Monday, June 29, 2009

BILLY MAYS: The Voice of Capital Letters

For fifteen years he was the guy we loved to hate to love; he was noisy and incessant, but he typified the ubiquity of the infomercial era.

BILLY MAYS, outrageously versatile infomercial pitchman, the Voice of Capital Letters, died on Sunday. He was found at his condo in Tampa, Fla., by his wife at 7:45 a.m. that morning, according to the Tampa Police Department. Preliminary autopsy reports determined he died of a pulmonary embolism, partly due to a thickening of the wall of his heart’s left ventricle. He was only 50 years old.

Mays had returned to Tampa the day before on a US Airways flight that made a hard landing when one of the tires blew out on arrival. When he was interviewed after the plane landed, Mays said some of the luggage in the overhead bins hit him in the head; so far, however, authorities haven’t found a connection between the head strike and his untimely exit from the marketplace.

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Mays first came to our attention in 1993 on the St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network, where he was the pitchman for Orange Glo, an environmentally-friendly citrus-based household cleaner that, in Mays’ hands, was promoted as the greatest thing since sliced bread. He broke big into prominence shortly after that as the on-air salesman for Oxi-Clean, a brand of oxygen-activated detergent that Mays peddled with a rugged, carnival-barker enthusiasm.

In time, Mays became the embodiment of the curiosity-shop diversity of the infomercial age, turning up everywhere, selling everything from clothes repair glue to mops, from car-scratch removers to burger cookers, engraving tools to vacuum cleaners, wireless light switches to health insurance.

It was BILLY MAYS’ world, we just rush $19.95 to the address on our screen.

Mays and friend and fellow TV salesman Anthony Sullivan were the stars of the show “Pitchmen” on the Discovery Channel, a program that tracked the two in their various marketing assignments.

On Monday, HSN released a statement hailing Mays as a "legend in the electronic retail history whose personality, entrepreneurial spirit and thoughtfulness for others have always been larger than life."

“He has one speed, 100 miles an hour — take it or leave it.” Sullivan told The Washington Post last year.

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There were pretenders to the throne. Vince Offer, the Shamwow! pitchman, was gaining ground before police found him shortly after noshing on a hooker in Vegas.

But Mays was always THE MAN. Something in Mays' abrasive, overcharged approach suited perfectly the times in which he ruled the world of infomercials; his rise dovetailed with the dawn of the hypershout of our time, Everyvoice, the collective populist entity composed of the denizens of news Web sites posting comments with the CAPS LOCK FUNCTION OF THEIR COMPUTERS (and their brains) PERMANENTLY ENGAGED.

Mays’ bunkerbuster style coincided with the brash militaristic swagger of the Bush administration. Now the country has ratcheted down emotionally in its embrace of Obama cool. Mays was, despite his popularity, in the process of becoming a symbol of cultural excesses that aren’t as diverting, or even as interesting, as they once were.

Years too soon, Billy Mays has passed from the scene, gone on to that big infomercial in the great beyond. The Head Operator is taking his call. For the rest of us, and for an infomercial industry suddenly without a symbol, the question is: Who’s next? Who’ll step up to the plate? WHO’S READY TO SELL TO AMERICA? Somebody step up, and fast. Let’s go.

We can’t do this all day.
Image credits: Billy Mays I: Billy Mays II: Orange Glo International.

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