The economy might be tanking, and Wall Street is on the brink of hysteria, but none of that dampens the enthusiasm-that is, the crazed, rabid, evangelical fervor-of television pitchman Billy Mays.
And why should it? The bearded, barrel-chested Mays (whose mantra could be A.B.P., as in "Always Be Pitching!") has gotten rich from his only-in-America career as an inescapable presence on broadcast and cable. Part confidence man, part carnival barker, he is shouting in every media market in the United States, to say nothing of 57 countries around the world, hawking household products ranging from Mighty Putty (a gloppy adhesive) to Samurai Shark (a knife-sharpening tool). It's no wonder that the 50-year-old Mays will soon be starring in his own reality show, Pitchmen, now in production for the Discovery Channel.
In an exclusive interview with Portfolio.com, Mays argues that the possibly approaching recession is even good for his business (already a $150 billion industry by some estimates), encouraging cash-strapped Americans to choose cheap do-it-yourself fixes at home instead of hiring professionals, and repairing smashed crockery instead of buying anew.
Lloyd Grove: You obviously made it back from New Jersey okay.
Billy Mays: Barely. I had a little complication, but I'm hurting a little bit. I don't know what happened, but I'll see the doctor on Thursday.
L.G.: What did you hurt-your hip?
B.M.: The hip is fine. It's just the muscles around it-they go on guard. Doing a lot of walking on it, they get real spasmed up around my butt and my front and my pelvis, my thigh. Just got off the phone with the doctor. He said that's your natural defenses when you push it-you know, I was walking through the airport a lot, had a long day of shooting. But I think it's fine, I just feel it's muscle pain, which is fine. Just going to a little rehab the next couple days, then see him on Thursday.
L.G.: It would be nice for somebody to come up with a product for guys our age-my back has been killing me-and then you can get on television and pitch it.
B.M.: I would love to do that.
L.G.: I noticed that in 2004, articles about the infomercial industry said that it was about $150 billion of products sold through infomercials. Do you have any sense of what the scope of it is today?
B.M.: I really don't keep on the actual number, but if that number's right, Lloyd, it's certainly increased. I think the business has been legitimized. A lot of people still have their doubts about it, but let's face it, everything that comes out of my mouth has to be approved. We have to have documentation. Every demo [demonstration] has to work, and so there's a lot of legal work going into it. I think the numbers really don't lie. Talk about the infomercial, you're talking about everything from Chuck Norris to all the health-care stuff, all the beauty care, beauty lines, I mean, geez, we're talking about scooters, hub-arounds, they've all gone D.R. [direct response]. We have insurance now, ICanBenefit.com, which has been massive for me-you know, getting people affordable health insurance. Reverse mortgages. Premiere bathtubs. So that all falls under the spectrum of infomercials.
L.G.: Do you think there are some products that just can't be effectively sold via infomercial or can you sell pretty much any product?
B.M.: Well, first of all, if there's a need for it. There's a couple different ways to skin a cat there: Either it's going to be $10, $15, $20 on the two-minute spots, short form, or you're going to have an offer at the end where people are going to call in. Then you have 15 to 30 seconds that I do with OxiClean and Kaboom, which were already branded and in the stores. So they're image spots, and we drive them right to retail. And then you have the half-hour infomercial, which will actually give you a lot more time to ask for a lot more money. I feel that the magic number on the infomercial, the two-minute spots, it's kind of hard to get past $20. That seems to be the magic number. Or $19.95. The best things in life are free and $19.95. [Chuckles.]
So there's a lot of free offers out there, try it for free. David Oreck has done a fantastic job as far as his vacuum cleaners, you know. He's built an empire, and it's built on trust. I don't know him personally, but I've read about him and I like how he approaches the infomercial. "Try the product and if you're not 100 percent satisfied, send it back, and we'll not only ship it to you for free but we'll pay to have it shipped back for free, so you have nothing to lose." There's some really compelling stories out there. Of course, all the products I sell have a "Billy-back" guarantee, a money-back guarantee.
L.G.: But not shipping?
