Death of a Pitchman (Billy Mays, 1958-2009)

And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.  What could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of 84, into twenty or thirty different cities… and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?

– Willy Loman,
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

In the grand scheme of things, few people will remember Billy Mays.  Not with the death of Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett, and Mitsuharu Misawa spaced just weeks apart.  At least in this part of the world, Billy Mays is synonymous with 4 PM infomercials that people cannot use.  Never mind the venerable buckets of OxiClean or the spray-bottles of Simoniz; at least here, Billy Mays is that loud, boisterous man who pitched the Ultimate Ladder.

Loud.  Billy pulled no punches in selling the products, whether they’re as useful as OxiClean or as funny as Tool Bandit (a magnetic strap you wear around your arm to carry tools).  Boisterous.  Billy was the archetype of the annoying TV snake-oil salesman, although he did give Simoniz and Mighty Putty the thumbs-up that was his seal of approval.  Each and every product made its way out of the TV, and into department stores.

Did anyone buy an Ultimate Ladder?  I do not know; I’m sure that in the United States, where Billy Mays is known as the “King of Infomercials,” Billy sold more  buckets of OxiClean through 1-800 numbers flashing on your screen.  While TV shopping may be the boon of lazybones customers and the bane of many a channel-surfer, Billy Mays pitched.  And pitched.  He just kept pitching things that were supposed to make our life better.  The pitch became an art form, more than the science of citrus cleaners and the mechanics of all-in-one power tools.

Such was life before the Internet and affiliate advertising, and life after the days of the travelling salesman.  Billy Mays, along with other TV infomercial pitchmen, were somewhere in between; patient sellers of products that didn’t make life any different or revolutionary, just easier.  It wasn’t a hard sell, or deliberate false advertising.  It’s the way of “As Seen on TV” products: putting names and reputations on the line for everything.  Augers, kitchen tools, ladders, and just about everything Billy Mays pitched, he sold with gusto.

Never mind that it was an unholy hour for shopping, never mind that every plastic slicer you had never really worked, or that you had to pay extra for shipping and handling.  Never mind that Billy Mays annoyed or amused more than he sold, or that his excited sales pitches earned him as much ridicule as he earned respect.  Nope, he didn’t have to deliberately smash his car somewhere, like Willy did in Death of a Salesman. All he had to do was appear on our TV screens to pitch the latest innovation, raise his thumbs up in a seal of approval, and I bet you one customer is going to make a call to that 1-800 number.

In the play, Willy says, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away.  A man is not a piece of fruit.”  Yet I guess he missed out on the fact that a man can always do with a bottle of Orange Glo.

Perhaps the legacy of Billy Mays may be immortalized in pop-culture kitsch.  Yet there’s no mistaking that funny immortality: in a world of infomercials and pitchmen, whether it’s on TV or some basement at a mall, Billy Mays was the best.

* – Image sourced from DeadlyViper.org

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