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Billy Mays pitches from beyond the grave

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Two new commercials he filmed before his June 28 death will debut soon, and some older ads will continue airing.

July 10, 2009|W.J. Hennigan

Even in death, Billy Mays' powers of persuasion will live on.

Mighty Tape will continue to save the day. Mighty Mendit will fix your clothes.

The booming, bearded TV-pitchman died nearly two weeks ago of complications from heart disease, and his ever-present spots were pulled from their perches on late-night and cable TV.

But the pitch must go on, and Mays has returned in TV commercials filmed before his June 28 passing.

Two new Mays commercials -- for Mighty Tape and the Mighty Putty Super Pack -- will debut over the next two weeks, said Bill McAlister, president of Media Enterprises, the marketing company behind the Mighty Brand pitches.

Older commercials began airing again this week for other products, including a health insurance plan.

"Billy didn't shoot the commercials for them not to air," said Roger Pliakas, attorney for Mays Promotions Inc. "He shot commercials to roll the products out and make money for his business partners."

Sales of Mighty products have increased about 25% since Mays' death, McAlister said. It's unclear whether Mays' death inspired the jump, he said, but so far consumers are not wary of buying products with his name and face attached.

"We didn't know what to anticipate," McAlister said. "But we've gotten such a great response that we decided to go forward with the ads."

Eli Portnoy, chief brand strategist at Los Angeles-based branding firm Portnoy Group Inc., said it's pretty normal for a brand to see a jump in sales after it's been in the news. The question is whether the brand can sustain the increase in interest or whether the notoriety will turn against it.

"There comes a point that consumers might be put off by the brand and start thinking that the company is trying to cash in on his death," Portnoy said. "So they'll have to tread lightly."

Mays worked with dozens of companies over a 27-year career, famously pitching for brands like Orange Glo and OxiClean.

Many of them have not yet decided whether to return his commercials to TV.

Mays, Portnoy said, was a pitchman. He sold for a living. So consumers might not be as inclined to turn away as they would if another celebrity who passed way was trotted out to push a product.

But Anthony "Sully" Sullivan, Mays' business partner and longtime friend, said Mays, who died suddenly at 50, would want the commercials to continue airing.

"Billy loved being on camera. He loved making money for the companies that hired him," Sullivan said. "He'd roll over in his grave if the ads were being pulled off the air."

Sullivan and Mays have been responsible for more than $1 billion in combined sales, according to Fortune magazine. The pair's business exploits are documented in the Discovery Channel series "Pitchmen." Sullivan anticipates that the business will take a hit without Mays.

In his last commercial, for the Media Enterprises household product Mighty Tape, Mays is seen in his signature royal blue shirt and khaki pants, demonstrating the product on a leaking kitchen drain pipe.

"Just stretch, wrap and it fuses fast," he says in the commercial.

Mays is later seen underwater -- still in his trademark outfit, with the addition of scuba gear -- as he repairs a hole in another diver's air hose with Mighty Tape.

Showmanship like that is hard to come by. But Sullivan says he will continue Mays' legacy, even if he has to get in front of the camera himself.

"There will never be another Billy Mays," he said, choking back tears. "He's an American original. But business must go on. Billy would want it that way."

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william.hennigan@latimes.com

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