An Ode to the Pitchman, Billy Mays: What We Learned From Him
The marketing world lost its most influential pitchman on June 28th. Billy Mays, known famously for his infomercials, took countless household gadgets and turned them into million dollar products. He turned direct response advertising into a respected form of marketing by building a personal brand that was energetic, trustworthy, and captivating.
Billy Mays started his career on the Atlantic City boardwalk as a pitchman for Washmatik. With mentoring from ‘old school’ sales men, he continued as a traveling pitchman to numerous home shows. Recognizing his talent, Orange Glo International hired him to work on the Home Shopping Network (HSN) to pitch Kaboom!, OxiClean, and OrangeClean. Anthony Sullivan, a rival pitchman on the show, later became producer and co-host of Discovery Channel’s reality TV show PitchMen in April 2009. The show became the number one Google search term the next day, proving Billy Mays had become a pop culture icon. His name was so influential that if your product got his blessing, it could mean millions.
Building a Personal Brand
If you type Billy Mays into YouTube’s search bar, you’ll get a series of videos showing a guy wearing a blue shirt, khaki pants, and a dark beard while yelling energetically into the camera about a product. Some are actually Billy Mays, some are just guys wanting to imitate him. This is the power of a personal brand.
His brand became one synonymous with OxiClean, Orange Glo, Kaboom!, and Mighty Putty but mostly the product demo. It was his over the top product demos that changed the infomercial industry forever. Entrepreneurs turned to Billy Mays to get their products recognized and if he responded, it meant getting backing for their product’s growth and turning their dreams into reality—something Billy Mays considered as a way of giving back.
Billy Mays managed his personal brand by bringing a consistent performance to each product shoot. Each pitch was an enthusiastic and honest presentation of a product he believed in. Before each shoot, he would warm up his voice, do his own hair, and trim his beard. While filming, he not only used his powerful voice but also his expressive body language to keep the audience entertained and motivated. During one of his PitchMen episodes, for example, he showed his co-host Anthony how to “wipe with authority” while demoing a product. Billy Mays also raised the bar on product demos, making them more extreme as they went on, reinforcing the enthusiasm and entertainment value he brought to each pitch.
Off camera, the PitchMen reality show exposed his ‘good guy’ side. His priority was his family and he was always friendly to the people on set, saying hello to each and every one of them. His sense of humor was contagious and often led to pranks with his co-host Anthony. These characteristics are what made people love him despite his abrasive behavior on screen.
The Conventions of the Pitch
Most people who have used a TV remote will be familiar with these lines: “Hi, Billy Mays here for… but wait, there’s more… Want to…? Now you can… that’s the power of… don’t delay act today!”. You could guarantee that each of these lines would be heard during a Billy Mays pitch. Each infomercial followed a sequence of questions, answers, and events. Although these have been summarized from a series of infomercials, the steps can be viewed as universal presentation rules. Here’s the breakdown.
1. Problem and Solution
State the problem as a question and solution as the product (e.g. “Are you tired of…?”)
2. Endorse with Personal Brand
After introducing the product, the spokesperson legitimizes it by associating it with his/her personal brand “Hi, Billy Mays here for…”; showing enthusiasm for the product is essential — if you’re not excited about it, your audience won’t be either.
3. Benefits of the Product
Provide list of benefits, both practical and emotional (e.g. avoids embarrassment); keep it simple — the more clutter the more confusion; leave it to the demos and the audience’s creativity to expand on the benefits.
4. Competitor Disadvantages
Provide competitor disadvantages and product’s competitive edge
Talk to product safety (e.g. around pets and children)
6. Secret to Success
The secret is in… (usually illustrated via computer animation)
7. The Demo
Practical demonstration (e.g. spray odor-eliminating product on common odor sources like shoes and garbage); reinforce effectiveness by acting out scenario to achieve the ‘I get it!’ reaction from crowd (e.g. smelling the shoes after being sprayed); convince the audience and deflate their bias.
8. Ease of Use
Continue demo, showing the audience through example how easy the product is to use.
9. Use in Context
Provide examples of where and how the product can be used; the more creative the examples the more the audience will be convinced of its value.
10. The Extreme Demo
Provide an escalated demonstration for entertainment value, to make a memorable impression, and to quench any lingering doubts (e.g. used skunk as an example of an extreme odor that is hard to get rid of).
11. Value & Trust
State economic point (e.g. “Why spend on products that don’t do the job?”); add value through the use of bonus offers; provide money back guarantee to reinforce consumer trust.
12. Call to Action
State call to action so the motivated consumer can follow through on the sale (e.g. “Here’s how to order”).
Throughout the infomercial, the product name is mentioned 6 times on average. The demos are flawless and ‘ease of use’ is always highlighted. Although these steps directly reflect what you see in a typical infomercial, the demo and ‘ease of use’ portion has become a popular form of consumer advertising (think of the Apple iPhone ads). So, consider what Billy Mays taught you about marketing next time you have to build a PowerPoint deck, present in front of an audience, create a web campaign, or build a 30 second ad. That’s the power of Billy Mays.
Perfecting the Pitch
Remembering Billy Mays