by Paul Rule
There’s something about “the pitch” that fascinates me. Billy Mays was probably the greatest TV pitchman. His hard-driving, move-the-merchandise-now approach was as basic as advertising and selling gets.
My first paying job in broadcasting involved direct sales. It was the summer between high school graduation and my first year of college. I hired on at a radio station as a minimum-wage gofer. I worked nights, and one of my duties was taking the direct-marketing phone calls.
Few of the station’s regular advertisers wanted their commercials run at night. Most people watch TV in the evening and the radio audience is slim, so we filled the breaks with direct sales “pitch” commercials. We called them “PI” spots, which stood for Per Inquiry. Rather than being paid a regular rate, the station was paid for each order, or “inquiry” that the station received.
This was before 800-number toll-free calling centers or online ordering. Customers would call the station that ran the commercial. It was my job to take these calls, which then would be passed along to the advertiser who filled the orders. If you were a bit pudgy, we ran a pitch for a product that was supposed to help you lose weight. Underweight? We had one that would help you put on some pounds. Our best one was a health insurance company that paid us five bucks for the contact info on each prospect that called in saying they wanted more details about the product.
I even worked the idea into my short-lived stand-up comedy career. It was a pitch for a mythical product that would instantly trim off 10 pounds with each pill that you took. I cautioned prospective customers of the danger of taking too many, such as the man who weighed 300 pounds and swallowed pills by the handful until he had taken 35. He not only disappeared completely, he left a hole in the ground 10 feet deep.
Pitchmen have helped keep us honest as purveyors of media and advertising. They remind us that much of what we do has a lineage dating back to medicine shows. The entertainment draws the crowd. The pitchman sells them the elixir. Mays captured the magic of being both the show and the pitch. He’ll be missed.
Maybe I’ve seen and heard too many pitch commercials. I have this fear that someday I’ll be struggling with the problem of earwax buildup. There’ll be a knock on the door. I’ll answer it, and there will stand the ghost of Billy Mays holding the Awesome Auger.
Paul Rule is President of Marquest Media Research.