It's almost impossible to go a full day without hearing the words "Hi, Billy Mays here" at least once. For over a decade, Billy Mays pitched everything from laundry detergents to Mighty Putty, Hercules Hooks to health insurance, to the television-viewing public. He was neither an inventor-salesman like Ron Popeil nor a celebrity endorser like Suzanne Somers; instead, he used his talent for working a crowd and an infinite capacity for shouting (he insisted that it was "projecting") in order to become the best-known and by far the loudest practitioner of the old-school hard sell.
He succeeded in spite of the cookie-cutter ads and the questionably useful devices and chemicals he peddled, simply because he understood how to turn an infomercial into something more visceral, almost subliminal. Before Mr. Mays, no one worried too much about their inability to cook minihamburgers four at a time or mount artwork to walls without a hammer and nails. But after a few seconds of watching housewives struggle with these esoteric problems in black and white, there he was to save us from our own ignorance, with a product guaranteed to change our life, available now through this exclusive TV offer for only $19.95. But if you call in the next five minutes...
He was a sort of real-life Al Borland from "Home Improvement," and although his uniform was blue denim and khaki, he still existed mainly to give us sincere advice about problems we didn't even know we had. He spoke to us from sets that featured plain bathroom fixtures and plastic laminate countertops, generic enough to be middle-class and never flashy enough to inspire jealousy (you'd never see him behind a gas stove, for example). In other words, Mays offered not just a product but an entire life of do-it-yourself, business-casual, suburban ease. For two minutes at a time, he all but dared us to pass up the promise of social mobility embodied in a little plastic gadget or a tub of chemicals.
But the aw-shucks, nice-guy persona, all smiles and shouts, hid a cunning businessman who was fully aware that his persona was every bit a fetish as the trinkets he sold. He bragged that he could sell products even with a completely nonsensical pitch. He had no qualms about the fact that his infomercials air constantly on children's networks, but he did regret that he didn't get paid enough for one of his first major promotions. And even though he appeared in every major TV market in the United States and in nearly 60 countries worldwide at hundreds of exposures a week, he said he was "just beginning" and pledged to take his business "to another level."
So he became a strange hybrid – half reality television star, half professional huckster. On the one hand, he depended on us for our silent validation, for his own celebrity status, without which he would just be some random salesman. On the other, he promised that acquiring superfluous junk could be a ticket to a better life, even at a time when that life seems to be slipping further and further out of reach for so many of us.
In the end, his single-minded devotion to salesmanship made Mays endearing despite the bellowing and the emphatic gestures, and despite the distasteful sides of his advertising career. He gave himself so completely to the world of infomercials that it's hard to picture his life without his uniform, without his voice, without a product in hand, but most of all, without the attention of his audience.
It's strange that Billy Mays the man is gone at the height of his career, especially since Billy Mays the salesman is yelling at me from the television right now. After all, his success story, his work ethic, and his larger- and louder-than-life persona all seemed quintessentially American, for all the good and bad that implies.