By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Billy Mays is starting to get on his own nerves. Recuperating from hip replacement surgery, he has spent this August day at his home in Odessa, Fla., watching TV. Every few minutes, Mays pops up in yet another commercial, each time bellowing like a man who thinks that the whole world has gone a little deaf.
There he is hawking Mighty Putty ("THE EASY WAY TO FIX, FILL AND SEAL VIRTUALLY ANYTHING FAST AND MAKE IT LAST!"), the Handy Switch ("BECAUSE IT'S WIRELESS, YOU CAN PUT A LIGHT SWITCH WHERE YOU NEVER HAD ONE BEFORE!"), Simoniz Fix It scratch remover ("THE SCRATCH HAS MET ITS MATCH!") and a mini-burger cooker called the Big City Slider Station ("THE UNIQUE DESIGN COOKS ALL SIDES AT ONCE, SO YOU NEVER HAVE TO FLIP 'EM!").
Frankly, that's a little more Billy Mays than even Billy Mays can handle.
"If I see myself one more time today," he groans, sounding genuinely weary, "I'm going to pull my hair out."
Start pulling, big fella, you might be tempted to say. The nation's preeminent pitchman for hire, the 50-year-old Mays is the emphatically gesticulating star of nine commercials for nine products, now in heavy rotation. And he's just getting started. A handful of new shoots will commence as soon he's back on his feet, and big-league advertisers like Pepsi have started calling, presumably to put his unironic style to some irony-intensive use. Plus, he recently moved into health insurance, as spokesman for a company called http://icanbenefit.com.
But wait. There's more.
In the fall, Mays will start taping a TV reality show, "Pitchmen," which will follow the creation of a two-minute commercial, from start to finish. But with many of his ads appearing 400 times a week, often at two minutes a pop, Mays could already be the single most ubiquitous figure on television today, measured purely in face time. His only competition comes from actors in perpetual syndication, like Seinfeld and Bart Simpson.
"You would think there would be a saturation point," says Scott Opfer, a director who has worked often with Mays. "But we never seem to reach it."
If you've watched any TV in the past 10 years, you know Mays's style -- chummy but urgent, with lots of imploring gestures, a hammy rhyme or two, some product demonstrations and the inevitable act-now kicker. Perhaps you have wondered: Why is he yelling? How does he yell and smile at the same time? And backing up a step, who is he? He always says his name -- "Billy Mays here!" -- in a way that implies he's famous. But he doesn't seem to do anything but shill at the top of his lungs in commercials.
Is that, like, a job?
Quite a lucrative job if you're Billy Mays. A college dropout who grew up in Pittsburgh, Mays lives with his wife and two kids in a five-bedroom house with a three-car garage for his Bentley, Mercedes SUV and Range Rover. His home office is the headquarters of Billy Mays Promotions, a one-man operation. Mays does overdubs in a mini-studio on the second floor and many of his tapings at a nearby production house owned by a friend.
If this sounds like the sweet, sedentary life, you've got the wrong impression. By all accounts, Mays is a tireless worker, ready to fly to any city for any shoot and then fly back for reshoots if necessary. Each of his "shows," as he calls them, requires dozens and dozens of takes, mostly because Mays is prone to stumbles and miscues, many of which are memorialized on blooper reels posted to YouTube. The three-alarm volume is never turned down. "People used to tell him, 'Billy, you've got to come off the gas a little, there's no need to shout,' " says Anthony Sullivan, a friend, fellow pitchman and owner of a production company where Mays has shot commercials. "He'd say 'No problem,' but he couldn't stop. He has one speed, 100 miles an hour -- take it or leave it."
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.
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.
As for the products themselves . . . well, as carefully as Mays might vet them, some get decidedly negative reviews. At http://infomercialratings.com, there are some favorable appraisals of something called Hercules Hooks, which gets an average rating of four out of five stars from customers. But the verdicts on Zorbeez cleaning cloths are scathing. "It's a 5 cent piece of felt that I spent 14 bucks on," wrote one unhappy customer. Another wrote: "do. not. waste. your. money."
The Awesome Auger fared no better, earning a mere 1 1/2 stars -- more than 70 buyers have weighed in -- with lots of complaints about performance and exorbitant shipping fees.
"What a RIPP OFF," fumed Ray of Texas, who was apparently too angry for the spell-checker. "I called their customer service line for three days and at least 10 times a day and always got the same recorded message, "All our repersentivies are busy, TRY YOU CALL AGAIN LATER, GOOD BYE."
Sobo, who runs the company behind the Awesome Auger, said he stands by the product and noted that anyone who doesn't like it can return it for a refund -- though that refund would not include shipping and handling fees.
"At the end of the day, there are going to be a certain number of people who like an item and a certain number of people who don't," Sobo said. "That's true of any product, no matter where it's sold."Now, How Much Would You Pay?
Mays doesn't just swear by this stuff. He uses it, too. In fact, his home is kind of an as-seen-on-TV showroom.