B.M.: Some of them, the $10 ones, the $20 ones, a few of them, we do. But especially with the presidential campaign and the Olympics, advertising time is such a high premium right now, that it's almost impossible to ship it to you and have you ship it back for free. Oreck will not only ship it to you free, he'll ship it back to you free. He has a bigger markup, he's at $300 to $400.
L.G.: ICanBenefit.com-is that the most expensive product you're currently pitching?
B.M.: ICanBenefit.com, it's a different type of show. It's one to two minutes-I don't know if you've seen it. Basically it's, Hi, Billy Mays here, to share with you the most important product I've ever endorsed, affordable health insurance for everyone. If you're one of the 47 million uninsured, we can help.
L.G.: I assume that you've ratcheted back to save your voice. But you don't pitch that product with any less intensity that you pitch other products, do you?
B.M.: Oh no, my voice is a little sore right now from yesterday. [Louder, more rabid] Hi, Billy Mays here to share with you the most important product I've ever endorsed! And I'll even be a couple notches up from that.
L.G.: Sign me up, man!
B.M.: [Laughs.] Health insurance is such a hot button in the election, we're signing people up every day. It's a legitimate company-you can get major med, mini med, we cater it to your needs for hospital visits, blood tests, checkups, emergency room, you can spend as little as $159 a month for you or $269 a month for your entire family. Now, if you want to get into the Blue Cross Blue Shield, that type of program, of course it's going to cost you a little bit more. But the main thing is to have some type of coverage for catastrophic and things like that. From that forum, we're going to eventually take it to auto insurance. We're going to take it basically as an association. The commercial is kind of not deceiving, but when you actually call in and get signed up for a month, the first month, you get a package that gives you roadside assistance from Allstate-identity theft, legal advice, you get so much off toward that. There's a whole array of things that we offer you in this-how to improve your credit score, counseling, consulting.
L.G.: With the Billy Mays business model, do you pretty much participate in all the products that you're pitching?
B.M.: Oh, absolutely.
L.G.: So you're really part of these companies, it's not like you're some kind of gun for hire. From what I've read, you take an up-front fee of 20 grand for doing the commercials, and then you have participation, commissions?
B.M.: Yeah, there's some certainty up front, and 20 is a number that got thrown around. I mean, more or less. But it's about the back end, it's about getting a percentage. If it came down to it, I would rather just have the percentage, because I don't do the products to get that $20,000 or whatever it may be up front. These are businesses of mine that I want to brand. I have at least 10 campaigns running in alternation right now.
L.G.: Are you in every media market in the United States?
B.M.: Every media market, yes.
L.G.: And are you also beyond the United States?
B.M.: Worldwide, I speak 57 languages.
L.G.: Oh, you do not!
B.M.: Yeah, they dub it in.
L.G.: So do they have some guy in Japanese screaming? Have you heard those commercials? Do they capture your spirit?
B.M.: Some of them do. They're getting better. A lot of the Spanish and Mexican markets, I'm really strong in. I was just in the Chicago airport the other day, and a guy sitting next to me, he says "I can't get away from you, you are the biggest celebrity in Spain. Your Orange Glo commercial runs every 10 to 15 minutes on every other channel."
L.G.: Do you speak any foreign languages yourself?
B.M.: Hablo español poquito. No. I did a couple of spots with Simonizer where they let me do part of it, writing out the dialect of it so that I can actually pronounce it, "Oy me, I'm Billy Mays," then I'd say something, then we have a voiceover coming in, then I got "solamente veinte dolares" at the end-and that goes a long way to the Spanish and Mexican market. You know, butcher their language a little bit-they respect it. I started in the state fair's home shows, flea markets in L.A. I started on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I used to sell a salsa maker in places in L.A. when I was out there, and nobody spoke English. I just would make salsa and sell it: tomate, pimiento, chile rojo, ajo and the garlic, lim�n and sal, pico de gallo, and then I'd make it. Eat! Eat! Then get it on TV. Boom! Solamente veinte dolares! And they just take money all day long. Someone in the crowd always spoke some type of English, but I would be the heart of it.
L.G.: What makes a good pitchman?
B.M.: I've been doing this on TV almost 11 years and I've never changed. I think it's the consistency. You've got to stay true to what you do, you've got to really be humble and you've got to believe in the products you sell, you really do. Product is king, product is king. I turn down more products than you can imagine, I don't even look at them.
