Friday, June 12, 2009

1990s Product Flops

Now and then, a product comes along that for some reason is forever remembered as a bona fide flop. Sure, 80% of new product launches fail, but sometimes things fail so publicly and so embarrassingly that we have no choice other than to mock it profusely with the added and unfair hindsight retrovision of 20/20.

In some cases, these were actual viable inventions and ideas that for some reason or another either failed to take off or suffered misguided marketing strategies. Whatever the reason, these flops were the original Fail (yes, with a capital F.)

This handy example of incredibly adorable failure brought to you by the ever-reliable


Technology is a funny thing. You never really know toward which direction the tides of public opinion will gravitate. At one moment, your new technological innovation seems poised for greatness and the next, well, they're using your product to line litter boxes and horse corrals. Something that seemed like such a great idea at the moment of conception can fail to ever pick up real speed with consumers.

The Sony Minidisc is the perfect example. Looking at one now, it appears semi-ridiculously to resemble a shrinky-dinked (shrinky dunk?) compact disc. In 1992, Sony had confidence that the minidisc was the technology to overtake the scratchy quality audiocassette market. Sony was all hyped up on residual gloating from their success in their Walkman venture, and was certain that their expensive technology (around $550 for a player, $750 for one with recording capabilities) would immediately fill the void of The Next Big Thing.

While the product itself certainly had its technological brag points, Sony failed to consider that the young musically-minded generation they were targeting did not generally posess the necessary capital means to buy it. In short: it was way out of the reach of young people's budgets, and its unfortunate release timing collided poorly with the rise of CDs. Then again, now that the CD market is nearly obsolete itself, it's not looking too sunny on that front either, so no one really wins. Okay, except maybe Apple and their 200 million iPods sold. Touche, Apple.

McDonald's Arch Deluxe

Please allow me to point out the numerous ways in which this diagram is riddled with contradictions. 1. How can a bun be defined both homestyle and bakery? How, I ask you? 2. If the sauce is so secret, how come you just told me what was in it? 3. How exactly does ketchup become "extra fancy?" Does each packet come with a miniature bowtie and monocle?

In 1996, fast food giant McDonald's felt they needed a makeover. No, they weren't seeking to cut back on use of fatty oils and unhealthy ingredients; rather, they wanted to better target an "adult" audience (I'm not exactly sure why those quotation marks are there, I assume they indicate McD's was suffering from too many cash-toting toddlers stopping in for burgers or they felt they weren't reaching their selling potential with adult film stars.) Its tagline was "Arch Deluxe: The Burger with the Grown-Up Taste."

In this case, this vague age demographic failed to recognize any value in differentiating their burgers from those that came in a colorful cardboard Happy Meals carton. There was a major commercial push to corner this so-called grown-up market, but the critical level of demand was not necessarily present. As if pouring buckets of ill-fated cash into an irrelevant and unnecessary product weren't enough, McDonald's also felt that their adult consumer base wanted (again, where they got this data, I do not know) a more sophisticated ad campaign. No more Grimace and Hamburglers for these high-class burger buyers.

These ads, however, were misguided attempts to distinguish the AD as catered to a mature palate. The TV spots featured children poking at the supposedly premier ingredients, commenting with bewilderment, "I don't get it," and referring to the burger in question as "yucky." Well played, McDonalds. Everyone knows a sophisticated adult loves for their food to be publicly declared inedible. Well played indeed.

OK Soda

Another tragic victim of unconventional advertising techniques and hazy target demographics, OK soda was a short-lived beverage experiment executed by the Coca-Cola company in 1994. The best part of the whole thing is that they went with the ad guy from the New Coke campaign. I guess they really, really, really liked this guy, because he already cost them millions of dollars in failed marketing. I imagine the Coke execs seated around the conference room table and musing, "Well, he's a good guy, let's give him another shot. Financial and publicity disaster aside, I always thought he did something pretty special for us here at the Coca-Cola company."

OK Soda was a sort of existential experiment into youth marketing. Youth Culture--particularly in the moody, grungy mid 90s--was by design inherently opposed to mainstream attempts to lure them in via hackneyed advertising strategies. The Coke marketers thought that since irony was so in at the moment, they would just overtly court the teen market in a completely unsubtle, overstated way. They even had an 800-number to which angsty teens could call in and leave deadpan, disillusioned messages which could someday be mainstreamed into a national commercial, virtually cancelling out any Generation X-style irreverent credibility of the caller.

