His death came as quite a shock not only to me, but also to my kids. He was a kind of idol in our family, someone we often imitated for fun but knew we were nowhere near as talented. His performances were like no one else in his business, real works of art that could not be duplicated. His unimaginable passing at the young age of 50 makes life itself seem more fragile. I’m writing, of course, of Billy Mays, who died last Sunday.
It seems unreasonable to have a strong feeling for a pitchman, a guy who hawked other people’s products. What was special about Mays was that he did it in a way that made you want to like him first, and then grow to love the product he was selling. From OxyClean to the Big City Slider Station, everything he represented wasn’t being pitched by some guy on teevee, it was being recommended by a friend.
Advertising is a tough business. Teevee commercials have a lot of trouble keeping up with a world that is constantly faster and more based on image. The glow of the screen doesn’t seem like the great substitute for reality it did even a few years ago, and not even close to what it was when the images were nothing more than shades of grey. What can you do to make people want your product in 30 or even just 15 seconds?
The answer came in the form of Billy Mays. If people don’t exactly trust the images they see on teevee, you have to build trust gradually. It takes a concerted, scripted effort to do this, but mostly it takes a person who seems genuine. Viewers have to relate to what’s being pitched and come to count on it. That’s what Billy Mays did for his products in the end. If he didn’t get you excited with the enthusiasm of his friendly shout, he’d get you just by being there day after day. It was old school, for sure, but it worked.
There is a kind of minimalism in this approach. You start with the real basics of why people buy a product, which is that they think it’s going to work based on a trusted recommendation. You get someone they’ll like to go over the top as he shows that it really does work, building enthusiasm. A cartoon character or a pretty woman won’t do it anywhere near as well as someone that the consumer can relate to or at least likes.
The secret of Billy Mays was in his origin, on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. He sold things to people one on one, up close and personal. His schtick was refined by years of seeing what worked and what didn’t work, never shooting for something artistic or hip. He did most of his work on commission, so if he didn’t sell he didn’t get to eat. All the gut level basics of being human were part of his pitch because that’s how he learned to sell.
I think that there are a lot of things to learn from the career of Billy Mays. If nothing else, the guy was an artist who was the very best at what he did. That’s something we need to appreciate a lot more in this world. I appreciated Billy Mays, and my kids did too.
Just after his death, as we were grilling some burgers, my daughter quoted from the Big City Slider Station ad – “You can use any bun!” She caught herself and felt a little embarrassed about making fun of the recently dead. I laughed and told her, “Go ahead, Billy would be proud to hear you say that!” I’m sure that’s true. He lived to get his pitch into our heads and our lives, and it worked. Thanks, Billy. I hope the whole industry can see what you did and take your lessons to heart.