitchen, or into his back yard, to tell you about a deal on a gizmo that will definitely improve your life. Everything about him screams "sales pitch," but this unabashedness is meant to be part of his charm. There is no pretense or subtlety. Mays is the opposite of slick.


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