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Everyone’s selling something

The plight of the inadvertent pitchman.

A desk set up with a computer, headphones, and a recording microphone. Getty Images

Liv Albert’s Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby podcast holds up a magnifying glass to the tall tales of ancient Greek folklore. Every week she writes, records, and produces a 30-minute show that narrates an Olympian comedy or tragedy through a feminist perspective. (Eurydice, Penelope, and Ampelus have all been featured players.) Like many podcasters, Albert worked for years as a minor player in the field as she slowly built up a loyal community of listeners. Like many one-woman productions, Myths would be unsustainable if Albert didn’t find a way to transform it into a full-time job, so when the promotional firm AdvertiseCast reached out to her in 2018 bearing a catalog of commercial live-reads, she agreed to the terms. By 2020, she could officially call the podcast her primary source of income. Albert tells me she “struggled” with hawking a bevy of sunblocks, tinctures, and deodorants to her flock, but this was a way to keep the lights on.

“I’m somebody who never planned on ever reading ads aloud and convincing people to buy something,” says Albert. “Some of the products I legitimately do like, and some of them I have to sound like I do, but I also don’t ever want to lie. It’s like a juggling act. I’m not lying, but I’m also not telling you if I fully like a product. It’s such an odd thing.”

Albert tells me this transition was tricky at first. The initial ad opportunity she received, long before Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby became her job, was for a Viagra-like “male enhancement” pill. Imagine that: 15 minutes on the shrewdness of Athena, interrupted with a brief aside about erectile dysfunction. (Albert turned down the offer.) Like everyone else who’s been hoisted into an inadvertent pitchwoman role, she needed to find space for her mercenary voice within her genial, intimate Classics lessons. That’s a tenuous squeeze, but she didn’t feel like she had a choice.

“Most people recognize that the podcast hosts are just making money for the stuff they’re giving away for free,” says Albert. “I’m good at separating myself from the people who don’t recognize that. I’m not going to bend over backward to try and get you to be okay with the fact that I’m making money off of this free show. … But a lot of people are lovely. If you’re listening to a feminist Greek mythology podcast, you’re there for a reason, and that reason is to not complain about ads.”

This is the reality of the advertising industry in 2021. It has never been easier to stumble into a small plot of viral fame. New podcasts spring out of the ground every day with readymade audiences; YouTube channels catch the algorithm off guard and soar up the charts. There’s a kid from New Jersey who GoPros himself making Subway sandwiches on TikTok. He currently has 4.2 million followers. Suddenly, sponsors start to circle, laden with free swag or thick checkbooks, and these overnight success stories take on a quality of corporatization. A nascent social media phenomenon must fold the language of the carnival barker into the relationship they’ve built with their following and hope to find a stable balance.

“I wanted to make sure that I didn’t come off as obnoxious or over-the-top or that I’m just trying to get paid,” says Albert. “But at the same time, I wanted to make people realize that I deserved to get paid because of how much effort and research goes into the show.”

The era of the vintage pitchman — Billy Mays in a blue button-down shouting about a griddle that can cook five burgers at once — is over. Today, those duties are left to people who’ve had no formal training in the field, and a new ecosystem, rife with ambiguities and gray areas, has taken hold.

Greg Miller used to work as a video game critic at IGN. In 2012, he started hosting a games-centric talk show on IGN called Up at Noon, which earned a few sponsorship bids from game publishers around the industry. For the first time in his life, Miller had to read ad copy, which prompted his bosses to (amicably) remove him from his journalistic duties. There was a strictly enforced separation between church and state in those days, but many of those old-school ethical boundaries have long faded into the background. Bill Simmons opens every one of his two-hour podcast shows with an acknowledgment of MeUndies or Stamps.com or Miller Lite. The Pod Save America boys, composed of various former Obama staffers, routinely take five-minute breaks to banter about plant-based artificial eggs. And sure enough, when Miller left IGN and Up at Noon in 2015 with his new geek-culture podcasting network Kinda Funny, he too needed to hone his skills as a pitchguy.

“I remember we started with a livestream after announcing Kinda Funny, where we fielded questions from the audience, and 30 minutes in, someone was asking what our ethics policy was,” Miller said in an interview with Vox. “We didn’t really think about it or talk about it. It’s one of those things where you’ll just know [when we’re doing an ad campaign]. We’ll talk to you. We’re never going to take the money just to take the money.”

Miller is referring to the unique intimacy that exists between a tight-knit podcasting staff and their most loyal listeners. After absorbing the same personalities for hundreds of hours between workouts and commutes, it’s easy for members of a fandom to start recognizing the people behind the microphone as part of their own social circles. There’s an implicit trust that our favorite quasi-influencers will never lead us astray, in the same way that we trust our actual friends won’t lead us astray.

According to Miller, that dynamic is crucial whenever he allows an advertiser to use him as a mouthpiece. He knows instinctively what pitchman opportunities will come off hollow, cynical, and incongruous with the community he’s built. In fact, Miller says he and his team are faithful customers of many of the companies they’ve advertised for on Kinda Funny and that they’ve rejected plenty that didn’t fit. It’s the same methodology Liv Albert applies to her ads: Miller is exceedingly aware of exactly who’s watching him in a way the infomercial hosts of the past never needed to consider.

