Pitch Perfect: How Billy Mays Conquered the Infomercial World

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.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Dollymania: When Dolly the Sheep Created a '90s Media Sensation

Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Paul Hudson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was Saturday, February 22, 1997, and British researchers Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell were expecting a final moment of calm before the results of their unprecedented scientific experiment were announced to the world.

The team had kept the breakthrough under wraps for seven months while they waited for their paper to be published in the prestigious journal Nature. Confidential press releases had gone out to journalists with the strict instruction not to leak the news before February 27.

But that night, the team was tipped off that journalist Robin McKie was going to break the story the very next day in the British newspaper The Observer.

Wilmut and Campbell raced to the lab at the Roslin Institute on Sunday morning as McKie's story hit the media like a thunderbolt. International news outlets had already started swarming at the institute for access to Wilmut and Campbell's creation: Dolly the sheep, the world's first mammal successfully cloned from a single adult cell. Shielded from the general public, she stuck her nose through the fence and munched calmly on the hay in her pen, unperturbed by the horde of news photographers. Dolly, a woolly, bleating scientific miracle, looked much like other sheep, but with a remarkable genetic difference.

By the end of that Sunday, February 23, nearly every major newspaper in the world carried headlines about Dolly the sheep.

A Long-Awaited Breakthrough

Born on July 5, 1996, Dolly was cloned by Wilmut and Campbell's team at the Roslin Institute, a part of the University of Edinburgh, and Scottish biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics. The scientists cloned Dolly by inserting DNA from a single sheep mammary gland cell into an egg of another sheep, and then implanting it into a surrogate mother sheep. Dolly thus had three mothers—one that provided the DNA from the cell, the second that provided the egg, and the third that carried the cloned embryo to term. Technically, though, Dolly was an exact genetic replica of only the sheep from which the cell was taken.

Following the announcement, the Roslin Institute received 3000 phone calls from around the world. Dolly's birth was heralded as one of the most important scientific advances of the decade.

But Dolly wasn't science's first attempt at cloning. Researchers had been exploring the intricacies of cloning for almost a century. In 1902, German embryologists Hans Spemann and Hilda Mangold, his student, successfully grew two salamanders from a single embryo split with a noose made up of a strand of hair. Since then, cloning experiments continued to become more sophisticated and nuanced. Several laboratory animal clones, including frogs and cows, were created before Dolly. But all of them had been cloned from embryos. Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from a specialized adult cell.

Embryonic stem cells, which form right after fertilization, can turn into any kind of cell in the body. After they modify into specific types of cells, like neurons or blood cells, they're call specialized cells. Since the cell that gave rise to Dolly was already specialized for its role as a mammary gland cell, most scientists thought it would be impossible to clone anything from it but other mammary gland cells. Dolly proved them wrong. 

A Worldwide Reaction—And Controversy

Many scientists in the '90s were flabbergasted. Dolly’s advent showed that specialized cells could be used to create an exact replica of the animal they came from. “It means all science fiction is true,” biology professor Lee Silver of Princeton University told The New York Times in 1997.

The Washington Post reported that "Dolly, depending on which commentator you read, is the biggest story of the year, the decade, even the century. Wilmut has seen himself compared with Galileo, with Copernicus, with Einstein, and at least once with Dr. Frankenstein."

Scientists, lawmakers, and the public quickly imagined a future shaped by unethical human cloning. President Bill Clinton called for review of the bioethics of cloning and proposed legislation that would ban cloning meant ''for the purposes of creating a child” (it didn't pass). The World Health Organization concluded that human cloning was "ethically unacceptable and contrary to human integrity and morality" [PDF]. A Vatican newspaper editorial urged governments to bar human cloning, saying every human has "the right to be born in a human way and not in a laboratory."

Meanwhile, some scientists remained unconvinced about the authenticity of Wilmut and Campbell’s experiment. Norton Zinder, a molecular genetics professor at Rockefeller University, called the study published in Nature "a bad paper" because Dolly's genetic ancestry was not conclusive without testing her mitochondria—DNA that is passed down through mothers. That would have confirmed whether Dolly was the daughter of the sheep that gave birth to her. In The New York Times, Zinder called the Scottish pair's work ''just lousy science, incomplete science." But NIH director Harold Varmus told the Times that he had no doubt that Dolly was a clone of an adult sheep.

Dollymania!

Because she was cloned from a mammary gland cell, Dolly was named—dad joke alert—after buxom country music superstar Dolly Parton. (Parton didn’t mind the attribution.) Like her namesake, Dolly the sheep was a bona fide celebrity: She posed for magazines, including People; became the subject of books, journal articles, and editorials; had an opera written about her; starred in commercials; and served as a metaphor in an electoral campaign.

And that wasn't all: New York Times reporter Gina Kolata, one of the first journalists to give readers an in-depth look at Dolly, wrote Clone: The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead and contrasted the animal's creation with the archetypes in Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau. American composer Steve Reich was so affected by Dolly's story that he featured it in Three Tales, a video-opera exploring the dangers of technology.

The sheep also became an inadvertent political player when the Scottish National Party used her image on posters to suggest that candidates of other parties were all clones of one another. Appliance manufacturer Zanussi used her likeness for a poster with her name and the provocative caption "The Misappliance of Science" (the poster was later withdrawn after scientists complained). In fact, so widespread was the (mis)use of her name that her makers eventually trademarked it to stop the practice.

Dolly's Legacy

Following Dolly, many larger mammals were cloned, including horses and bulls. Roslin Biomed, set up by the Roslin Institute to focus on cloning technology, was later sold to the U.S.-based Geron Corporation, which combined cloning technology with stem cell research. But despite her popularity—and widespread fear— Dolly's birth didn't lead to an explosion in cloning: Human cloning was deemed too dangerous and unethical, while animal cloning was only minimally useful for agricultural purposes. The sheep's real legacy is considered to be the advancement in stem cell research.

Dolly’s existence showed it was possible to change one cell’s gene expression by swapping its nucleus for another. Stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka told Scientific American that Dolly’s cloning motivated him to successfully develop stem cells from adult cells. He later won a Nobel Prize for his results, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) because they're artificially created and can have a variety of uses. They reduced the need for embryonic stem cells in research, and today, iPS cells form the basis for most stem cell research and therapies, including regenerative medicine.

Dolly had six offspring, and led a productive, sociable life with many human fans coming to visit her. In 2003, a veterinary examination showed that Dolly had a progressive lung disease, and she was put down. But four clones created from the same cell line in 2007 faced no such health issues and aged normally.

Dolly is still a spectacle, though, nearly 25 years after her creation: Her body was taxidermied and put on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.