For Billy Mays, one final pitch

Can one of the most successful TV salesmen in history continue to move product from beyond the grave? It's a question with very practical implications for A.J. Khubani (left), CEO of direct-to-consumer merchandiser Telebrands. On Monday, Telebrands will roll out a national marketing campaign featuring Billy Mays (right), the infomercial star who died unexpectedly of a heart ailment last Sunday at age 50.

The product in question is the Jupiter Jack -- "the new revolutionary cell phone accessory for your car that turns any car radio into a wireless speaker system" (yours for only $19.99 plus shipping and handling!). The spot was filmed a month ago. After learning of Mays's death, Khubani made the difficult and potentially controversial choice to go ahead with airing it.
"We struggled with this decision," Khubani tells DailyFinance. "There's no precedent, and we really don't know what's going to happen. There could be a tremendous backlash."

There's a lot at stake. The new infomercial will air in "every market in the country," Khubani says, and Telebrands spent millions on the airtime. The spot has been tested in several markets, on a very limited basis, in the weeks before Mays's death. "We've been watching the results, and they haven't gotten worse or better, which means people are buying the product because they like the product," says Khubani. "Quite frankly, I think it's the product that's going to carry the day, although Billy Mays certainly enhances it. Still, we're taking a big gamble on using a spokesman who's not with us."

Personal considerations also figured in, of course. "Having known Billy for so many years, he definitely would've wanted it to run," says Khubani. "He was a pitchman."

Khubani was among a number of executives from the informercial business who participated in a conference call this week with Roger Pliakas, attorney for the Mays family, to decide how to proceed with campaigns featuring Mays. "We decided collectively that this is what Billy would've wanted, and it's okay with the family," Khubani says. "Billy was the sole breadwinner for his family. They're looking for a continuing revenue stream from this and other products."

The Jupiter Jack spot will air as-is, but there has been some discussion of modifying it to acknowledge Mays's passing, says Khubani. Telebrands has also produced another spot as a backup, in case the one with Mays, for whatever reason, turns out to be a dud. "Billy might not be too happy about that," says Khubani, "but we have to be practical."
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