Early in the Kinda Funny run, Miller earned a sponsorship from Portillo’s, a legendary Chicago chain known for their obscenely jus-soaked Italian beef sandwiches. Miller is from Illinois and has made his longstanding love affair with Portillo’s a core part of his personal brand. When the deal came through, his fans were ecstatic — as if Portillo’s patronage accentuated and validated the things they already adored about him. “The reactions were like, ‘Oh my god, this finally happened!’ Nobody was calling me a sellout,” he says. “Portillo’s knew we were fans of them, but I don’t know if they understood that our fans love the things that I’m a fan of.”

Miller points to television host Conan O’Brien, who also does live ad-reads on his podcast but comes from a much different, more formalized showman tradition. When Conan reads off his script, says Miller, you don’t expect him to have a personal relationship with the product. He’s too Hollywood, too old-school, too genuinely famous in a distinctly offline way. That limit rarely applies in the realm of inadvertent pitchmen; if the listener believes they know you, then they also believe that you aren’t selling them a bill of goods.

But the breeziness that Miller speaks with isn’t natural to everyone. Take Emily Griffin, who boasts 4,800 followers on Instagram, 6,700 on Twitter, and spends most of her time online sharing her dreamy, pastel-heavy illustrations of her favorite subjects (cumulus clouds, boba tea, the state of Texas). Every once in a while, Griffin accepts a gift from an enterprising startup with the promise that she will write a quick review of their wares on her social feeds. In late January, Griffin appeared on her Instagram holding a tube of BareMinerals foundation parallel to her face: “Can’t wait to wear this guy in sunnier weather one day soon!” A few months earlier, with a Garnier hair mask: “It had a gorgeous scent literally just like a papaya, and felt soft and not greasy in my curls.”

Like many young people, Griffin always wanted to have a lot of followers, but she tells me that today, the idea of being a straight-up “influencer” gives her anxiety. Instead, Griffin believes a certain apogee of social clout could help her with her job — leading to more opportunities and higher rates for her design work. She signed up with a low-key agency called Influenster that connects companies with internet personalities willing to post about their inventory. Once the skin care cartel gets your email, the product placement opportunities come fast and furious.

Griffin is still navigating how this pivot makes her feel. After all, a lot of the content on her Instagram page remains starkly personal. Transitioning to a part-time pitch person, she says, can be pretty awkward.

“No matter how I try to phrase it, I think [making those posts] is always gonna feel a bit cheesy and uncomfortable to me,” says Griffin. “I’m not making bank off of this, I just occasionally get messages about getting a free bra in the mail and I am bored at home during Covid and I think, ‘Okay yeah, I’ll take a cute new bra for the price of one post on my Instagram where I can say whatever I want.’”

I was curious if that same attitude permeated the proper pitchmen of yore. How much faith do they have in their stock? Do they ever feel self-conscious while they’re hawking Mighty Putty? In my years watching infomercials, I never knew for sure if Billy Mays possessed a genuine fondness for his product line, or whether he regarded his legacy of gadgets with absolute grifter contempt. So I reached out to Marc Gill, a professional pitchman who got his start as a trade show hawker before leveling up to the Home Shopping Network. (You can routinely catch him in the witching hour, demonstrating the myriad benefits of keeping a plastic meatball mold in the kitchen.) I wanted to know if he ever found himself in a position that someone like Greg Miller categorically avoids. Does he ever need to pitch a product he thinks is functionally useless?

“If we’re talking about a product I wouldn’t have in my house, that’s inconsequential. I’m a trained actor, and one thing a trained actor learns immediately is to never judge your character. If I’m playing a serial killer, I’m not going to think he’s a bad guy because it would screw up my performance,” says Gill. “But if we’re talking about a product I don’t believe in? I’ll walk away. If I can’t get a product to do what I need it to do, then we need to go back to the drawing board.”

Gill notes that the technique he specializes in — a guy with a booming voice standing in a soundstage with a ShamWow — is a dying art. Classic cable television is slowly going extinct. Seriously, consider how long it’s been since you’ve fallen into a feverish QVC wormhole. That apparatus has been offloaded to amateur, usually social media-based pitchmen, who stumble into the job almost accidentally and do not carry nearly the same career bona fides as someone like Gill.

“A seasoned pitch person is really good at making your product look really good,” says Gill. “When the pendulum swings back, I think marketers are going to realize that there’s a lot of value in a person who’s able to walk a customer to a sale. That’s one of the biggest things that the ‘influencers’ are missing: the ability to close the sale.”

Gill reminds me of something that Griffin said toward the end of our interview. She herself isn’t a huge fan of Instagram and how it emphasizes facile consumerism in a way that makes you hate your body and your brain. If 10 brands she adored came to her bearing gifts, she explains, she’d still turn down some of them to stay grounded. “It’s important to me to not push endless buying,” says Griffin, “or an empty image of having a beautiful aesthetic life full of the hottest new influencer products on my page.” These are the unseemly contradictions of the creator economy; so many of these not-quite-pitchmen are forced to consider these questions of the soul every day. How do you capitalize on your clout while still recognizing yourself in the mirror? For some, it seems, there is no satisfying answer.

In that sense, perhaps we really did lose something crucial with the death of the conventional pitchmen. There was no dubiousness in your relationship with Billy Mays, no delicate fusion of the personal and the professional. He was the seller, and you were the buyer. Wasn’t it all so simple then?

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