L.G.: Give me an example of some of the products that have come over the transom that you thought were not right for you.
B.M.: Um, geez. One was a propane caddy.
L.G.: What is a propane caddy?
B.M.: To carry your propane on a little wheel-which I thought was just kind of not D.R., direct response. Another was a siphon, or an anti-siphon, so that you can stop people from siphoning gas, because it's a big thing now with the price of gas. I think things like that-the grill tamer.
L.G.: What does the grill tamer do?
B.M.: It keeps the grill open a certain length or a certain area so that you can get the smoke to come out and so you don't burn your food. And it adjusts, has different gauges on it. The guy invented it from a beer can, just smashed a beer can.
L.G.: But you passed on that.
B.M.: Yeah, he got really sophisticated about it, he's made it nice-looking-it's made out of high quality material and you know, "40 million grills, 40 million people that own grills!"-that was his pitch.
L.G.: Why did you pass on that? Why do you pass on something?
B.M.: I have a checklist. It has to have mass appeal. When you have 40 million grills out there, he thinks that he's going to sell 15 million. First of all, you don't sell 15 million of something. I've sold that much of OxiClean. That's different because that's ongoing. Mighty Putty is way up there. That's one of my biggest products, and of course OxiClean is a standard that everything is set by. And Kaboom. The company was sold to Arm & Hammer. I started with OxiClean, or Orange Glo International, which is a family company. And it was sold for $325 million.
L.G.: And you were one of the lucky stockholders?
B.M.: No, I wasn't. I wasn't even involved in anything. It made me, Lloyd, such a strong pitchman after that. I worked for OxiClean, and Orange Glo, I worked with them four, five, six times a year, shooting commercials. It made a stronger pitchman.
L.G.: In other words, everybody would know you as the guy who insured the success of OxiClean, so you were the go-to guy for that kind of thing?
B.M.: Yeah, and I felt that I built all three brands-also Kaboom and Orange Glo. [Not profiting from the sale] was a hard thing to swallow but I used that. I think that he [Max Appel, the head of Orange Glo] would probably have done things differently but it's not too late, it's only been a couple years. I felt that I should have got something. Look, I believe things happen for a reason, I'm a much more successful pitchman. People say that I have more hits on TV than anyone. I like it that way. I don't want to be handed this and handed that.
L.G.: And it's not like you're living on a grate here. And even though you drive a Rolls-Royce or whatever it is, you manage to keep your feet on the ground?
B.M.: Right, it's a Bentley.
L.G.: Like James Bond.
B.M.: [Laughs.] I enjoy what I do. I think it's just beginning. I'm going to go and take this to another level, and really legitimize the business that we're in, not that it needs legitimization. But there are skeptics out there that are still a little leery about "As Seen on TV," even though we're regulated so much.
L.G.: You're regulated by what?
B.M.: The F.T.C. [Federal Trade Commission]. We're very regulated. You better have the claims backed up and if they call you on them, and that demo is not actually documented, you're in trouble. A lot of trouble.
L.G.: You're not facing jail time if you try and fool the people, but it's a civil penalty, right?
B.M.: Yeah. I'm the frontman, I'm the quarterback, I have a good relationship with everyone I work with. I know that their priorities are to be clean about it, and that's important. I won't work with some of the ones that are a little leery. There are a few out there. I think in every business, there is.
L.G.: Right, well there's a tradition that goes back to the medicine shows, obviously. But they didn't have an F.T.C. then.
B.M.: Oh no, you could pretty much get on TV and say anything you wanted. But now we're really carefully watched.
L.G.: Do you write your own copy?
B.M.: Pretty much. I'll tweak it, I'll buy a vowel. So yesterday, we did five 15-second commercials for OxiClean at Blue Moon Studios in New Jersey, and started off with Pat Benatar saying, "Hit me with your best shot," then I come in, "Billy Mays here! OxiClean has four-in-one power to tackle your toughest stains, the toughest laundry stains there are. So why not hit me with your best shot?" So we're really looking forward to that one.
L.G.: How many commercials for which products do you have in rotation right now? Is it too much of a memory trick to get you to list them?
