The new Billy Mays infomercial, and the deaths of other salesmen

As the direct-marketing industry copes with the sudden death of pitchman Billy Mays (right), it's worth considering the fragile relationship between celebrity endorsement and mortality. The tragedy of Mays's unexpected death at age 50, of a heart ailment in late June, has practical implications for A.J. Khubani (left), CEO of direct-to-consumer merchandiser Telebrands. Yesterday, Telebrands rolled out a national marketing campaign featuring the infomercial star -- eight days after his death.

Unexpected deaths can derail an ad campaign when a brand is too closely identified with the pitchman. The death of New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson in a plane crash, 30 years ago this summer, didn't harm the longterm sales of Williams' 'Lectric Shave -- but the demise of Wendy's founder Dave Thomas in 2002 devastated the fast-food company, which has struggled since then to re-establish an identity through an enduring campaign.
Mays's final pitch is for Telebrands's 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, and Telebrands spent millions on the airtime. Last week, Khubani decided to show it. "We struggled with this decision," he told DailyFinance. "There's no precedent, and we really don't know what's going to happen. There could be a tremendous backlash."

Mays is perhaps best-known for his booming endorsement of the cleaning products OxiClean, Kaboom, and Orange-Glo, all marketed by Church & Dwight, which has pulled its Mays spots and has not announced a successor. And Discovery Channel, whose series "Pitchmen" starred Mays, is scheduled to present many hours of reruns this week, plus a special, "Pitchman: A Tribute to Billy Mays."

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.

Khubani was among a number of infomercial executives who consulted with Roger Pliakas, attorney for the Mays family, to decide how to proceed with their spots. "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." He added, "Having known Billy for so many years, he definitely would've wanted it to run."

Mays is not the first pitchman to sell from beyond the grave. In one ghoulish example, popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher was resurrected in 2007, 12 years after his death, for an unintentionally creepy commercial. A computer-generated, strangely androgynous Redenbacher sported an MP3 player and brandished a bag of microwave popcorn in a spot that horrified numerous cultural critics. "Grandpa would go for it," insisted Redenbacher's grandson. "This is a way to honor his legacy."

Another way to do that is by creating a public-service announcement with the pitchman's participation. Shortly before he died of lung cancer in 1985, acting legend Yul Brynner created an anti-smoking commercial intended for airing after his death. John Wayne also created promos for the American Cancer Society. Ironically, James Dean created a (listless and unpersuasive) safe-driving P.S.A. a month before he killed himself in a car crash.

In 2007, advertising powerhouse Saatchi & Saachi created a campaign for AirWair's Doc Martens boots, depicting various musical icons wearing the brand from their perches in heavenly clouds. The estates of Clash lead singer Joe Strummer and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious did not comment, but the families of Joey Ramone and Kurt Cobain were furious. Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh, said at the time, "I never would have approved this ad, as Joey never wore these shoes. And [...] the fact that he was Jewish, and this ad is not exactly kosher, makes it that much more inappropriate, inconsiderate, and contemptible." AirWair pulled the ads and swiftly fired Saatchi.

While that debacle demonstrates the dangers of plumbing the graveyard for pitchmen, it probably won't stop what appears to be a very lucrative trend. Nor will it clear up the issue of when it becomes tasteful to star a fallen icon in your commercials. When Orson Welles promised in the 1970s that winemaker Paul Masson would "sell no wine before its time," he never said he wouldn't sell Paul Masson after his time was up.
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