Death Of A Salesman

July 1, 2009


The world of TV infomercials took quite a hit with the passing of Billy Mays last weekend.  I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen such an effective pitcher since Cy Young.  If he was selling, people were buying – to the tune of more than $1 billion in collective sales for the products he endorsed. So what made Mays the king of all salesmen?  Was it the hands-on demonstrations for products like OxiClean and Zorbeez?  Was it the booming voice and animated hand gestures?  Was it the well-groomed beard?  I’d say all of the above and then some.

As a marketer, you have to admire how this guy built the Billy Mays brand.  In a profession made up of hucksters and snake oil salesmen, Mays came off as genuine and trustworthy – the handy neighbor who always had a solution to your problem. He cultivated that personality and took great care not damage his reputation by hawking products that didn’t work.

I’m a pretty skeptical guy – certainly not one to buy gadgets from infomercials – but I can see why Mays was successful.  He started every commercial with his trademark: “Hi, I’m Billy Mays for [insert product conveniently priced at $19.95 here]” – an endorsement that grew to mean something to people. And Mays was smart enough to know that stumping for just one clunker would hinder his ability to sell in the future.

It takes a lifetime build a reputation and only a second to irreparably damage it – and by all accounts, that’s why Mays tested and believed in all the products he sold.

He also made sure not to take himself too seriously, as witnessed by the recent commercials he did for ESPN or the popular YouTube clip which has been viewed 450,000 times where he humorously spoofs himself while ordering at a McDonald’s Drive Thru.

Believe it or not – it’s possible Mays was just about to really take his career to the next level when he died.  Not only was he gaining wide appeal via the ESPN spots, but he had a TV show on the Discovery Channel entitled “Pitchmen” and he was set to star in a new series of Taco Bell commercials.

In fact, I heard someone say he was on the verge of becoming a “cultural icon.”  That’s quite an ambitious description, but was it possible?  Given the millions of people who have been trusting him with their checkbooks for years, I think I can buy it.