Billy Mays Lives On as Pitchman

DRTV Commercials Will Continue to Air

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Reports of Billy Mays' death -- at least as a salesman -- have been greatly exaggerated, as direct-response marketers launch at least three new products with ads produced before his death, apparently with the Mays family's blessing.

Mays had been a pitchman for the Mighty brand before his death.
Mays had been a pitchman for the Mighty brand before his death.
While saddened by his passing and well aware that Mr. Mays leaves behind a huge void as America's foremost pitchman, DRTV marketers, the ultimate data-driven survivors, cite numbers showing that his ads are producing response rates as good -- or in some cases better than -- before his death. Mr. Mays, they believe, would have wanted it this way.

No future Mays Orange Glo ads
His family has indicated likewise, said Bill McAlister, president of Media Enterprises, Philadelphia, a sales and marketing firm that works with Plymouth Direct, marketers of Mighty Putty and Mighty Mend It, as well as two new products that were among the last Mr. Mays made commercials for -- one for a Mighty Putty kit for wood and steel to begin advertising Monday and another for Mighty Tape likely to launch in two weeks.

Mr. McAlister said Media Enterprises resumed airing ads for the Mighty brand featuring Mr. Mays on Monday, and that the family is expected to issue a statement soon endorsing the continued use of Mr. Mays' ads.

Those are among the last two commercials Mr. Mays did. Two others that had been produced for Church & Dwight Co.'s Orange Glo the company has decided not to air, Mr. McAlister said.

Continued airing of the ads may seem in bad taste to some, such as numerous commenters on Twitter. One ad that continued running last week, including Tuesday on CNBC, is particularly jarring, as it starts with: "Hi, Billy Mays back again for the Awesome Auger."

Launch of 'Jupiter Jack'
But if consumers are offended, they're not showing it. A.J. Khubani, CEO of Telebrands, who appeared alongside Mr. Mays on the Discovery Channel's series "Pitchmen," has continued running ads with Mr. Mays after his death and noted on Tuesday that response rates for them are exactly the same as before his death. Telebrands is launching a new product featuring ads from Mr. Mays -- Jupiter Jack.

Mr. Khubani noted that Mr. Mays' family has established a charitable foundation to receive some of the proceeds from his work and will continue to benefit from the royalty agreements.

Mr. McAlister said response rates for Mr. Mays ads' are in some cases even better than before his death, and that retail sales of Mighty products at such chains as Walmart and Target have soared 30% since then, apparently spurred by the publicity.

Anthony Sullivan, principal of Sullivan Productions, which was one of the primary producers of Mr. Mays' work and his co-star on "Pitchmen," declined to comment on plans for his ads pending the statement from the family.

Fellow pitchmen's tribute
To be sure, Mr. Mays and his family always have had a sense of humor and pride about his work, which showed during his July 3 funeral when pallbearers (including Mr. Sullivan) wore Mr. Mays' trademark blue shirt and khakis. Mr. Mays himself was dressed in an OxiClean shirt for burial in his hometown of McKees Rocks, Pa., Pittsburgh TV station KDKA reported. Still, DRTV marketers and agencies don't expect to be using Mr. Mays' ads much longer than a year after his death, and they recognize he leaves a huge void.

For every product Mr. Khubani ever tested with ads featuring Mr. Mays alongside ads without him, the ones with Mr. Mays endorsed always sold considerably better. "People responded to him," he said.

"The impact on direct TV I think is huge," Mr. McAlister said. Mr. Mays "probably controls 60% to 70% of all the volume in direct TV when it comes to gadgets and gizmos. ... I don't think anyone will ever replace Billy."

That said, at least 800 people are trying to, Mr. McAlister said, noting that he's received that many demo tapes in the past week. "Some of them are pretty humorous," he said, but others he noted are promising.

Who will be the next Billy Mays?

For a guy from humble origins who spent more than a decade hawking gadgets at home shows and on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Billy Mays turned out to be incredibly indispensable. But here are some possibilities for who will replace him.

Billy Mays: Why replace him when his ads are still performing as well as ever? Some marketers who had Mr. Mays' ads on air or in production are keeping them on air. Beyond that, there are at least two more people who can legitimately stand in front of a camera and say, "Billy Mays here for OxiClean." They would be Mr. Mays' father, Billy Mays Sr., and his son, Billy Mays III, both of whom also appeared in the Discovery Channel show "Pitchmen." It's not clear, however, that either is interested in or right for the job.

Anthony Sullivan: Mr. Mays' longtime friend, DRTV producer and co-star on Discovery's "Pitchmen" is one obvious choice. But even Mr. Sullivan conceded on a "Pitchmen" episode that he's no Billy Mays. That came after he lost to Mr. Mays in a face-to-face pitch-off at a Philadelphia home show despite resorting to using shills to disrupt Mr. Mays' pitching.

Vince Offer (aka Shlomi): Mr. Offer's breakthrough success with the ShamWow last year invited comparisons to Mr. Mays. But the man who uttered the memorable selling line "You're gonna love my nuts" in his subsequent Slap Chop ad has a somewhat checkered past. He was run out of the Church of Scientology after producing a particularly offensive movie featuring, among others, Joey Buttafuoco. And he was arrested for felony battery earlier this year for allegedly striking a prostitute in Miami Beach after she allegedly bit his tongue. Prosecutors later declined to press charges against either party, so his record remains clean, but the incident was widely publicized.

Pitchman to be named later: The next Billy Mays may right now be pitching kitchen gadgets at Costco or knife sets at a county fair or home show near you. All of the above came from that background, which translated rather readily to the small screen. But Bill McAlister, CEO of Media Enterprises, Philadelphia, a marketing firm that produced ads with Mr. Mays, said the home show and fair circuit has declined so considerably in recent years that it's unlikely to produce similar talent. Someone pitching products on shopping networks or elsewhere may turn out to be a better candidate, he said.

-- Jack Neff

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