Given the extreme level of cockiness commonly found among the one-percenters and people in the business world more generally, I find the occasional thorough, public humiliation to be cathartic. I get a hearty laugh out of watching the self-styled masters of the universe fail miserably. It goes without saying, then, that I (and presumably many other customers) enjoyed a few gut-laughs when Netflix announced, tail tucked between its legs, that it would not in fact be reaming its customers launching "Qwikster" after all. This is impressive; there have been many product failures and commercial flops over the years, but very few so egregiously bad that they flopped before they even existed.

While Netflix probably is not important enough for this to qualify as the Edsel of our generation, there's never a bad reason to look back and chuckle at the Edsel again. Contrary to popular belief, the Edsel was not a bad car, or at least no worse than any other Ford vehicle of its era. Its failure is often blamed on the inability to carve out a market niche, since Edsels were priced almost identical to Ford and Mercury models. More integral to its failure, in my opinion, was the giant chrome vagina it called a grille.

The 1959 Edsel Cooter

While highly publicized flops like the Edsel or New Coke are part of our lexicon, there are far more amusing examples to be plucked from history. Anyone remember Pepsi A.M., the soda with 50% more caffeine targeted at "the breakfast cola drinker" market? It was released in 1989 and killed almost immediately when they realized that people who slam Pepsi for breakfast aren't that particular and do not require a special beverage.

This existed.

Technologies like Betamax, Sony HiFD, or HD DVD are often the butt of jokes, but their only real sin was losing a format war. Not much shame in that. Isn't it much more fun to mock DIVX (not to be confused with the video codec of the same name), the lead balloon that dragged Circuit City into bankruptcy? The idea was that instead of renting movies, people would pay $3-5 for a disc that could only be viewed within 48 hours of whenever it was first played. To watch the movie again after that, the buyer would need to pay a "continuation fee." The only surprising thing about this monstrous affront to common sense was that Circuit City managed to sell 100,000 DIVX players (incompatible with regular DVDs) before pulling the plug.

Dot-com failures were pretty epic, and we tend to remember for some reason. I find the saga of WebVan more amusing, wherein the company principals spent over one billion dollars building warehouses (to meet demand!) before any sales or customers existed. The home grocery delivery scheme has later been copied with limited success (Is PeaPod still around?) but WebVan, shockingly, did not make it. I cannot fathom the amount of cocaine these guys must have been doing to make the billion dollars in overhead spending seem like a good idea before the company had earned its first dollar in revenue.

In honor of Steve Jobs, we should also mention the Apple Newton and, in the spirit of fairness and balance, Microsoft WebTV. Hell, there are just too many gigantic failures to name them all. Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water (!!!). The Bricklin SV-1, the car so bad it brought down a government. Montreal-Mirabel Airport – so enormous that it's visible from space, yet vacant from almost the moment it opened. The XFL. You're not alone, Qwikster.

I've done what I can here. Now it's your turn to take the ball and run with it.

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68 thoughts on “NPF: FLOPPY”

  • Crystal Pepsi, Lifesavers soda…seriously, how was the a real thing and not a Simpsons gag?

    Also, maybe the biggest flop ever: The Paperless Society

  • Well, the Newton was just too far ahead of its time; a failure, but I think Apple's probably better off in the long run for having done it. And Pepsi AM is just a marketing failure; change AM to PM and you've got yourself an energy drink.

    My pick is Bud B2e (pron. "b to the e"), a beer energy drink. I attended a focus group for this. The worst-case scenario my group gave them, when they explained the concept and asked what we expected, was that it would taste like bud lite mixed with Red Bull, which is obviously the stupidest idea ever, even if you like Bud AND Red Bull separately.

    Of course that's exactly what it tasted like. Apparently the cretins behind this thought that you couldn't have a Bud energy drink that didn't taste EXACTLY like the two ("guys, I have this great idea… pizza PLUS cocaine"). Fortunately, it died a quick inevitable death.

  • I absolutely love the spirit of this article. As a guy who was front and center during the dot com boom, I can only marvel at the level of bullshit that a human can not only endure but embrace once you decide to let go of 10,000 years of history. "Sure, conventionally this looks like a giant pile of shit but ou forget that this is the new economy…"

    As i become a miserable old fuck, I tend to look back into history and realize the wisdom of my elders. Energy drinks are legalized cocaine, alcohol plus cocaine = giant alcohol sales to wide awake drunks, electronic format winners and losers are not determined by what is better but by which format owner is less greedy, and, ultimately, while I enjoy the thought of a giant snatch on my car, I still far it will equate me with being a pussy.

