A version of this article appears in the April 13, 2009 issue of Fortune.
Even when Billy Mays is relaxing, the bearded TV pitchman can’t keep from selling. “Hi, Billy Mays here for Kaboom!” he bellows, holding up an imaginary bottle of bathroom cleaner as a group of middle-aged women giggle on a sofa. It’s Friday night around 10 p.m., and Mays is holding court in the bar of the Hotel Amarano in Burbank, Calif. Once he has the crowd’s attention he pantomimes cleaning up a mess before proclaiming, “KAAA-BOOM! And the stain is gone.” From a corner table his friend and fellow pitchman Anthony “Sully” Sullivan, a red-haired Englishman in a Union Jack hoodie, laughs along with the rest of the crowd.
Lately the two have been laughing all the way to the bank. Mays, 50, and Sullivan, 40, are megastars of the $300 billion industry known as direct-response advertising. In other words, they’re infomercial moguls. Over the past decade the products they’ve hawked on TV have racked up combined sales of over $1 billion—and made each of them a personal fortune. Sullivan’s ads for the Swivel Sweeper have sold 14 million units in over 60 countries. Mays’ spots for everything from the Awesome Auger to Mighty Mendit to the Hercules Hook to ESPN360.com have made him a ubiquitous presence on late-night TV. And their joint campaign for OxiClean—Mays as pitchman, Sullivan as producer—has helped turn the stain remover into a $200-million-a-year brand for corporate parent Church & Dwight (CHD). In 2008 their ads cumulatively ran for some 56,000 minutes on U.S. television at a cost of about $170 million, according to Icon Media. And they get a cut of every sale.
But it’s not just Mays and Sullivan you’ve been seeing more of lately. This is very much an infomercial moment. While banks are scrambling for bailouts, retailers are slashing prices, and industrial giants are cutting headcounts, the late-night-TV purveyors of “revolutionary” new fitness and skin-care products are thriving. Even as overall U.S. advertising spending fell 2.6% last year, according to Nielsen, spending on direct-response ads rose 9.2%. And sliding network and cable TV ad rates mean that the likes of Mays and Sullivan are getting much more airtime for their money. “Our industry has always done well during poor economic times,” says Dick Wechsler, president of DRTV (DTV) media buyer Lockard & Wechsler. “And right now things are pretty frothy for us.”
In short, the great American business tradition that Mays and Sullivan embody—namely hucksterism—is enjoying an uptick. And nobody does it better than Mays and Sullivan. “Billy Mays is a top-notch guy, and he’s a force in the marketplace,” says semi-retired industry legend Ron Popeil, 73, who is busy at work on his next great product, a safe and healthy deep fryer.
These guys flat-out know how to sell, and corporate America is taking notice. Mays will soon be pitching for Arm & Hammer, Church & Dwight’s venerable 150-year-old brand, in national TV spots. And on April 15 the Discovery Channel will premiere Pitchmen, a reality show that follows Mays and Sullivan as they search for new products, create new ads, and work their Odd Couple–type charm for the cameras. That’s the reason they’re in Burbank: to audition prospective inventors. The contenders they might turn into millionaires by pitching their products range from a chemist with a pheromone spray to a pair of brothers with a six-blade disposable razor that dispenses shaving cream from the handle.
“Neither of us finished college,” says Sullivan, as Mays autographs pictures nearby for a couple of fellow patrons in the bar. “But when it comes to launching a product and getting someone’s attention and having them say, ‘Holy crap, I want to buy that,’ me and Billy are experts. We know how to stop you on the street and get you to buy something for $20 and feel good about it. I think we’re the best in the business.”
