Here's the Pitch: Making Stars Out of Hard-Selling Hawkers

How Direct Response Transformed Billy Mays, Others From Pitchmen to Pop-Culture Icons

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- What a long, strange trip it's been. Billy Mays has gone in a quarter century from gadget-hawker at fairs and the Atlantic City boardwalk to the widely reviled, impossible-to-ignore pitchman of OxiClean -- and ultimately to pop-culture fixture.

Anthony Sullivan and Billy Mays
Anthony Sullivan and Billy Mays Credit: Michael Weimar
But the latest twist in the story is still to come. On April 15, the 50-year-old goes from pitching products during commercial breaks on networks such as Discovery to starring in "Pitchmen," a reality series on Discovery Network. There, he'll join his longtime producer and fellow salesman extraordinaire Anthony Sullivan as they help inventors vying to sell kitschy products on networks such as Discovery. In other words, they'll uncover the next generation of pitchmen like himself, Mr. Sullivan and Vince Offer of ShamWow fame.

''Like being with a rock star'
Not that Mr. Mays' needs more exposure. Mr. Sullivan, himself sometimes recognized in crowds for his infomercial work, said Mr. Mays can't go anywhere without being noticed. "It's like being with a rock star," he said. And, in fact, even a conventional ad industry that long turned up its nose at hard-selling hawkers is showing Mr. Mays some love these days.

He starred in a campy campaign that broke in December from Arnold Worldwide for That dovetailed with an on-air appearance during ESPN's coverage of the Champs Sports Bowl in which the Florida State kicker did a chest bump with Mr. Mays and the crowd spontaneously broke into a chant of "OxiClean."

Though some in the DRTV industry are prone to say the era of yell and sell is over, it appears to have plenty of life for Mr. Mays. He'll star in about two dozen commercials this year as he has each year for nearly a decade. About six in 10 of his commercials work, he said, well above an industry's hit rate variously pegged at one in five by larger companies but as low as 4% to 6% industry-wide.

Part of the secret apparently comes from Mr. Mays cautiously cultivating the Billy Mays brand by refusing to hawk anything he doesn't believe in. "You can't be on air 11 years selling products incessantly if you sell something that's not good," he said. "I walk away from a lot of products."

Mr. Mays in person is as mild-mannered and soft-spoken as his on-air persona is loud and effusive, save for a brief period of an interview when he goes into Billy Mays voice as if to prove it really is him.

If cable TV has become a much louder place thanks to Mr. Mays, you can blame some old-time pitchmen on the Atlantic City boardwalk who he said taught him the tricks of the trade.

Giving back
"I never really did know why they did," he said. But he's worked to pay them back by setting up a separate production company, Four Blind Mice, which donates proceeds for pension and health benefits for the now-retired boardwalk pitchmen.

Mr. Sullivan got his start the same way in the U.K. before developing what became the Swivel Mop, coming to the U.S. to find his fortune with it, and being discovered by an HSN shopping-network scout at a Florida home show. He made the transition from vendor to host at HSN before branching out on his own.

Likewise, the most recent breakthrough DRTV pitchman, Vince Offer of ShamWow, also made the jump from street fairs. Yet DRTV apparently remains just a day job for him. Born Offer Shlomi, he's best known as the headset-wearing hawker of a chamois he sourced from Germany and brought from street fairs to DRTV to Costco last year. More recently, he brought another of his street sensations, the Slap Chop, to DRTV with the memorable selling line, "You're gonna love my nuts."

It wasn't the first time Mr. Offer would flirt with questionable taste. His first foray into DRTV came in 2000 to sell DVDs of a movie he produced and starred in, "Underground Comedy Movie," also starring Joey Buttafuoco, Slash and Karen Black.

LA Weekly called it "the most offensive film ever made," and a New York Post reviewer wondered aloud: "How can the War Crimes Tribunal indict Slobodan Milosevic but let Vince Offer still walk the streets?"

Lack of interest from the Hague notwithstanding, the movie did prompt three lawsuits. Over five years, Mr. Offer sued Anna Nicole Smith for backing out of the film on the first day of shooting; 20th Century Fox and the co-directors of "There's Something About Mary" for allegedly lifting scenes from the film; and the Church of Scientology for allegedly kicking him out, apparently over concerns about the film's taste.

But Mr. Offer, 44, apparently has moved on with the help of ShamWow.

Surprise and denials
A man who came to the phone and sounded very much like Mr. Offer when summoned by an associate at his company, Square One Entertainment in Los Angeles, was surprised a reporter was able to track down the company behind ShamWow through a trademark filing and Google. He later denied being Mr. Offer. And a woman whose number he provided as a publicist declined to make Mr. Offer available for interview.

But Mr. Offer did give an interview to CNBC earlier this year, billed as his first, after ShamWow won an NCAA-bracket-style contest as best DRTV spot on the network. Mr. Offer said ShamWow has sold "millions" from an ad that took less than $20,000 to produce. Despite that success, he told CNBC he's not vying for Mr. Mays' job.

"I'm in the film business," he said. "This is not my career."

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