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Billy Mays: quintessentially American

He offered not just a product but an entire life of do-it-yourself, business-casual, suburban ease.

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It's almost impossible to go a full day without hearing the words "Hi, Billy Mays here" at least once. For over a decade, Billy Mays pitched everything from laundry detergents to Mighty Putty, Hercules Hooks to health insurance, to the television-viewing public. He was neither an inventor-salesman like Ron Popeil nor a celebrity endorser like Suzanne Somers; instead, he used his talent for working a crowd and an infinite capacity for shouting (he insisted that it was "projecting") in order to become the best-known and by far the loudest practitioner of the old-school hard sell.

He succeeded in spite of the cookie-cutter ads and the questionably useful devices and chemicals he peddled, simply because he understood how to turn an infomercial into something more visceral, almost subliminal. Before Mr. Mays, no one worried too much about their inability to cook minihamburgers four at a time or mount artwork to walls without a hammer and nails. But after a few seconds of watching housewives struggle with these esoteric problems in black and white, there he was to save us from our own ignorance, with a product guaranteed to change our life, available now through this exclusive TV offer for only $19.95. But if you call in the next five minutes...

He was a sort of real-life Al Borland from "Home Improvement," and although his uniform was blue denim and khaki, he still existed mainly to give us sincere advice about problems we didn't even know we had. He spoke to us from sets that featured plain bathroom fixtures and plastic laminate countertops, generic enough to be middle-class and never flashy enough to inspire jealousy (you'd never see him behind a gas stove, for example). In other words, Mays offered not just a product but an entire life of do-it-yourself, business-casual, suburban ease. For two minutes at a time, he all but dared us to pass up the promise of social mobility embodied in a little plastic gadget or a tub of chemicals.


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