Pitch Perfect: How Billy Mays Conquered the Infomercial World

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Standing on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the 1980s, Billy Mays did everything he could to drag despondent gamblers, tourists, and passersby over to investigate whatever it was he was selling. For years that was the Washamatik, a pump that could spray water from a bucket without the need for plumbing. (A convenient way to wash your car without needing to be near a faucet, Mays said.) Later it was the Ultimate Chopper, a dicing utensil that Mays demonstrated by making a bowl of salsa.

Mays was loud, energetic, and hyper. One of his favorite sales techniques, which he had learned from the older pitchmen on the Boardwalk—considered the pitching capital of the world—was to hold up an object and announce it sold for $29.99 in stores. Today, Mays said, it was priced at $15 so he could meet his sales quota. But if you were one of the first 10 people to buy, it was just $10.

“You,” he said, pointing to the nearest prospective customer. “You’re customer number one.”

Cornered, the customer would hand over the $10. It was nearly a form of hypnosis. Through years of practice, Mays would eventually coerce people into handing over not just $10 here or there, but hundreds of millions of dollars. Mays could sell anything—especially himself.

Most people recognize Mays, who died in 2009 at age 50 from suspected heart disease, as the boisterous salesman for cleaning products like Orange Glo and OxiClean, which Mays famously claimed was “powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water you drink!” A stout man with a trademark uniform of a blue dress shirt, khakis, and an ink-black beard, he was a frequent presence in commercials and infomercials and on home shopping channels. “Hi, Billy Mays here!” he barked, as though he could be mistaken for anyone else.

Mays was born in the small town of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Pittsburgh. He attended West Virginia University, where he played football—he was a walk-on linebacker—but eventually tired of the classwork that went along with being an athlete, and dropped out after two years. After a stint working for his father’s hazardous waste trucking company, Mays ran into a high school friend in 1983 who was heading to Atlantic City to peddle Ginsu knives on the Boardwalk. Intrigued and lacking many job prospects, Mays asked his friend to wait while he packed a suitcase, as he wanted to tag along.

Mays and the other pitchmen were carnival barkers, hawking wares. Mays picked up tips from veterans and learned their peculiar trade lingo. The joint was your sales booth. Ballying the tip meant gathering a crowd. If you spent too much time describing an item and not inciting people to buy, you weren’t chilling them down.

Mays spent more than a decade pitching the Washamatik and Ultimate Chopper, traveling to home goods shows, county fairs, and other places to try his luck and hone his authoritative voice, which at one point he described as too nasally. At one show in Philadelphia, Mays began competing for the audience’s attention with a man named Max Appel, who was trying to garner interest in his Orange Glo wood-polishing liquid. Mays later recalled getting “annoyed” when Appel began drawing eyes away from his pitch. But when Appel’s microphone broke, Mays loaned him one of his. It was a generous act that came back to pay dividends.

In the late 1990s, when Appel wanted a TV pitchman for Orange Glo and OxiClean, another product of his, he called Mays (who was known on the pitch circuit as “Bucket Billy” for the Washamatik demonstration). While appearing on the Home Shopping Network (HSN), Mays moved 6000 bottles of Orange Glo in 11 minutes.

From there, the Mays brand of pitching took off. Mays—who was famous for doing endless retakes of taped segments to get it just right—was a pitching pro, and was always focused and prepared. He moved to Florida to be closer to HSN, in case they needed him to fill in at the last minute to meet a daily sales quota. He founded Billy Mays Promotions, a one-man operation that endorsed products he thought provided value to consumers. In addition to the Orange Glo line, Mays pushed Mighty Putty (for patching holes), the Awesome Auger (for digging into soil using a drill), the Handy Switch (a wireless light switch), and the Turbo Tiger floor sweeper. All of it was promoted with Mays’s singular delivery, which fell somewhere between a stage projection and a shout, and often ended in a rhyme. (Of the Simoniz Fix It scratch remover, Mays said that “The scratch has met its match!”)

Mays was not a product mercenary. He declined to endorse certain items—like bug zappers and lighted dog leashes—if he didn’t feel like he could get behind the product in a genuine way. Other items, like the Cargo Genie car trunk organizer, bombed. But Mays’s batting average was still so far above the norm that companies sought him out, often paying $20,000 to $30,000 for him upfront and then cutting him in on a commission taken from the revenue.

Mays was aware of his outsized persona; he distributed 300 containers of OxiClean at his own wedding and broke into a pitch while on the dance floor. “Life’s a pitch and then you buy” was his tongue-in-cheek motto. So was “The best things in life are free ... and $19.95.”

Shortly before his passing in 2009, Mays was busier than ever. Pitchmen, a reality show that followed Mays and fellow salesman Anthony Sullivan as they scouted for and endorsed products, was already on the air. Mays also had plans for a radio show. Following his death, many of his commercials continued airing. The reason was simple: Even in death, Mays engendered more product loyalty than any pitchman alive.

At his funeral service, pallbearers paid tribute to Mays in the most appropriate way they knew how—by donning his familiar outfit of a blue shirt and khakis.