Mays and Sullivan didn’t learn their craft in a boardroom or a business school. Mays grew up in a working-class town outside Pittsburgh. After a couple of years as a walk-on linebacker at West Virginia University, he returned home to play semipro ball and work with his dad’s waste-hauling business. Then one day in 1983 he hitched a ride to Atlantic City with a friend who was going to pitch at the famed boardwalk market, and Mays decided to give it a try himself. At first he didn’t know what he was doing, but he stayed with it and earned the respect of the veterans. “First I was a Johnny-come-lately, then a Pork Chop [the next rung up the ladder],” he says. But in a while the vets began to share some secrets, like how to pull a crowd in tight. After he became a full-time pitchman, his talent for selling WashMatik car-cleaning mops earned him a new nickname: Bucket Billy.
On the home-show circuit he befriended a cleaning-product entrepreneur named Max Appel. In 1996, Appel got a chance to sell his products on the Home Shopping Network in Tampa, and he asked Billy to go on as pitchman. Mays sold 6,000 bottles of Orange Glo wood cleaner in his first appearance and became a regular hawking Appel’s wares. Appel would later sell his company to Church & Dwight for $325 million.
At HSN, Mays reconnected with Sullivan, a rival from the home-show circuit. A native of Devonshire in southwestern England, Sullivan honed his pitching in the gritty street markets of London before coming to the U.S. in 1991. He was spotted by an HSN scout selling SmartMops at a home show in Tampa and made his debut on the network the day before Halloween in 1993. Like Mays, he made the most of his chance, selling 5,000 mops in 22 minutes.
For a couple of years Mays and Sullivan were regulars pitching cleaning products and assorted gadgets anytime, day or night. “If the daily sales weren’t hitting the numbers, they’d call us up and say, ‘Are you sober? Can you come do an hour?'” says Sullivan. By the latter part of the decade the duo had branched out into direct response ads. But their breakthrough came in 2000 when Appel asked them to join forces and make an ad for OxiClean with Billy as frontman and Sullivan as producer. It was a megahit and established them as new DRTV stars. (While Mays is strictly a frontman for products, Sullivan both produces ads, through his company Sullivan Productions, and stars in them.)
“Billy Mays is a top-notch guy and he’s a force in the marketplace,” says industry legend Ron Popeil.
As successful as Mays and Sullivan are today, they have plenty of competition. And their fiercest rival at the moment is a new phenom named Vince Offer, the man behind the ShamWow absorbent chamois cloth. Propelled by Offer’s goofy charm and funny one-liners (“You followin’ me, camera guy?”), the ShamWow ad has become a cultural sensation and YouTube favorite. Since it first aired in the fall of 2007, over five million sets of the absorbent cloths have been sold, says Offer. In a recent poll on CNBC.com, the ShamWow defeated the George Foreman Grill as the best As Seen on TV product of all time. And because Offer is the owner as well as the pitchman, he’s making a mint.
Mays, however, dismisses Offer as a Johnny-come-lately who has broken the pitchman code by invading not one but two of his markets. Before the ShamWow came out, Mays starred in an ad for a chamois called the Zorbeez. In addition, Mays sees Offer’s Slap Chop vegetable chopper, as a rip-off of a similar product Mays himself previously sold called the Quick Chop. (Never mind that chamois cloths and vegetable choppers have been sold for years.)
“You know what, rip me off once, shame on me,” says Mays. “But twice? I’m coming after you and taking back what’s mine.” Mays has new ads for the Zorbeez and the Original Quick Chop ready to go. After Mays and Offer attended this year’s Super Bowl in Tampa Bay as guests in the same suite, Mays went on the Adam Carolla radio show and said that he and Offer had exchanged words. Mays then challenged Offer to a “pitch off.”
Offer says he’s amused by the grandstanding. A onetime Scientologist and aspiring filmmaker who made a critically reviled gross-out humor flick back in the late ’90s called The Underground Comedy Movie, Offer thinks Mays is merely posturing to drive up his ratings. “I got no beef with the guy,” he says. “He’s just trying to create some drama for his show.” The Super Bowl incident? “Never happened,” says Offer. “I think we took a picture together.”