Unfortunately for Coca-Cola, young people are usually smarter than adults give them credit for. I suppose only the coolest of the cool teenagers would have liked OK Soda on the multi-layered levels of irony that your average teen poseur failed to comprehend. That is, it's ironic to actually like the thing that adults are trying so hard to make into something ironic, which is ironic in itself. Then again, 90s teens were generally misinformed on the actual meaning of irony, as Alanis Morrisette had given them zero examples of it in her song "Ironic". Which is also ironic. Don't you think?

Microsoft WebTV

Not as well-remembered as the others, WebTV was once on the verge of being the next major entertainment technology leap. Don't let the name fool you based on your current knowledge and context of the internet: Web TV was not TV on your computer. Instead, it was computer (well, internet) on your TV.

In the late 90s, some tech giants (namely Microsoft, who acquired WebTV in a $425 million deal) believed that all that people really wanted was to check emails and browse online on their living room TV sets. The theory behind WebTV was partially derived from the same dumbed-down message you see today in those Jitterbug-brand cell phone service commercials. It's based on the notion that certain (read: old) people are frightened of new and unfamiliar technology and it has to be somehow brought down to their technologically-illiterate level.

This is, in theory, a viable marketing concept with a real, defined demographic. However, the tiny aspect Microsoft overlooked is that these people were not suddenly going to flourish on internet-shopping, banner ad-clicking, viable members of the web community. Instead, they actually became a tedious burden of call-center nightmares who failed to comprehend even the most basic of troubleshooting strategies. Then again, what did they expect? These people were used to their TVs being TVs, not computers.

So to these formerly flopping companies, we salute you for your misguidedness. Despite the relatively low long-term economic impact, these flops speak loudly to the unsavory expectations that these corporations had of us as consumers of the 90s as needlessly spending, sophisticated-burger craving, quadruply ironic, technologically deficient simpletons.

Lucky for us, most of these expectations turned out to be false, but it never hurts to get retrospectively outraged and insulted from time to time. If only Coca-Cola had maintained their 1-800-IFEELOK hotline so we'd all have a place to express it.

In case you thought I had somehow forgotten the epic failure of Crystal Pepsi, fear not: I have already devoted a full-length rant-filled post to it. Peruse at your leisure.


Miss HoneyDew said...

hahaha I had WebTV!

KekeLynn said...

yeah, never really thought the WebTV would take off...

Nic said...

As soon as I saw the title 'Product Flops' I thought, "Minidiscs!"
Haha. So thanks for featuring them, I'm glad someone else remembers them too. They seemed like such a good idea at the time, didn't they? They were all set to be The Next Big Thing but then they just...disappeared.

Couture Carrie said...

Hah! Love this post.... Why didn't mini-discs take off? Technology can be so fickle!


Lil' Woman said...

My 90 year old (at the time) aunt had a WebTv back in the day..she is now 102 and still doesnt know how to use it.

Badass Geek said...

Hey, Mini-discs weren't all that bad. I had a mini-disc player not too long ago, and I loved it. They're good for some uses, just not practical for everybody.

Amber (Girl with the red hair) said...

I don't really remember any of those things! Probably because they failed so badly! That McDonalds burger is interesting though... I wonder who there marketing team was to come up with that crap! Ha!

Needs Help said...

ha I had forgotten all about these! I remember in college one friend got an mp3 player and another had a mini disc player, the guy with the mini disc player was alway bragging about it. I'm laughing just thinking about it now!!

lovelila said...

I never had a minidisc, but I remember my hatred for them, haha! UGH!!!

sexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ReRe said...

oh, the arch deluxe was soooooooooo BAD. and that's saying a lot considering it's source.

Katie said...

Funny post as always. I'm also glad that you mentioned Crystal Pepsi, I was wondering why it wasn't mentioned on the post!

outpostroad said...

I worked at McDonald's for five long years back in the day. I was so glad when Arch Deluxes were discontinued. I could never remember how to make them because nobody ever bought them. Once a month or so I'd have to get out the diagram and make an Arch Deluxe for some old woman.

David Stock said...

What's with the OK Soda? I think I haven't came across this one..

Anonymous said...

Omg... i loved the Arch Deluxe and I was prolly 13 around the time.. i've been craving one ever since they discontinued it; it was also around the time mcdonalds monopoly was big

another 90s fail that comes to mind is the dreamcast, which was also ridiculously overpriced for the times.

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