Posted on May 30, 2023 in Technology

Can There Be Another Billy Mays?

Or are they all doomed to MilkShake Duck, Crash, and Burn?

Billy Mays Here

I’m sure you’ve seen his ads at least once. Billy Mays was one of the most famous salesmen for everyday household products like the Shamwow and bathtub-ring remover, an amazing salesman famous for both his delivery of his lines and the variety of stuff he’d promoted during his career.

He sold everything. He did it while yelling. His consistently cheery demeanor and intro became a trademark unto himself, a trustworthy salesman in an era where companies weren’t sure they needed a face. He was a staple of phone-order TV products in the period right before everyone had a website they could pitch instead, filling a transient niche. He sadly passed away due to a heart attack in 2009, and nobody has ever been able to take his place.

The Milkshake Duck

A Milkshake Duck refers to a tweet where the poster is presenting a fictional duck that drinks milkshakes, a duck that everybody on the internet loves. The second part of the tweet implies that the tweeter found out the duck is racist only after that duck became famous. Milkshake Ducks are people who become famous for something cute or funny, only for the spotlight to show things from their past they may not have wanted the entire public to see. An unfortunately large number of SNL performers have done blackface, for example, but nobody ever knows until they’re in front of the camera and people want to find out every little detail about them.

Billy Mays appeared during an incredibly unique time in TV history, a time when Twitter was new and celebrities had to really screw up before they’d get called on it. Obviously, this has now changed – while it’s still possible for celebrities to suppress bad news about themselves, it’s much harder to do that when the reporting is crowdsourced by people at varying levels of anonymity.

The question of could we get another Billy Mays is complicated tremendously by this problem.

You have to be a little insane to keep up the constant pep and showmanship Billy Mays had for his commercial. You have to be willing you put your name behind things wholeheartedly, like he did – he claimed he used every product he showed, and many of those products are genuinely good. If they’re not, they’re not poorly made – they’re just not made for everybody. You have to be a ‘Type A’ personality. All of this combines into a person that, simply put, is likely to have gotten into some trouble at some point in their life.

For close comparison, look at the people we saw get big in similar ways after his untimely passing: the Shamwow guy had complaints of domestic violence against him. The MyPillow guy is a notorious conspiracy theorist, but in the racist way, not the fun way. Commercials for products like the Scrub Daddy sponge and other assorted ‘As Seen On TV’ stuff have, instead, gone back to using actors who don’t speak to demonstrate their product with a narrator over the top.

Milkshake Ducks are more common than ever, and the kind of product still using infomercials can’t make it work if they pick the wrong person. It may actually tank all of their marketing to be associated with the wrong person.

Flex Tape

The only man who’s come sort of close to him in recent memory is the Flex Seal guy, Phil Swift. Flex Seal is essentially spray rubber, which has existed, but wasn’t well known outside of construction and underwater sports markets.

All that stuff earlier still applies – he’s a little unhinged. Billy Mays was always shouting, but he always maintained a professional demeanor underneath it. The Flex Seal guy will sometimes pull out a chainsaw and look a little too eager to use it, which is to say – exactly eager enough for people to remember. Nobody could replace Billy Mays because his delivery was unique for the time and imitators have cropped up in his absence, but Phil Swift takes his presentation and tweaks it just enough.

However, while Phil Swift is a close match in this one regard, he doesn’t do the same cross-product stuff that Billy Mays did. Mays had a marketing company that other companies would reach out to, but Phil is employed by Flex Seal specifically. He only does Flex Seal. Finding someone who hits all of the critical points has been difficult at best and impossible at worst. Even when they do find someone, a la Phil Swift, they’re often not willing to go beyond one company like Mays had been. Mays was truly rare – I don’t expect we’ll see another one as technology continues to isolate advertising, both online and on traditional TV.