Pitchmen have been around forever, but the infomercial was created in America just after World War II. With TV viewship exploding, it was only natural for veteran peddlers like Arnold Morris with his Kitchen Gourmet knife and W.G. “Papa” Barnard with his Vita-Mix blender to start renting half-hour blocks of time on the airwaves. The fledging industry had to recalibrate in the 1960s when the FCC restricted the amount of time that networks could sell to advertisers, and the classic half-hour infomercial disappeared in favor of one- and two-minute spots exclusively. (In the business, only long-form “shows” that run 28½ minutes are called infomercials; spots of 120 seconds or less are referred to simply as short-form direct-response ads. Today longer ads are typically used for items with higher price points, i.e., those that need more pitching.)
The need to focus on short spots didn’t stop pioneers such as Popeil or the entrepreneurs behind the famous Ginsu knife from sharpening their skills and popularizing new catchphrases. (“Now how much would you pay?”) Then, in 1984, the FCC deregulated the booming cable industry, repealed the restriction on ad minutes per hour, and unleashed the golden age of the infomercial—everything from empowerment guru Tony Robbins to the ThighMaster (see below).
Unlike Popeil, who invented most of his own products, Mays and Sullivan are typically mercenaries who get hired on a per-project basis to work their magic. “We’re very much in the same role as record producers,” says Sullivan. “We get hired to make the whole project happen. We’re sort of in the same position as Diddy or Quincy Jones.” They collect an upfront fee for fronting new ads, usually $20,000 or more. But like Diddy, they make most of their money by getting a cut—between 3% and 5%—of the back-end sales.
Oddly enough, most of the profits for bestselling products sold in short-form ads are generated not from the TV ads themselves but once the merchandise hits shelves. “I’d say 90% of our sales are in traditional retail chains today,” says A.J. Khubani, founder of direct response giant Telebrands of Fairfield, N.J. The impresario behind bestselling products such as the Stick Up Bulb, Khubani had his biggest hit ever last year with a callous-removing device called the PedEgg. He says the PedEgg sold 20 million units in 2008—mostly in stores like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, and Walgreens. Once an item is a bona fide hit in the direct response market, Khubani has it in stores within two months. And he keeps running the TV spots even after they’re no longer profitable because the brand recognition drives sales on the shelves.
“Neither of us finished college,” says Sullivan, “but when it comes to getting someone’s attention, me and Billy are experts.”
The current boom is being driven by more than just Khubani’s (or Sullivan’s or Mays’) marketing prowess, however. There’s an x factor: You’re more likely to buy what they’re selling. During recessions people not only tend to stay home and watch a lot of television, but also become more susceptible to the type of DIY products often featured in infomercials and more in need of the pick-me-up thrill of snagging a perceived bargain. (“Call now, and I’ll throw in an extra set for free!”) “When people are uncertain they become loss-averse, and they look to peers for guidance. If they hear testimonials from happy customers and see that supplies are limited, their interest spikes,” says Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and author of the bestselling Influence: Science and Practice.
Put it all together, and the once-fringe world of DRTV is becoming more mainstream every day. The popularity of the sublimely ridiculous Snuggie (“The blanket with sleeves!”) has become so great that Snuggie pub crawls are being organized in 15 cities around the country this spring. Networks like Fox News have opened up prime, never-before-available slots to DRTV ads. And the owners of established brands, long resistant to direct-response spots, are beginning to experiment more. “It’s like this recession has caused corporate America to come alive,” says Tim Hawthorne, chairman of Hawthorne Direct and a DRTV industry veteran who has worked with advertisers like Bose, Nissan, and 3M (MMM). “We’re getting a huge volume of inquiries from big companies, more than we ever have.”
When Mays and Sullivan are debating whether to shill for a product, their mental checklist could easily be a decision tree for a new product launch at a major corporation. “First, it’s got to have mass appeal,” says Mays. “If you can connect to a broader audience, there’s just a better shot of making it work. Second, the product needs to solve a common problem. I need to be able to show that it makes one’s life easier. And also it gives instant gratification, hits you on an emotional level.” Both Mays and Sullivan swear that believing in the product is essential to being able to sell it.