B.M.: No, not at all. OxiClean foremost, Kaboom, Orange Glo wood-floor polish, the Mighty Putty, Mighty Mend-It, another line extension of that, it's more of the glue, which you'll be seeing a lot here in the next couple weeks. HandySwitch, Simoniz Fix It, which is a scratch remover, Zorbeez, which is the shimmies. Hercules Hook, which is kind of off the air, but we bring it on if there's time available just to drive the retail a little bit, where they split the revenues with us. Now Steam Buddy is a big one, the steam iron, which is very big for us. And then there's the Samurai Shark knife sharpener.
L.G.: So all those kinds of products are in the $19.95 range or less and your high-end product is ICanBenefit.com. Since we're in the middle of a presidential campaign, I have to ask, would it be possible to use you as a pitchman for a presidential campaign?
B.M.: Well, Chuck Norris does.
L.G.: Right, he did for Mike Huckabee, but that was more sort of a humorous thing, I suppose. A lot of the fundraising is done on the internet, in small increments-indeed, in many cases in $19.95 increments. Could you see a situation where you're selling Barack Obama or John McCain in that way, or is that just too nutty?
B.M.: I think if I was approached by the McCain camp. I'm a Republican.
L.G.: Maybe this is unfair to ask, but how would you pitch John McCain? Would you say, "Billy Mays here for John McCain?"
B.M.: Security. The world's a safer place. Country first. "Billy Mays for John McCain! If you want to keep you and your family safe, vote McCain!" I'd have to think about it, I wouldn't like to bash anything. I'd like to keep things positive.
L.G.: Of course in the case of a political candidate, you wouldn't have to worry about legal and vetting and whether or not what you said was true.
B.M.: Yeah, you're right. You know, the campaign is going to get really dirty here soon. Not that it already isn't, but it's going to get dirtier.
L.G.: What would be the solution to that? Would that be OxiClean?
B.M.: Yeah, we're going to clean up both these candidates' acts.
L.G.: Put them in a bucket full of activated water and OxiClean?
B.M.: That's right, the world's a much cleaner place because of it. You know, one thing I like to say, I owe it to the pitchmen from Atlantic City who taught me and kind of vetted me. They didn't have to do that. These guys saw something in me and I hung in there in Atlantic City, and they gave me little snippets here and there to apply, and I hung in there, hung in there, and they kind of just passed the baton to me and said, "Look, kid, take this to the next level." I'm a pitchman, my business comes from the pitch, nothing else. My voice, my likeness, is my livelihood. That's it. I keep it simple. I pick good products. The reality show coming up on Discovery is going to take us to another level.
L.G.: Let me ask you a question before we talk about that. What is the Billy Mays brand? What are you selling?
B.M.: Trust. And I'll stop the channel surfers, get a lot of people saying, "He annoys me," he does this and that-but some of those people are the first to buy. And people have bought so many different products off me that they trust I'm going to give them a quality product. My style is my style. I may offend a few people, my over-the-top-ness sometimes, but if it's not broken don't fix it. They look at me as the average Joe. I'm going to sit down, talk with them, have a beer, nothing real special. I'm myself and I have a good time living life. I have a 3-year-old and a 22-year-old.
L.G.: Does your wife like your beard?
B.M.: Oh yeah.
L.G.: Because you can never shave it, can you?
L.G.: You're 50 years old. Do you have to make sure you don't go gray?
B.M.: Yeah, I touch it up here and there. My beard is part of that image, and I think that people wouldn't recognize me without a beard. Sometimes they don't recognize me, they think they know who I am, but-"I know you, I just know you."
L.G.: You get a lot of that?
B.M.: Sometimes, like on the flight from Newark yesterday, I must've signed 20 autographs on the plane, from all the flight attendants, a couple of the guys, a couple of the kids sitting behind me.
L.G.: Now what happens if somebody for whatever reason is dissatisfied with a product they bought because they saw you pitching it on television? Do you get people who come to you and very bitterly complain?
B.M.: I'll either call the company or I'll just out of my own personal money send them a refund. Just recently I got a letter from a guy who's in the Air Force and bought the Awesome Auger-that's another big product I have. That's the one where you hook up to a drill and you plant bulbs by the dozen. It's kind of a cultivator, you can till, cultivate, with attachments to hook up to your drill.
