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Direct Response Marketing

Industry Shocked by Death of Billy Mays

29 Jun, 2009 By: Thomas Haire

TAMPA, Fla. — “Powered by the air that you breathe. Activated by the water that you and I drink!”

With those words promoting the massive hit product OxiClean nearly a decade ago, Billy Mays moved from successful pitchman into the ranks of direct response television’s legends. Throughout the next decade, and dozens of hit TV products that grossed more than $1 billion in sales, Mays career skyrocketed, cementing his place not only in DRTV but also in pop culture. Sunday’s announcement that Mays, 50, had died at his Tampa home left not only DR industry insiders stunned, but also a nation of fans and customers in mourning.

Mays was discovered by his wife Deborah in bed early Sunday, not breathing. When a Tampa Fire Rescue team arrived, Mays was pronounced dead at 7:45 a.m. Mays’ family asked Tampa police to handle all publicity and released a statement through the department Sunday:

“Although Billy lived a public life, we don’t anticipate making any public statements over the next couple of days,” Deborah Mays said. “Our family asks that you respect our privacy during these difficult times.”

Although initial questions and speculation immediately began to swirl around reports that Mays had been hit in the head by something falling from above, possibly luggage, during a rough landing of a U.S. Air flight in Tampa on Saturday, the coroner’s report, released earlier today, showed that Mays actually suffered a pulmonary embolism. Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Vernard Adams reported that Mays had an enlarged heart, as well as “a thickening of the wall of the ventricle which takes blood to the heart.” The cause of death and final results of the autopsy will be released in a few weeks.

Though the family remained publicly quiet following Mays’ death, his 20-year old son Billy III, did post on his Twitter page Sunday, writing, “My dad didn’t wake up this morning. I’m thankful I got to talk to my dad last night. I miss him immensely already. But I feel him with me.”

Reports of Mays’ death hit the DR industry hard. Long-time DR leader and personal friend A.J. Khubani, founder and CEO of Fairfield, N.J.-based TELEBrands released a statement Sunday that seemed to sum the thoughts of many of those contacted by Response in the past 24 hours.

“I am in a state of disbelief. Billy Mays was always a terrific and unique individual, both personally and professionally. He was a wonderful human being and a true family man,” Khubani says. “His innovative role and impact on the growth and wide acceptance of direct response television cannot be overestimated or easily replaced; he was truly one of a kind.”

Fellow DRTV legend Tony Little was also stunned by the news. “Billy Mays was a giant in our industry,” Little tells Response. “But to me, it was how Billy lived his life that was most important — how he loved his family, how he worked so hard to achieve his tremendous success. In selling, you have to sell yourself first, and Billy did that incredibly well. Of course, people can sense the real thing, and his fans knew that Billy stood behind everything he sold. In this way, Billy was more than the ultimate salesman — he was a powerfully positive force in our industry, an awesome and larger-than-life ambassador.”

Born in McKees Rocks, Pa., in July 1958, and reared in Pittsburgh, Mays’ personality — boisterous and gregarious on-air; kind, gentle and humble off-air — was the key in his rise from an Atlantic City boardwalk salesman into the ultimate TV pitchman, eventually pitching dozens of hit products via DRTV.

“I was fortunate because I was one of the last pitchmen working on TV, or live, to be trained on the boardwalks in Atlantic City,” Mays told Response in a December 2001 profile interview at the peak of the OxiClean craze. “I met all of the old pitchmen and learned about the art of pitching.”

He began on the boardwalk, selling $10 “Amazing Washomatiks” in 1977, and gained notoriety in live pitchman circles. But it was not until the mid-1990s that a chance meeting at a home show with Orange Glo creator Max Appel that Mays got his big break. By 1996, Appel had convinced Mays to give TV a try, pitching Orange Glo wood cleaner and polish on the Home Shopping Network (HSN).

“We were watching the screen, and all of a sudden it was a sellout and HSN was asking us for more,” Appel told Response in 2001 of the initial appearance, in which Mays sold more than 6,000 bottles of product. “It was the first time we were able to reach millions of people and it was astonishing for a small company like ours.”

More astonishing moments were to come for the Appel family, who called on Mays again and again to pitch their product line, which grew to include OxiClean, Kaboom and other cleaning products. Eventually, the Orange Glo business was purchased for $325 million by Church & Dwight Co. Inc. in 2006. Through it all, Mays remained the products’ lead pitchman.

