Death of Billy Mays leaves his growing empire in doubt

The death of a direct-to-consumers product spokeman isn't ordinarily something that would send ripples through the media world. But Billy Mays, who died unexpectedly on Sunday at age 50, was no ordinary spokesman. He was, rather, both a true entrepreneur in an industry of pretenders and a budding TV star, thanks to his role on Pitchmen, the new Discovery Channel series on which he co-starred.

Mays's mainstream fame was a relatively recent development, says Remy Stern, who profiled him in his recent book about the infomercial industry, But Wait...There's More! " For years, he'd been on television pitching other people's products," Stern says. "But a couple of years ago, he branched out and started his own infomercial production company, in partnership with fellow pitchman Anthony Sullivan, so they could not only promote various products, but could have a financial stake in them as well. Then, of course, his reality show debuted a couple of months ago, which brought him a whole new level of mainstream fame. So the timing of this is really tragic."
But if he represented a new breed of media-savvy infomercial mogul, Mays was also something of a throwback, says Stern. "Billy was one of the few remaining television pitchmen who learned the business -- and the art of the pitch -- the old-fashioned way," he says. "Long before he became a fixture on TV, he was pitching products in person on the boardwalk in Atlantic City and at state fairs up and down the East Coast. He'd spend 12 to 14 hours standing on a crate wowing a crowd with a demonstration -- and then, one by one, collect $20 bills from each person who had gathered round. In many ways, Billy was the last of a dying breed."

Mays's sudden passing leaves question marks for a number of brands -- most notably OxiClean, the household cleaning product that his enthusiastic demonstrations helped turn from an also-ran into a $200 million business. Church & Dwight Co., which owns OxiClean, paid tribute to Mays in a statement, but a spokeswoman for the company couldn't immediately say how his death will affect the marketing plans for its brands, which also include Arm & Hammer. Similarly, Discovery Communications offered a statement memorializing Mays -- "Everyone that knows him was aware of his larger-than-life personality, generosity and warmth," it reads -- but offered no information on the future of Pitchmen.

UPDATE, 5:18 p.m.: A spokesman for Church & Dwight says, "Out of respect and consideration for his loved ones, we've pulled Billy's OxiClean, Kaboom and Orange-Glo commercials from rotation. At this point, it's premature to talk about future plans. All of our thoughts are with the Mays family at this time."

Meanwhile, Discovery is devoting most of its programming on Wednesday to a Mays memorial. That will include a 12-hour Pitchmen marathon, ending with the season finale, which hasn't aired before. Don't be surprised if it gets huge ratings.

Discovery says it hasn't made any decision yet regarding a second season of Pitchmen.
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