GULFPORT — The Voice reaches you first, before you've even stepped inside.
It seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, a booming, urgent shout bouncing off the walls.
A crew of 40 is packed into this rented house, armed with cameras, lights and an array of equipment to the capture The Voice doing what it does best.
Making you want to buy whatever William D. "Billy" Mays is selling.
"I'M BILLY MAYS FOR ARM & HAMMER BAKING SODA," he thunders, clad in trademark sky blue button-down and khakis, his suspiciously black beard trimmed to angular perfection. "IT'S TIME YOU CHANGED YOUR BOX!"
A few feet away, Mays' partner, Anthony "Sully" Sullivan, stands before a video monitor. Star of his own classic infomercials — he proudly boasts of moving 14 million Swivel Sweeper vacuum cleaners — Sullivan is producing and directing his pitchman pal today. He needles Mays when he needs more energy, soothes him when The Voice gets strained.
Mays, who is supposed to sweep his left hand across his body for an effect to be added later, isn't positioning himself quite right. "Imagine you're b----slapping me," Sullivan cracks. "Crush it Billy … Bring it on home."
"BILLY MAYS HERE, REMINDING YOU TO CHANGE YOUR CLOCKS, AND YOUR ARM & HAMMER BAKING SODA."
As Sullivan and at least a dozen other crew members worry over details, Mays plows through many more attempts before this two-line scene is complete. Through it all, The Voice barely wavers, leveraging the bombastic style that has turned Mays into a household name with $1 billion in sales.
Now, with the Discovery Channel about to debut Pitchmen, a 13-episode series based on his work with Sullivan, Mays is using his in-your-face talent to sell a 150-year-old brand. And he's filming in his Tampa Bay area home base, filling a 6,000-square-foot luxury home in Gulfport with their sprawling production.
If there's any doubt the infomercial has gone mainstream, the sight of Mays in a shirt emblazoned with the Arm & Hammer logo should obliterate it, like the stain on a blouse dropped in OxiClean.
At 50, with a spacious home in Odessa, a Bentley in the garage and spots on TV outlets around the globe, Mays is one of the most successful infomercial hosts in TV history.
"My working ratio is about six out of every 10 (products pitched) work, which is pretty much like a Major League slugger," Mays said, in a surprisingly subdued off-camera voice. "We always ask: Does it have mass appeal? Does it solve a common problem? How big is the audience? Is it demonstrable? Then, America votes."
And it feels pretty good to be the king, these days.
"It has been a pretty incredible journey to go from being these two college dropout infomercial guys, to people watching us to see what we're doing," said Sullivan, 40. "It's more than a trend … It's become a movement."
Keys to success
Ask anyone in the direct-response advertising game — the word "infomercial" is seriously old school — and they'll tell you: Bad times are usually good for them.
Last year, as a crashing economy brought general ad spending down 1.6 percent for the first nine months of 2008, direct-response ad spending rose 9 percent during that same time, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Small wonder the Snuggie and Sham Wow have become pop culture icons, while name brands such as Turtle Wax and Geico have adopted the same shout-and-sell techniques.
The equation is simple: When a recession makes traditional ads disappear, costs for TV time goes down. Tight money also means more people staying home to see the ads in the first place. And desperate times create a need for the comfort an impulse buy may provide.
Mays' OxiClean pitch exploded when he and Sullivan crafted a two-minute promotional spot instead of a half-hour endurance test — another important change marking the modern-day infomercial, which often tries reviving products that have been around for decades, more popular.
"It's inexpensive entertainment," says A.J. Khubani, CEO and co-founder of the Telebrands direct-response company, which claims $1 billion in sales on low-priced products such as the Ped Egg foot scrubber and Urine Gone stain remover. "We always do better in a down economy. Women want to look good and need a mood booster, so lipstick sales go up. It just makes sense."
