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Billy Mays Is Gone, but His Infomercials Go On

Brian Stelter|The New York Times
Tuesday, 14 Jul 2009 | 10:34 AM ET

The pitchman Billy Mays died last month, but on television he continues to hawk do-it-yourself home repair kits and yard tools day and night.

Mr. Mays’s mesmerizing infomercials — for products like Mighty Putty (“Build, restore, repair!”) and the Awesome Auger (“Take the hard work out of yard work”) — are being put back into heavy commercial rotation, two weeks after he died at the age of 50. Mr. Mays’s business associates say without hesitation that it’s what he would have wanted.

Mr. Mays is starring in a new infomercial for a wireless speakerphone called Jupiter Jack, by the company TeleBrands, that was taped shortly before his death on June 28, apparently of a heart attack.

Billy Mays
AP
Billy Mays

Another infomercial, for Mighty Putty’s new Superpack of epoxies, will begin to be shown on television on Tuesday, according to Media Enterprises, a firm that specializes in direct-response marketing.

“Broken! Busted! Everybody has something to repair. Before buying new, let Mighty Putty fix it for you,” Mr. Mays shouts in the advertisement, which was conveniently previewed on the Web last weekend.

Another ad for Mighty Putty — recorded shortly before Mr. Mays’s death — will have its premiere next week.

Is it creepy to see Mr. Mays still shilling? Remy Stern, the author of a book about the infomercial industry titled “But, Wait ... There’s More!,” thinks so. But is it surprising? Not at all.

“For the infomercial guys, any press is good press,” Mr. Stern said.

And already there are indications that the products Mr. Mays sold so convincingly are receiving a lift in sales.

“People are ordering,” said Bill McAlister, the president of Media Enterprises, in an interview on Monday. He said that the Web site for the Superpack had been viewed 14 million times since the infomercial’s premiere online on Saturday. He cited an increase in sales “between 20 and 30 percent compared to before he died.”

Any viewer who has ever heard of the stain remover OxiClean — and who hasn’t? — probably has Mr. Mays to thank. He had “reached the very pinnacle of the pitchman industry in the last year,” Mr. Stern said. He starred in a Discovery Channel series, “Pitchmen,” which documented his search for the next big as-seen-on-TV product. He started his own company and invested in some of the products he was pitching.

Many of Mr. Mays’s infomercials were taken off TV after his death. His relatives, who will receive royalties from the infomercials, announced last week that they would permit his clients to continue running his spots and using his likeness on products.

In a statement, Mr. Mays’s widow, Deborah, said, “Billy believed in every product he sold, and he loved nothing more than bringing helpful products to people at a great savings.”

Mr. Mays’s lawyer, Roger Pliakas, said the announcement was necessary to signal to television networks that they could resume running the ads.

“The networks weren’t going to run anything until the family signed off,” Mr. Pliakas said in an interview Monday. The networks that covered Mr. Mays’s death as a news story were particularly resistant about the commercials, he added, so the family’s statement sought to “tell the networks what our position was.”

Mr. Pliakas said there was no debate among the family members about the resumption. “This is what we really feel Billy would have wanted to do,” he said, adding, “We felt we could let the public decide whether it was appropriate or not.”

Among Mr. Mays’s clients, the decision to keep playing his ads was not a unanimous one. Church & Dwight , the makers of OxiClean and the cleaning solution Orange Glo, has yet to put Mr. Mays’s commercials back in rotation. The home page of the OxiClean Web site continues to pay tribute to Mr. Mays, with a photo of the pitchman in his trademark blue shirt.

On Monday, though, the company hinted that viewers may hear “Billy Mays here for OxiClean” sometime soon. Bruce F. Fleming, its chief marketing officer, said in a statement that “while it is too early to make any specific plans, Church & Dwight will try to strike a balance between honoring the man and advancing the brand, since he had established such a solid foundation for us.”

It is unclear how long Mr. Mays’s clients will be able to use his likeness. Mr. Pliakas said that each agreement would run for a different length of time.

“Going forward, even though Billy’s not with us, we still want Billy to be the face of our brand,” Mr. McAlister of Media Enterprises said.

Mr. McAlister, who spoke of Mr. Mays in the present tense in an interview and called him a close friend, spent Monday morning editing the pitchman’s final commercial, for a product called Mighty Tape (an offshoot of the Mighty Putty brand).

In explaining the decision to run the ads, he talked passionately about keeping the phone operators who take orders and truckers who deliver products employed, and said Mr. Mays used to talk the same way. Mr. McAlister said Mr. Mays “helped legitimize our business,” echoing the sentiments of others. Due in part to the recession, infomercials are running more often on TV networks in prime time, further enhancing their status.

  • TV Pitchman Billy Mays Found Dead at Home
  • Slideshow: As Seen On TV

Mark Biglow, vice president for sales and marketing at Mercury Media in New York, said that Mr. Mays “defined the ‘As seen on TV’ industry.”

“His biggest contribution to the industry,” Mr. Biglow said in a statement, “was his effort to show marketers that ‘As seen on TV’ advertising is an effective genre for a number of products, not just gadgets and gizmos.”

Stuart Elliott contributed reporting.

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