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July 2, 2009
But Wait, There Really is More
Billy Mays is gone, but what can we learn from him?

While much of the world spent time last week lamenting the passage of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, I’d like to pay a little tribute to Billy Mays. If you watched any amount of non-prime-time TV, you couldn’t avoid the dude with the dark black beard and the booming voice. OxiClean, Mighty Mendit, Kaboom!, The Hercules Hook--he pushed a lot of products. He wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last.

It’s easy to make fun of Billy Mays and the other infomercials of the world. They’re loud, they’re pushy, they sell stuff we don’t think we need. But they work—to the tune of billions in sales. They’re more successful than anything that crates home the awards we tend to covet. We love to pride ourselves on uncovering “simple, human truths,” yet a lot of self-indulgent creative work doesn’t reflect that.

I think advertising people of all kinds can find some lessons in what Mays did:

Present the problem, and then present the solution. All in under 2 minutes, too. I’ve had too many clients that promote their services as a “solution” when there’s no real problem, or when they can’t describe what their business actually does. Billy Mays made a career selling the answer to the perils of middle-class modern living—spills, messes, rips, and the trickiness of chopping vegetables. He offered real solutions, no matter how mundane they were.

Make a promise, not an overpromise. Sure, the yelling and selling makes it seem like the product being hawked will save your life, but actually, the promises made in most infomercials are much more mundane. You’ll get out tough stains. You’ll fix those hard-to-mend rips on clothes. While a lot of advertising implies that consumers will be sexier, happier, more powerful or more self-fulfilled, the infomercials only promise something tangible and little else. Which makes them more honest than most ads.

Give me something I can’t get anywhere else. It’s a world of product parity, so much of modern advertising has morphed from giving you a unique product to giving you a unique feeling when you use the product. There was always something different about the products Billy Mays pushed. Or at least he told us there was. It’s not true anymore that you can only get one of those products on TV, but the product was always portrayed as one of a kind. Can you still find that uniqueness for your clients?

There’s little need for long-term brand building. You could argue that Mays himself was a brand, that if you saw him (or heard him) you knew what type of pitch was coming. But the companies behind infomercial products are all about the sell—make it happen, right here, and right now. Which, for better or worse, is now the mindset penetrating traditional types of marketing. More and more clients are gravitating toward this short-term thinking, especially because they themselves have no long-term job security. Clients of all kinds have no patience for advertising that doesn’t boost sales. We need to get used to it.

Be likeable. Even as Billy Mays yelled, he smiled. Yes, some people thought the whole style was abrasive. And sure, it gets annoying after a while. But look at how much other advertising is condescending, insulting, or makes someone the butt of a bad joke. Mays was generally likeable. He sold himself just as much as he sold his products. He was an asset, not an asshole. No one likes buying from an asshole.

Infomercials are a classic mashup of naked salesmanship and basic psychology. And it works. Mays and his type of infomercial are a billion dollar business that’s kept many television stations in business. While we sweat the size of the logo or the subhead that waters down the headline, Mays laughed all the way to the bank. He’s gone, but there are dozens of pitchmen waiting to take his place. And there’ll always be some new product viewers don’t think they need until they see it. Most importantly, TV stations and cable operators are deliriously happy to have that direct response revenue coming in.

Why do so many creative people loathe this type of work? Simple: There’s no comedy, no deft art direction or beautiful cinematography, no hipster sense of irony. The spots are formulaic and rarely deviate. You don’t need reams of creative teams to do that kind of advertising.

But I don’t aspire to do that kind of advertising, and I bet you don’t either. So if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. We’re going to have to do better than Billy Mays and his ilk.

So what can we do? Keep the work simple and uncluttered. Make TV commercials that are worth watching, or at least tolerable. Offer something solid and tangible on behalf of a client. Don’t promise the world in an ad. And while you don’t have to say “buy now” every time, make sure that when someone is ready to buy, your clients have a convenient time and place to make that sale. No, none of that is easy. It’s easier to yell for two minutes and jam a phone number down someone’s ears. We have to be better than that.

Act now. Otherwise our jobs will be around for a limited time only.  

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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