L.G.: The Air Force guy bought it, didn't like it?
B.M.: He got two attachments the same, and he couldn't use it in there properly and he had some trouble with the customer service. He wrote me a letter and I immediately took care of it. He was out something like $72, because he brought the drill and he bought everything. He bought the maximum of what you can get.
L.G.: Did you send him a personal check?
B.M.: Yeah, I sent him a personal check, a company check, but I apologized. He said "I've bought products off you in the past, and with a lot of success, and now I'm a little deterred to buy it again, I'm a little disappointed." So I sent him his money with a letter saying, "I hope that you'll give us another chance, here's a reimbursement on that, stay with me and we'll see this won't happen again." Then he wrote me a letter back, and he was stunned. He was like, You've got to be kidding me!
L.G.: That's hilarious.
B.M.: When I used to work full-time with OxiClean, I used to go to the naval base at Pearl Harbor, where they had the biggest mall in the world. I had a reception there, where people were waiting for me to sign autographs and come in with Kaboom and OxiClean and they get the best price in the world. It must've been hundreds and hundreds of people, and I kid you not that I gave them a pitch that was almost ridiculous. "Send in the marines! Kaboom! And the stain is gone! Let's use this on all the enemies, including the dirt!" Probably within a half hour I sold everything out. It was just hundreds and hundreds of people just loading up, in between signing autographs. People appreciate the military. I'm having a little rough time trying to get over to Iraq. I would love to do that somehow. I think it would be nice because I've heard too many times that OxiClean, the little sample packets they get, they use out in the field to clean their clothes. So I would love to go over there with a couple hundred thousand little packets, thank them, hand them all out, you know, have it be part of their kit because they deserve it. That's something I really want to do. I don't know if it's going to happen.
L.G.: Well, maybe somebody from the U.S.O. or the Pentagon will see this and follow up. Let me ask you, without in any sense prying into your own different contractual arrangements with these various companies, do you have a sense of the aggregate volume of all the products you're involved with and pushing?
B.M.: Well, look, we sell millions. Ten million units for Mighty Putty right now. On TV it's $20. Most of it is sold in retail, like 8 million to 10 million, something like that, I'm just kind of guestimating. In the past 11 years, all the products together, as far as gross sales, it's well over a billion dollars. OxiClean is one thing-I don't get paid on a commission there, I get paid on a very handsome retainer. But OxiClean for years and years, doing $300 million to $400 million a year. I have smaller companies that do $30 million to $40 million.
L.G.: With the economy slowing down and by some lights going into recession, has that had any impact on your business?
B.M.: Well, somewhat. I feel that with Mighty Putty and some of the products that we sell on TV, people want a good value. I'm getting more involved in pushing value, value, value. Let's just say the reason Mighty Putty has done so well is that people go out and buy it instead of paying a plumber, $60, $80, $100 to fix a leak or whatever.
L.G.: And that's the thing that's green and you cut it and knead it and it turns white?
B.M.: Yeah, and it's ready to hold on tight.I think, the bottom line is that people are now spending a little more money at home, not going out, with the price of gas. They may have to pay the shipping, but they'll stay at home, order it off TV. A lot of people would like to be the first to order it off TV.
L.G.: So, interesting, you think that because people have less disposable money to spend on plumbers and whereas before they might've just thrown stuff out, they're more interested in keeping things, repairing them and stuff like that?
L.G.: So tell me about the reality show, how did that come about?
B.M.: Well, you know Anthony Sullivan-the Swivel Sweeper? English guy. He used to live next door to me. He's from Petticoat Lane over in England, while I came from Atlantic City, the boardwalk, two worlds, and our paths crossed on the road and we ended up shooting some commercials together. I was a pitchman for OxiClean, he did a lot of the production, he went his way a little bit, we do work a lot together, we work separately, he does different things. We had a guy come in from L.A. Chris Wilson is actually from HSN, we worked with him as a producer.
L.G.: That's Barry Diller's outfit, HSN.
