Dead Man Selling

Billy Mays Dies 1958-2009

For the past month,  I have seen a dead man pitching products on TV.  No, I am not having a Sixth Sense moment. Everyone can see the dead man, not just me.

The dead man is, of course, the famous American pitchman Billy Mays. He is the guy that has sold Americans all sorts of products, such as Oxiclean and Orange Glo. He died recently of heart problems, but his advertisements are still being aired.

Shortly after hearing about his death, I saw one of these ads. Oddly enough, rather than inspiring me to go into a consumer frenzy, the ad gave me a creepy feeling. After all, I knew the man trying to sell me some cell phone attachment was quite dead.

Interestingly, seeing movies that have dead actors in them has never given me that feeling. For example, if I watch an old Bogart film I do not get that creepy feeling. I don’t even get it when the actor died in the course of filming, such as what happened to Brandon Lee during the filming of the Crow.

Obviously, my particular psychological responses are hardly the stuff of philosophical interest. However, I think that the difference in how I feel does point to something that is worthy of philosophical consideration.

In the case of the commercials, while Mays might be playing his pitch man role, it is him selling the product. That is, he is there as himself, an enthusiastic and cheerful fellow who would really like you to buy all the stuff he is pitching.

In the case of the movies, the dead actor was playing a role of a meaningfully different order and this seems to create sort of a psychological buffer. To be a bit more specific, the character the dead actor played has a virtual life of its own (and perhaps even virtual death) and continues to exist as a fictional being.

In contrast, it is just Billy Mays, the dead man, whose recorded image is still pitching products. There is no buffer, no fictional being. Just someone I know is dead. Hence, the creepy feeling.

From a moral standpoint, there seems to be nothing really wrong with the ads remaining on television. After all, he no doubt contracted for a certain run and the fact that he is now dead would not seem to change that contract. Of course, there might seem something vaguely wrong about keeping a man working after his death. Certainly, it is just his recorded image, a digital ghost, that is doing the pitching. But perhaps even digital ghosts deserve to be laid to rest.

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  1. How about this one. Suppose the pitchman is your best friend’s father who’s been dead for a year. Seriously, this happened to me. And the funny thing is is that I was across the country from where the pitchman (my best friend’s dad) and I lived when this happened. Sitting in the living room with one of *my* father’s highschool friends the commercial just appeared on TV. Now that was kind of creepy and kind of nice to see him again too.

  2. I once read from a book, that the background laughter of audience they use on some TV-shows is recorded and not live. Since it was recorded some decades ago, there is a chance that what you actually hear is the laughter of dead people.

    But’ll admit that while I have high level of trust in the athor of mentioned book and in his research, I should say it was a fiction book.

  3. Could be fiction. But I’d put my trust in that author’s conclusions. However, if the canned laughter on some TV-shows was from people who hadn’t been born yet…

  4. Hi Mike,
    I work out at the club house of our community on the stationary bike with earphones on, “listening” to music and reading a book. This morning I happened to look at the TV, which is always on, and there was Mays being interviewed. No eeriness at all, just annoyance, not from what he was saying, my earphones work pretty well, but from the fact a person I found one of the most annoying in the whole world just keeps going on even though he’s dead. I’m a cold SOB and admit to feeling some relief when I heard Mays had died. I don’t go around wishing people dead – not hardly ever – but if someone who I find abrasive to my peace of mind has the good grace to die, who am I to feel guilty about my good luck?
    Why has this person become a folk hero? Another Joe the plumber. Am I the only one who wants to see the last of him and his afterlife?

  5. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman considers the “masks” we don in different contexts – why we use those masks, how they affect our communication/interaction with others, et cetera.

    I’ve never considered his work in quite this light, though it is interesting to do so.

  6. Interesting Ashley. It definitely seems like Mays was wearing some good masks over some bad habits. Also interesting to think about the presentation of the self with all of the mediation of immediacy that goes on with our “advanced” technology and things brought about by Web 2.0.

  7. Gloria Hutchinson

    It is unbelievable that Billy Mays, man dead man, for many months now, is still advertiszing products, digital pictures are not. It just goes to show that you can not believe what an American said, whether is dead or alive. It is have to tell the difference between truth and fiction these days. All I can say it is a disgrace, contract or no contract. There are many living people out there who need a job, even if they would use a look alike. They need to stop, it gives me the creeps when his ads come on, I switch channel

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