When Arm & Hammer owner Church & Dwight bought out OxiClean's parent company for $325 million three years ago, there was little doubt who would sell America on the virtues of keeping an open baking soda box in the fridge. Mays says he now gets "a generous retainer."
Khubani, who also appears in Pitchmen, says Mays excels among all other infomercial talent because he has mastered a simple motto: The best salesmen sell themselves first.
"He's created a character, just like Sylvester Stallone in Rambo … and people remember characters," Khubani said. "He always wears a blue shirt with a white T-shirt underneath and beige pants and he yells a lot. He connects with people … and nobody is going to buy something from a salesman unless they have a connection and trust."
Pitchmen presents Mays and Sullivan's business as an American Idol-style search for new products and inventors.
In scenes filmed last fall, Mays and Sullivan sort through a blizzard of proposals, from a mount for GPS devices that fits in a car cupholder to goggles that flash blinding lights to wake a dozing driver if his head dips.
Along the way, viewers get a crash course on the direct-response game, as Khubani's company buys the rights to manufacture and market the most promising products, spending thousands to build commercials around Mays or Sullivan and track call-in response to see which products are solid hits.
Big money comes when Khubani's company gets a successful product into retail stores, which the CEO said produces 90 percent of the company's revenue. For big companies like Telebrands, infomercials have become testing grounds, where consumer calls serve as instant marketing research.
Pitchmen's first episode centers on Impact Gel, a shock-absorbing material used for shoe insoles. Mays wows viewers with an eye-catching demonstration, sheathing his hand in the material and beating it with a hammer (he draws the line at putting his gel-covered hand under a van, however, leaving Sullivan to play stunt double).
But the story of how Mays and Sullivan wrangle a deal with the gel's inventor — who quit a $150,000-a-year job, only to see his home foreclosed during production — proves as compelling as any advertisement.
"For years, we've been saying if people knew half the (stuff) that went on behind the scenes, it would make a good show," said Sullivan, who let a pal from his days on Home Shopping Network (now known as HSN) create a teaser video that drew interest from producer Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers).
"Normally, you don't want to get too close to an inventor, because if the product doesn't work, you don't want to know how much they've got riding on it," he added. "But now, I want to sell this product, because I want this guy and his family to have their payday, too. It's almost cathartic."
Of course, it helps that Sullivan and Mays can earn up to $20,000 in fees along with a percentage of back-end profits on each product. And now they have a Discovery Channel series to provide free TV time to every product they endorse.
"Yeah, it's crossed my mind that this show is product placement like no other," said Sullivan. "But this is what we do on a daily basis; you couldn't film it without showing the products. I think we've left a ton of money on the table, because no one's paid to be on the show."
Rags to riches
Despite his reputation for energetic selling, Mays moves gingerly at times, still feeling the effect of two hip replacement surgeries last year.
His history remains the Horatio Alger story of infomercials: Pittsburgh area native heads to Atlantic City in 1983, learns to pitch from the old masters, lands at HSN in the '90s and connects big with OxiClean in 2000. Sullivan tells a similar story, coming to America from his native England in 1993 with $200 in his pocket and a knack for selling products that also brought him to HSN.
The pair can be fiercely protective of their business. When new face Vince Offer (real name: Vince Shlomi) used an eye-catching commercial to move millions of the Sham Wow chamois cloths years after Mays pitched a similar product called the Zorbeez, the two razzed Shlomi mercilessly until news broke last month that he had been arrested in Miami for assaulting a prostitute.
"I don't want to kick the guy while he's down," Mays said. "But, you know, what goes around comes around."
Tapping the area's HSN alumni to build their own Florida-based commercial business empire, Mays and Sullivan are selling a new product now, wondering just how far the infomercial boom can take them.
"There's a real story here about ingenuity and entrepreneurship for some dark times," Sullivan said. "You don't have to work 9 to 5 for a salary if you've got a dream. I mean, who wants to watch Real Housewives of Orange County when you can see that?"
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521, firstname.lastname@example.org or at blogs.tampabay.com/media.