Sean Fay, president and CEO at Seattle-based Envision Response, was a partner at Cesari Response Television when the agency worked on the initial OxiClean hit ad. “I was truly blessed to be approached by Joel and Max Appel to produce their first OxiClean infomercial,” he tells Response. “During this project, I became friends with Billy on that shoot, even negotiating the first production contract between him and the Appels. He trusted me, and I believed in him. He wasn’t so confident on that first shoot, but when we jammed the ‘Billy Cam’ in his face, he came alive.”

Nancy Lazkani, CEO and founder of Van Nuys, Calif.-based Icon Media Direct — long-time media agency for the Orange Glo brands — was also touched deeply by the loss of Mays. “I am deeply saddened by this shocking news,” she tells Response. “I’ve worked with Billy for 10 great years, and he will be missed. His positive outlook on life, his talent and unique personality will never be replaced.”

Representatives of Church & Dwight also spoke out about Mays. “We are shocked and saddened by the untimely passing of Billy Mays, who served as OxiClean spokesperson for more than a decade and who deserves much of the credit for making OxiClean a household name,” said Bruce Fleming, chief marketing officer of Princeton, N.J.-based Church & Dwight in a statement released Sunday. “Billy was the best of the pitchman genre that he pioneered. His enthusiasm for life was infectious, and he will be sorely missed by the Arm & Hammer family, and all who knew him.”

Mays founded his own DRTV production and marketing company, Mays Promotions Inc., in 1999. But it was as the king of the pitch that Mays seemed most comfortable and found the bulk of his success.

Bill McAlister, president of Philadelphia-based Media Enterprises, which specializes in marketing As-Seen-on-TV products, saw his share of those successes up close and personal. Mays pitched a series of successful Media Enterprises products, including Ding King, Mighty Putty and Mighty Mendit.

“Billy worked with determination over the years to develop as the supreme voice of the infomercial industry. It is his persona against which all pitchmen will be measured now and in the future,” McAlister said in a statement released Sunday. “Billy’s ability to get people excited about a product was merely an extension of the engaging, likeable and earnest person he was off the set.”

Tim Hawthorne, founder and executive creative director of Fairfield, Iowa-based Hawthorne Direct also had many an opportunity to work with Mays. “Our industry has suffered a devastating loss with Billy’s passing,” Hawthorne tells Response. “The smiling, bearded, blue-shirt, khaki-slacks ambassador of DRTV. He was kind, patient, open and genuinely focused on his clients’ success. We’ll miss his ever-present ‘Billy Mays here for [insert product name].’ Billy Mays was here for all of us … and we’ll miss him dearly.”

Mays’ ever-growing influence on marketing and popular culture seemed to be peaking in the past year, as he began pitching more traditional products, including a highly successful ad for, the sports programming giant’s popular Web site. At the same time, he and fellow DRTV pitching legend Anthony Sullivan were tabbed as the stars of the Discovery Network’s newest reality show, “Pitchmen,” for a 13-show run that began earlier this year.

“Billy was a pioneer in his field and helped many people fulfill their dreams,” said Discovery spokeswoman Elizabeth Hillman in a statement Sunday.

The show highlighted product inventors bringing their ideas in front of expert DRTV pitchmen and producers Mays and Sullivan. Not only did the show track the progress of two new products weekly as they made their way toward a final DRTV campaign, but it also allowed viewers a peek at the inner workings of the DRTV business.

Recent buzz in the DRTV business was that “Pitchmen” was set to return for a second season on Discovery. Mays and Sullivan even took a few of the products made famous on the first season of “Pitchmen” on an amusing appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” this past week.

“There are no words to describe how I feel about the passing of my great friend and fellow pitchman, Billy Mays,” said Sullivan, in a statement released early Monday. “I have a massive hole in my heart. Billy and I have known each other for 15 years. We are the greatest of friends. He was the best at what he did … his uniqueness created an industry that I am proud to be a part of. Discovery Channel’s ‘Pitchmen’ was not only a wonderful experience, but also a great opportunity for Billy and I to let people into our world and see what an awesome guy he was in front of the cameras and show our friendship to the world.”

Mays told The Tampa Tribune in an April interview, “One of the things that we hope to do with ‘Pitchmen’ is to give people an appreciation of what we do. I don’t take on a product unless I believe in it. I use everything that I sell.”

It was that belief that set him on the path to stardom, as he passionately believed in Appel’s Orange Glo products. However, true to his nature, the humble Mays took almost no credit for his or the product’s success in that 2001 interview with Response.

“It’s actually funny how it all started by just being in the right place at the right time,” he said then. “Go figure.”

Mays is survived by his wife, son, three-year-old daughter Elizabeth, and previous wife, Dolores. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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