"I have all the cleaning products, I have the Samurai Shark, Mighty Putty underneath my bathroom sink," he says. "I have Handy Switches in my garage. I have Hercules Hooks. Zorbeez is the chamois I use to clean up messes."
Mays has enough ego to refer to himself now and then in the third person, but he comes across as the unaffected dude he plays on TV, only much quieter. He occasionally will leap into his sales voice during an hour-long conversation, like a NASCAR driver demonstrating how to floor it. He's bummed about being sidelined by the hip surgery on this particular day, but his inclination is to look at the bright side of everything, even convalescence.
"I'm in the best shape of my life," he says, seeming to mean it.
A former high school football player, Mays dropped out of West Virginia University and worked for his father's hazardous-waste trucking company. In 1983, he ran into a high school friend who was heading to Atlantic City to sell Ginsu knives on the boardwalk, then the pitchman capital of the United States. "He said, 'I'm on my way to Atlantic City, want to come?' " Mays recalls. "I went home and grabbed my suitcase."
He's done nothing but peddle miracle mops, chamois cloths, kitchen choppers and hundreds of other products ever since. Mays first worked for a company called International Housewares, which in the '50s basically pioneered the form, content and style of the gadget pitch that would later evolve into the TV infomercial. (Ed McMahon also put in some time at this boot-camp-cum-graduate-school of the hard sell, moving vegetable slicers to put himself through college.) Mays worked for Cris Morris, the son of the company's founder, and the first product he sold was WashMatik, a hose that could pump water from a bucket without being hooked up to a faucet. You could wash your car without being near your house.
"We called him Bucket Billy because he was doing demonstrations with a bucket for five or six years," says Morris, on the phone from the Wisconsin State Fair, where he was setting up a handful of sales booths. "All the pitches he does on TV now are just like the ones he did in Atlantic City."
Mays says he initially stank at his job. He spent too much time describing the product and not enough time "chilling 'em down," that is, getting the audience to pony up. Pitchmen are generally supercompetitive, but Mays seemed so sincere, helpless and dedicated that his colleagues gave him lessons. ("They said, 'Here's the baton, kid, we see something in you,' " as Mays remembers it.) One taught him a lengthy patter that always worked.
"You start by asking yourself a question: How much are these?" recalls Mays, switching to pitch mode. " 'I'm glad you asked. You can buy them in stores right now, for $29.99, and they come in this beautiful gift box. But before 12 o'clock today, the boss says I have 50 to sell at $15 apiece. But for the first 10 people, they cost one 10-dollar bill. Now, who is first?' And then you just point to the nearest guy, the guy who seemed most eager, and say, 'You are number one.' And that guy always went along with it. It was amazing. And then someone would raise their hand and say, 'I'm number two,' and pretty soon, you had 10 people handing you money."
After a few years with the WashMatik, Mays sold the Ultimate Chopper for five years, with a demonstration that ended with him making salsa. He traveled around the country to home shows and state fairs, "ballying," as the pitchman sales banter is known, at full volume for hours on end. Along the way, he met Max Appel, an inventor and pitchman who was selling Orange Glo, a wood-polishing liquid. When Appel asked Mays to pitch Orange Glo on the Home Shopping Network, 6,000 units were sold in 11 minutes, at $18 a pop.
"We would have sold more," says Mays, "but they ran out."
He moved to Florida, where HSN is based, and became an all-purpose sales guy for the channel. If a program wasn't making its numbers that day, a producer would call Mays, who'd drop whatever he was doing and bolt to the studio.
"Back then, it was 'Go out there and pitch, kid,' " says Mays. "I'd go for 18 straight minutes if they had enough product. I'd be selling $40,000 worth of mops in one day. In between, I'd sell a scooter. Then Wolfgang Puck would show up and I'd taste some of his creations."
Mays broke into his current superstar level of fame in 1999 when he did a two-minute commercial for the all-purpose Oxi Clean, which Appel had created. Something about the demonstration (Mays turning a bowl of brackish water a sudsy white) and the pitch ("Powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water you drink!") caught on. Appel would later sell his company, which included Oxi Clean and other products, for $325 million, and Mays became the most improbable of marketing phenoms: an infomercial star.
Mays is now famous in that decade-stamping way that ensures him a spot in future VH1 specials, unless he's already been on "I Love the New Millennium." We'll look back at the images of him hyping some miracle doodad and think, "Where is that guy!" The unofficial mascot of American capitalism at its noisiest, he's already become a Halloween costume -- just get a fake beard, blue shirt, a squirt bottle and start yelling -- and he's recognized whenever he goes out in public.
Like the time last year that he and his pal Anthony Sullivan went to the Delano hotel in Miami and spotted Motley Crue singer Vince Neil. Mays introduced himself. "Hey, my son loves your band," he said.
"And Neil looked at him and said, 'Dude, you're the Oxi Clean guy!' " remembers Sullivan. "The funny part about it was that Vince Neil was way more excited about meeting Billy than Billy was about meeting Vince Neil. It was like Billy was the rock star."