Once they find a product they believe in, they move the merchandise with a three-step process that harks back to the carny tradition: “bally the tip,” “nod them in,” and “chill ’em down.”
The hardest part of making a sale is stopping people, whether they’re wandering by a booth or flipping channels. In carny lingo, “ballying the tip” means drawing a crowd—and once one begins to gather, it feeds on itself. For Billy his volume, energy, hand gestures, and faux authority (“Hi, Billy Mays here for …”) are all tactics to bally the tip. To keep the crowd you use humor and make the presentation interactive.
The next step is convincing potential customers that buying your product is totally reasonable. “Wouldn’t you like to eat more fresh vegetables?” Yes, of course you would. A good pitchman will literally nod in answer to his own question to get the crowd nodding along. “If there were a device that made it easy, was a snap to clean, and I could sell it to you for less than half what it cost in stores, wouldn’t you want to buy it?” Yes, yes, and yes!
But the trickiest part of any sale is being able to transform good will into cold, hard cash—the chill-down. Rather than politely ask if anyone would like to buy something, the pitchman often starts the process for potential buyers by counting it off. “Who are going to be my first ten customers? You, sir, you’re No. 1!”
To see how the duo translate the lessons of the boardwalk to the airwaves, Sullivan cues up on his laptop the spot for a new product called Impact Gel. Soon Mays is smashing his hand with a hammer—a highly effective bally technique. Not only does he fearlessly whack away onscreen at his palm (wrapped in the gel, of course) to demonstrate the awesome absorbent quality of the product, but viewers also see a car run over it. “I love it,” proclaims Mays, as Sullivan ponders tweaks to the graphics. “I got goose bumps. But I’d like to see that shot again one more time at the end where I smack the crap out of my hand.”
It’s unclear how much bigger Mays and Sullivan can get. While the Discovery show should raise their Q ratings even higher, their industry’s current boom won’t last forever. Regardless, Mays will probably be with us for a while. “I think Billy more than me has become part of the pop culture,” says Sullivan. “Twenty years from now people will look back and say, ‘Remember that guy Billy Mays with the beard who used to scream at us?'”
Mays is not just a cartoon character, however. He has a wife, a family. He feels pain, or so he explains on a sunny Tuesday morning in late March as he drives his Bentley around his hometown of Tampa before filming a new Kaboom ad. A couple of days earlier his 23-year-old son lost everything in an apartment fire. And his left hip, which he had replaced last year, is killing him. Despite everything, he doesn’t expect his performance to suffer. “When I’m up against a wall, that’s when Billy Mays performs best,” he says.
“If people hear testimonials and see that supplies are limited, interest spikes,” says ASU professor Bob Cialdini.
Over the next two days Mays will prove that statement correct. Inside a rented studio in a nondescript office park he will record endless voice-over variations of the Kaboom pitch—”You don’t need a cabinet full of cleaners!”—and apologize to the room whenever he flubs a line. He’ll take the clients to dinner when he should be home packing up his 7,500-square-foot home in Tampa in preparation for the move to a new, bigger house in Greenville, S.C., near his second wife’s family. And again and again on the fake bathroom set he’ll wipe the “path of clean” through soap scum prepared by the stain stylist, and look up at the camera with a plastered-on grin until he gets it just right.
Driving across the Bayside Bridge, the sun glinting off the water, Mays reflects on his progress. “I honor the guys that taught me all the time by saying, ‘I ain’t nothing but a pitchman,'” he says. “I have a style that never changes, but every year I just try to sharpen the blade. And I have this voice that never leaves me. It’s my best friend.” He stomps on the accelerator and guns the car up past 100 mph in a matter of seconds, and unleashes a blast: “BILLY MAYS HERE FOR OXICLEAN, THE STAIN SPECIALIST, POWERED BY THE AIR YOU BREATH …” He’s ready to sell.