Billy Mays pitches from beyond the grave

Although Billy Mays died two weeks ago, the powers that be have determined that the show -- and Mays' amazing showmanship -- must go on. Before his death, the famed pitchman recorded commercials for two new products, Mighty Tape and the Mighty Putty Super Pack. Media Enterprises, the marketing company that represents Mays' "Mighty" brands, has decided that his final impassioned pleas for sales will be shared with the public.

According to reports, the last commercials show Mays at the height of his carnival-barking powers. On Mighty Tape, for example, he progresses from putting the sticky strips on leaky kitchen faucets to using them to repair a scuba hose. The latter demonstration occurs underwater, where Mays accessorizes his usual blue shirt and khaki pants with a full set of scuba gear.
Ironically, Mays' death seems to have given him an authority that he never had in life. Amid real-life reports and testimonials, customers who might once have balked at buying products from the manic showman now seem far more willing to give his wares a try. According to Media Enterprises, sales of Mays-endorsed products have jumped by 25 percent in the last two weeks.

One of the traditional worries about using a celebrity's likeness post-mortem is that doing so will seem exploitative and offensive. For this reason, death is usually a definitive end to a pitchman's career. Of course, there are exceptions, as in the case of Yul Brynner, whose posthumous anti-smoking campaign was designed to shock viewers. After all, while "don't smoke" can seem like a weak message, it gets added heft when it comes from a man who's just died of lung cancer. Conversely, James Dean's listless and distracted 1955 safe driving public-service announcement gains cruel irony when juxtaposed with his subsequent death in a car crash.

A more delicate question emerges when the pitchman's likeness is used in a way that he might never have imagined or endorsed. For example, Diet Coke's 1992 ads featuring creepily colorized clips of 1940's stars lounging in a nightclub and dancing with Paula Abdul almost certainly went against the actors' wishes. While fun to watch, these ads also inspired laws protecting the likeness rights of dead celebrities.

Fifteen years later, those laws came in handy for former rock royalty. In 2007, advertising powerhouse Saatchi & Saachi devised 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 on the campaign, but the families of Joey Ramone and Kurt Cobain were infuriated. Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh, said, "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." Leigh had a point: for Ramone, the concept of lounging in a Christian version of the afterlife would have seemed ironic at best and insulting at worst. AirWair pulled the ads and swiftly fired Saatchi.

While the AirWair and Diet Coke ads are fairly clear cut, the issues aren't always quite so easy to parse. In the case of Orville Redenbacher, the agronomist and popcorn developer became closely associated with his popcorn brand in the 1980's and 1990's when he starred in several highly-successful commercials. Upon his death in 1995, however, the company that bore his name found itself without a clear replacement. Twelve years later, a combination of computer technology and shamelessness resulted in a new spot. In the frightening commercial, a computer-generated, strangely androgynous Redenbacher appeared with an MP3 player and a bag of microwave popcorn in a that horrified numerous cultural critics.

Ironically, Gary Redenbacher's, the dead pitchman's grandson, strongly endorsed the piece, stating that "Grandpa would go for it [...] This is a way to honor his legacy."

The same has been said of Mays, whose eagerness to push a product seemingly knew no bounds. A born salesman, he cut his teeth on the Atlantic City boardwalk, where he learned the art of the pitch from classic old-timers. Like his mentors, Mays crisscrossed the country from State Fairs to home shows to auto shows, working face-to-face with his customers and learning the art of sealing the deal. For Mays, death might have been yet another gimmick -- perhaps the ultimate gimmick -- for drawing in the customer and making the sale.
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