Editor's note: American Way's profile on Billy Mays was completed and went to press prior to Mays's unfortunate passing on June 28, 2009. American Way extends its condolences to Mays's family.
Infomercial guru extraordinaire and Pitchmen star Billy Mays has made a fortune hawking household cleaners and cooking supplies. What’s next for this one-man brand?
Illustration by QuickHoney
He could sell even before he was this guy -- this black-bearded, blue-shirted, barrel-shaped, loudmouthed TV pitchman who incessantly, emphatically introduces himself with the line, “Hi, Billy Mays here!” He could sell when he was just Bill Mays, an 18-year-old high school linebacker from McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, a town of aging iron and steel plants, lumber mills, and castings factories. He could sell, even when the product was garbage.
Actually, it was garbage removal. Mays’s dad ran a trucking company that once made some coin by hauling miscellaneous hazardous waste.
“This was around 1976,” recalls the now 50-year-old Mays, who has amassed a fortune on his way to becoming the nation’s most famous commercial pitchman. “Nobody knew what this waste stuff really was; there were no regulations then. So we would offer to haul the drums, the solids, the liquids. And here I was, just 18. But somehow, I got up the nerve to get in there and sit in front of the head of U.S. Chemicals and say, ‘Hi, I’m Bill Mays. I’m here to tell you about our service.’ I called myself Bill then, and I had a real monotone sales pitch.”
Actually, he still
has a monotone sales pitch. It’s just that ever since he stopped being Bill Mays and became the commercial character who goes by “Billy Mays!” -- a metamorphosis that began sometime in the mid-1980s on New Jersey’s Atlantic City Boardwalk and concluded when he landed the pitchman job for OxiClean stain remover -- his tone has gotten much, much louder. And more profitable. Mays’s high-powered promotional skills have helped sell millions of products, including Mighty Putty, the Big City Slider Station, and OxiClean. For the most part, these are relatively inexpensive products or, as Mays puts it in one ad, “A huge value! All for just two payments of $19.99!” Still, thousands and thousands of products sold at one or two payments of $19.99 aggregate. Mays does, after all, drive a Bentley.
He is also now legitimately famous. He stars in his own reality TV series, the Discovery Channel’s Pitchmen
, alongside producer and fellow pitchman Anthony “Sully” Sullivan. Combined, Sullivan and Mays racked up 56,000 minutes of TV airtime last year in commercials alone, according to Icon Media. But Mays’s style is not universally admired. More than a few people mute their TV sets every time they hear “Hi, Billy Mays here!”
“If he sold air,” wrote a commenter in one of many online forums dedicated to the pillory of Billy Mays, “I think I’d suffocate.” Such reactions, coupled perhaps with their own tinge of jealousy, is why some Madison Avenue suits dismiss Mays as a passing fad.
But Mays doesn’t think his days as the nation’s preeminent pitchman are over. (Wait, there’s more!) Not only does he plan on sticking around, he says he’s about to embark on bigger, better things. And you better act now, because he’s ready to sell. “It’s about giving back,” he says. “There’s a bigger calling for Billy Mays.”