There's no doubt that legendary pitchman Billy Mays was a cornerstone of the modern day infomercial game, shouting his way into 10 percent of the 50 hottest commercial spots on television.
But after Mays' unexpected death in his Tampa home Sunday, scores of marketers who used the host — pitching everything from health insurance to wood putty — face an uncomfortable question.
Is it acceptable to run a commercial featuring a pitchman who is no longer living?
Bill McAlister's Pennsylvania company, Media Enterprises, sold 20 million units of Mighty Putty household adhesive on the strength of Mays' pitches. He put his commercials on a one-week hiatus after Mays' death, out of respect for the tragedy.
But after sitting in a conference call late Tuesday afternoon with about 15 other marketers who had commercials featuring Mays — along with Mays' longtime partner Anthony Sullivan, his wife, Deborah, and his son Billy Mays III — McAlister said the group decided to resume airing his ads next week, after the funeral Friday in his Pittsburgh area hometown.
"Will the consumer keep buying the products? No one really knows, because this is brand-new territory for everyone," said McAlister, who admitted he was amazed by all the names in the infomercial world participating in the call. "I believe Billy is so big and so loved, his brand will go on. But none of us realized, until we got on the telephone, how much he affected our industry. … Ninety percent of my (sales) volume relates to Billy's pitches."
McAlister described a surreal scene in which marketers talked over the issues at a meeting convened by Sullivan and also attended by people from the Discovery Channel, which aired an unscripted series featuring Mays called Pitchmen. The conclusion, endorsed by Mays' family: The host would have wanted them to keep the ads going after his funeral and burial.
"You had a lot of people crying on that phone call," said McAlister, who had filmed a commercial with Mays over the weekend of June 20, featuring the host underwater with a scuba diving tank, repairing his leaky air hose with a strip of Mighty Tape adhesive. "While I'll miss most, other than his friendship, is those commercial shoots where we always tried to one-up what we did before."
In Clearwater, infomercial pioneer Kevin Harrington was just beginning the national rollout of a 30-minute infomercial featuring Mays selling a product called the Dual Saw, filmed locally. Though he wasn't on the Tuesday conference call, Harrington also expects to resume airing Mays' Dual Saw infomercial, inserting an announcement paying tribute to his passing.
"Billy was a businessman. And when Billy endorses products, he makes money for everyone," said Harrington, noting that Mays' estate also will benefit from the success of his ongoing spots. "Ultimately, when the dust settles, his family will want his partners to succeed. It's in both sides' best interests."
Harrington faced a similar problem 14 years ago when radio personality Wolfman Jack died from a heart attack while starring in his spots for the Solid Gold Rock 'n' Roll hits collection. Now, the infomercial producer is developing a new version as a tribute to Wolfman Jack, featuring the disc jockey's son, Todd Smith.
"When Wolfman passed away, he was already on record saying there was enough of his material out there for another 300 years," said Harrington, who also expects to see others develop a flood of infomercials featuring products relating to recently deceased singer Michael Jackson. "I have a release from the Johnny Carson estate allowing us to show Johnny Carson. So there's some precedent."
But will consumers see a difference between a commercial featuring a performer who has died and a commercial where the guy selling you the product has died? Will Mays' signature opening line, "Billy Mays here," ring hollow now that he is gone?
Mays currently appears in about 12 to 15 commercial spots and has appeared in more than 150 spots since 2000, according to figures from the Infomercial Monitoring Service. That could translate into more than 70,000 individual appearances on TV; more than even a sitcom legend like Lucille Ball could rack up over her career, said IMS president Sam Catanese.
"He's been seen more than anybody — more than (President Barack) Obama," said Catanese, noting that spots starring another well-known infomercial host, Mike Levey, kept airing after his 2003 death (called Amazing Discoveries, the shows featured a spectacled Levey in multicolored sweaters). But Levey wasn't nearly as well known as Mays.
McAlister, who likes to recall how Mays got a bigger reaction from football fans than many superstar athletes when the two attended the Super Bowl in Tampa this year, said marketers will learn in a hurry how consumers feel about the commercials.
"That's the good thing and the bad thing about the direct response industry," McAlister said, noting Mighty Putty sales have jumped 30 percent at retail stores since Mays' death. "You know right away how the consumer responds."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.