Thursday, March 3, 2011

Where Less Is Better

I was genuinely disheartened by the untimely death of TV pitchman Billy Mays a couple of years ago. For quite a while he was a part of my life in some perverse sort of way. I enjoyed his over-the-top, boardwalk approach to peddling products—everything from laundry soap to super-powerful silly putty to stick-on wall hooks. I must concede that I always stopped what I was doing and watched a Billy Mays' advertisement, even one I had seen countless times and for which I had no particular commercial interest. Billy Mays' moments were anxiety busters, I guess, taking my mind off my troubles for a split-second in time. It was always about the man’s incomparable style, not the particular product he was pitching.

Ah, but once upon a time Billy Mays was merely a commercial spokesperson and familiar face and recognizable voice to millions. We knew little about the man beyond his TV ad persona. In fact, we only knew his name because it was part of his shtick. He always proclaimed, "Hi, Billy Mays here..." before any and all of his pitches. But that was the long and short of our knowledge of the guy, and we weren't much interested in learning anything more, either. We didn't care whether or not Mays was a Republican or a Democrat, or whether he was a meat and potatoes guy or a vegan.

But as the World Wide Web grew wider and wider, and cable television expanded its ever-metastasizing waistline, personalities like Billy Mays could no longer remain contained and personally anonymous. So, no surprise here: Billy got a reality show of his own, which I dutifully watched. He seemed of decent enough character considering his less than savory line of work, but the bloom was definitely off the rose.

Seeing Billy Mays as merely an enthusiastic pitchman thereafter—perhaps overly boisterous on occasion—for a diverse line of merchandise was no longer possible. Having been ushered into the minutia of his television salesman's world shattered for all time what was once a virgin deception. When Billy willingly unmasked himself in this age of celebrity, the bare bones appeals of his commercials could never be watched with the same wide-eyed innocence.

When I first saw a competitor pitchman named Vince plugging a product called ShamWow, I found the ad uncouthly intriguing on some visceral level. But very soon after, I not only learned Vince's full name but a bit more than I really wanted to know about his background. It seemed that ShamWow Vince was a guy named Vince Shlomi with a less than savory history, who subsequently added to his dossier by doing even more repellent things to a certain lady companion. So naturally, I can’t watch a ShamWow commercial today without this information lodged in my brain, and I wouldn't consider purchasing a ShamWow under any circumstances.

Knowing too much about people obviously has its disadvantages. And this doesn’t only apply to big-mouth infomercial talking heads, but actors, businesspersons, spiritual gurus, sports figures, et al. Excessive info cannot help but soil the simple illusion. And simple illusions have their place, particularly now in this—metaphorically speaking—increasingly colder world of ours.

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