B.M.: Oh yeah, that was the Billy Mays network at one time. They'd call me and say, "Get on there, kid, and sell! Have you had a few?" "I'm fine, get the stuff ready, I can get in there." I made it a point to be on call 24/7. But Chris Wilson just flew in and said, "I just think there's something there-Pitchmen!" The name of the show is Pitchmen, and we were going to go with Warner Horizon. They flew in-the hokeyness, I didn't really like the direction they were going. Sully by chance met Thom Beers, who's the owner of Original Productions, at some type of retreat, just to get away, where you go in there, eat right, and hike. You know, a place where you go and get your mind and body cleansed out. So they start talking a little bit and he says, "I know who you are." Sully says, "I have a reality teaser." Thom took it to Discovery, and right now they're inking the deal.
L.G.: When does it start filming, in a couple of weeks?
B.M.: Yeah, we're going to start [filming], which is probably going to be in Vegas in a few weeks. But Discovery likes to kind of do the P.R. about it.
L.G.: Well I've seen it described as just walking the viewer through how a pitch is put together, from start to finish.
B.M.: Right, and it's going to be behind the scenes, it's going to be about getting to know the people who do this, like me, Sullly, and my 22-year-old son will probably be in it.
L.G.: What's his name?
B.M.: Billy Mays III.
L.G.: He must thank you for that-and you have a small child as well?
B.M.: Elizabeth, she's turning 3, and my wife's Deborah.
L.G.: So Deborah will be in the show rolling her eyes every so often?
B.M.: She's fine with it. I would prefer if my daughter made a cameo once in a while but I'm not real excited about showing her to the world.
L.G.: Since you have become a celebrity through this business, have you experienced some of the wacko side of life?
B.M.: Yeah, a little bit. I'm pretty fortunate that, you know, I have a lot of kids that watch. It's really strange, my demographic runs from really young to really old.
L.G.: I would've thought that a large component of your customers or potential customers are derisively described as shut-ins who are watching television a lot.
B.M.: Right, but I have a lot of kids that will be sometimes the first to recognize me, like 4- or 5-year-olds. "He's on! He's on!" We run a lot on Noggin and Sprout and Nickelodeon, OxiClean and Kaboom. I've been very fortunate as far as people don't give me a hard time. If they don't like me, everybody has their opinion, they just kind of leave me alone. I had a drunk guy once I can remember, "Your products don't work!" What I do, Lloyd, I take the time. Like on the plane yesterday. I find out everybody's name, I write them an autograph, "How are you?" I really take the time and ask, What are you doing? Where do you live? Where you from? I think that's important. I don't want to get this big ego. There's Tony Little down here. He's a nice guy. There's Body by Jake, and Ron Popeil-he's not very friendly. Ron won't give you a business card. I like Ron. At shows or whatever, he'll take the time to say hi to me and not too many other people. I used to work with his family in Atlantic City so we came from the same background.
L.G.: How long do you see yourself doing this? Ron Popeil is in his 70s, isn't he? And he's still doing it.
B.M.: He's not really doing that much. Since I turned 50, I am really taking measure of my life and really reflecting, and my motto is, because I ran the road so heavy and hard over the years with state fairs and home shows, "I don't want to age 10 years in five but I want to work 10 years' worth in the next five years." I want to notch up a schedule that's really just non-stop because I have the new hips. I had a surgery in January, and then it wasn't healing right. I went to Greece and Italy and I fell. I kept having some problems, so did an emergency surgery when I got back in July.
L.G.: Did you bang yourself up playing football?
B.M.: Yeah, football, played a little semi-pro, played at West Virginia, high school ball. From January to July, I had a staph infection, and didn't even know it. I'm so fortunate that I didn't lose my leg and I'm not dead.
L.G.: Oh my God. Did I mention my back hurts? How pathetic are we, two old guys talking about our pain?
B.M.: You know, it's really good now, a friend of mine sells the inversion table. That's amazing. You hang upside down. I've used that for years. You can go online, the Teeter Hang Ups. His name is Roger Teeter. I bought a reconditioned one. It's pretty much brand new. They're a little pricey, it was $200-something a couple years ago. I got my dad one, and man, what a difference. I mean, you get your posture back and it really stretches out your back!