Operators Are Standing By


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You probably don’t remember the first time you saw the human-powered public address system known as Billy Mays, but chances are it was a lot like the 10th time you saw him, or the 100th, or the 1,000th. It was late at night, you were nodding off to a Law & Order rerun, and then, suddenly, some guy who looked vaguely familiar was yelling at you about an overachieving dish rag, or spray paint for your lawn, or a wall hook that could change your life. He was stout and bearded and looked a little bit like comedian Dennis Miller, or your old high-school wrestling coach, or a less nuanced version of Popeye’s nemesis Brutus. His crisp blue oxford and the radiant flash of undershirt that peaked out beneath its two open buttons appeared unusually well-laundered. He was loud, very loud, like a leaf blower imitating the Ramones. It was a friendly, sincere, concerned kind of loud that he projected, but even so, it probably had you reaching for the mute button.

Others, however, were reaching for the phone, credit cards in hand, and eventually Billy Mays, who’d begun his career hawking household gadgets to broke gamblers on the boardwalks of Atlantic City in 1983, established himself as the most successful and sought-after sales personality  in the world of direct response advertising. If you were an inventor who’d engineered a revolutionary new way to cook burgers, Mays was the man you wanted to tout your breakthrough to the public. By 2008, he was the ubiquitous face and lung-busting voice of dozens of products whose two-minutes commercials aired hundreds of times a week, at all hours, on all channels. In April 2009, Pitchmen, the Discovery Channel series Mays co-hosted with fellow Home Shopping Network alumni Anthony Sullivan, debuted. On Sunday, June 28, Mays died unexpectedly at his home in Tampa, Florida, most likely of heart failure. Just 50 years old, the genial and vital shouter was at the top of his game. Life, alas, is a limited-time offer.

Mays leaves behind an oeuvre that marketing gurus will likely be studying for years. Watch one of his spots and it’s easy to understand the animosity Mays inspired among some viewers — his patter had less music in it than a smoke alarm and could make two minutes seem like two hours. But what was it, exactly, that made him so beloved, and so effective at moving product? If all it takes to increase sales volume is vocal volume, wouldn’t the airwaves be filled with people screaming at the tops of their lungs about plates that grate cheese?

After more than a dozen years honing his craft at fairs, tradeshows, and other live venues, Billy Mays began the televised part of his career in 1997 when an entrepreneur named Max Appel hired him to pitch his line of cleaning products on the Home Shopping Network. Eventually, Mays also began doing standalone commercials for Appel’s best-selling product, OxiClean, a super-potent stain remover which, according to Mays’ enthusiastic testimonial, was “powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water that you and I drink.”

Apparently America was in the midst of a spill epidemic. And also possibly a little hard of hearing. The combination of OxiClean and Mays proved irresistible to late night TV viewers, and by 2002, Appel’s company, Orange Glo International, was doing $352 million in annual revenues. Around this time, Mays started producing commercials for other companies and products. But no matter what he was peddling — fly jails, food choppers, health insurance — he always used the identical approach: Put on a blue shirt, start the cameras, yell! Over the years, he made slight refinements to this formula. For example, his beard seems to have gotten a little darker. His voice definitely grew a little louder.

Mostly, however, he stayed exactly the same. And he did so at a time when TV was changing dramatically. For decades, much of TV’s great power derived from its ability to inject our lives with familiarity. There weren’t many networks competing for our attention. Even mediocre shows lasted for years, and the best ones became a part of our lives. Our relationships with figures like Dan Rather, Johnny Carson, and Mr. Whipple were lengthy and intimate. We saw them day after day, year after year, until they felt as much a part of our lives as our family members, and sometimes even our pets.

In the 1990s, and especially the 2000s, that changed. Channels proliferated. Audiences fractured. The casts on the most popular shows, such as American Idol and Survivor, get refreshed every year. Schedule changes, writers’ strikes, Tivo, YouTube, and our own diminishing attention spans make it harder and harder to form the deep televisual attachments of old, when we ordered our lives around the steady clock of TV and its comforting cast of recurring characters.

In a new era of cathode chaos, Billy Mays was a beacon in blue, floating between channels and time slots, shifting from sponsor to sponsor. Yet despite his promiscuous fluidity, he remained as reassuringly static as the NBC logo. You could spend hours surfing from channel to channel, lost amidst stars you didn’t recognize, unsure if you were watching the latest cable cult hit or reruns from a series that ended three years earlier, but eventually, you’d see that blue shirt, that black beard. “Hi, Billy Mays here,” he’d boom. It was like walking into a bar where everybody knew your name and they were always glad you came.

When Mays filled the screen, TV turned from HBO to TV again: It was loud, repetitive, simple to follow. There were no intricate plots that required Cliffs Notes to decipher, a la Lost and The Wire. There were no characters other than Mays to keep track of. Thanks to his cannon-like voice, you could be listening to your iPod, in the garage, and still follow what he was saying. He never took much of your time — two minutes and he was out. He was TV from an earlier time, perfectly geared for the Internet age.

And as if that wasn’t enough, he was also deafeningly sincere. He really did seem to think that scratch remove could improve the quality of your life, even if it didn’t work all that well and the shipping fees were exorbitant. With his booming voice and his unbridled thumbs-up enthusiasm, Mays often came across like a character hatched in the writers’ room of Saturday Night Live, but if he was in on the joke, he never showed it in his performances. Instead, he reigned as the Least Ironic Man in America. This made him both prime bait for hipster co-optation and an extremely proficient salesman: If he’d been trying to pull a fast one on us, wouldn’t he have made his patter a little more musical, his product demos a little more jaw-dropping? Unlike his competitor Vince Offer, the smirking genius behind the Slap Chop and the Sham-Wow, Mays never tried too hard to sell his performance. Instead, he put all his effort into selling his products. That kind of discipline is rare at a time when practically everyone on the planet thinks they have what it takes to reduce Simon Cowell to a standing ovation. Thanks to his willingness to play second fiddle to a tub of stain remover, Mays brightened the lives of millions and left a mark on pop culture that won’t be fading any time soon. • 30 June 2009