    Tits, however, look great on just about anything, Check out these chrome jugs on a 1955 Cadillac.

  • Well, Jobs wasn't at Apple when they came out with the Newton. If you want to lay a turd at his feet, it would have to be the G4 Cube, the computer that thought it was a toaster.

  • We remember the fiasco because of stuff like this:

    The fact that there is not a Youtube video of the sock puppet crooning "Three Times a Lady" to Diane Sawyer is the most concrete proof we have that the internet is not a free medium and is heavily policed by corporate interests.

    Fun fact: the puppet was voiced by Michael Ian Black!

    I'd write more about but I have an appointment to eat up Martha, according to my Newton.

  • Urgh… Clamato. I once spent a few months in Vancouver around NHL playoff time. People kept buying me bloody marys and other Clamato-spiked beverages while we watched ice hockey. So there's TWO reasons I equate Vancouver with choking.

    What about the MiniDisc? Kinda falls into ed's "lost a format war" catagory, but still. Remember those insufferable early-adopter fucks being shocked that you were still stuck with your gigantic, outmoded cds?

  • I've actually flown into Mirabel. Between us and a couple other freight carriers that's about all the use it gets.

    There's this creepy, post-apocalyptic feel to the place because everything is there except the people.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I have two nominees:
    1. The McPizza!
    Carefully researched, and backed with plenty of marketing, it scared the pizza chains into lowering prices when it first came out.
    The chains needn't have worried. It, took so long to make, it pissed-off "fast" food customers.
    And then, even after all of the careful research, they discovered the damn thing wouldn't fit horizontally through the drive-through window.
    If I were in charge of the fiasco, I'd have tried to save face by folding the damn things in half, calling them McPizza Taco's, and gone after Taco Bell as well as the pizza chains. If you're going down, go down in flames – big ones!

    2. Time Warner Cellphone Service.
    When launched in 2005 or '06, I think, it was an inmitigated disaster.
    The company had just recently launched regular phone service, so the customer base confused the products. People were calling in for one, when they wanted the other.
    It was partnered with Sprint, and there was little, if any, price advantage. The ordering process was an absolute nightmare for customers – a two step process between TWC and Spring. The TWC CSR's, already underpaid, overworked, and had enough other complex shit to do, were expected to add yet another complicated procedure for almost no extra commission if they actually did sell the damned thing.
    The only advantage to the customer – and that was a couple of years off – was that you'd be able to program your DVR, and maybe watch a few clips of different channels, on your phone. And of course, NOT all phones were compatible.
    And the only TWC money was going to make, since Sprint was going to make all, ALL, of the money from the montly charges, was the little booties, and other spare tchatchka's that people might order. Might…
    It was soon stopped, the poor customers who had been foolish enough to order the product were rolled-over to Sprint, who gouged them – just 'cause they could.

    And the Edsel was actually a fine car! And yeah, it was the girly-grill that killed it. On the other hand, It's failure, I think, hastened the launch of the Mustang, which was originally designed as a pony car more for gals than guys – before it later became a muscle car designed for men who wanted to fool people that their dicks weren't as small as nature made them.

  • If you want to succeed, double your failure rate. –Thomas Watson

    What IBM's Watson said applies not only to getting job applications rejected but failing at New Products. Still, some of the failures are pretty funny in retrospect.

    I always liked the late Studebaker designs, though. Car designs went for timid conformity for years after. Then came the VW beetle and everybody laughed. Well, not quite everybody.

  • squirrelhugger says:

    Vagina up front makes you a pussy? Every time I'm in back of a center-tailpipe Boxster there's only one thing to think– asshole.

  • I actually have a 1957 Desoto.

    People often put Desoto in the same category as the Edsel, but there really wasn't anything wrong with Desoto. They just occupied a small niche between Dodge and Chrysler that was squeezed out when they started making higher-end Dodges and lower-end Chryslers.

    Note: this was back when a Chrysler was considered to be something special. Driving a Chrysler in the 1950s was roughly equivalent to driving a Lexus today.

  • I've heard the Edsel grill described as looking like a cow's cunt, and a car salesman claimed the large trunk on a 1978 Monte Carlo was so you could carry enough booze to forget how ugly it was. And how could we forget the Vega, the car that existed to boost the self esteem of Pinto owners. Put these on the list: Atari 5200, Apple III, Commodore C128 and IBM PC jr. The McDonalds McRib was particularly loathsome.

  • The Vega with the self-destruct engine. The more you bitched the less it cost you to replace the engine.

    The Edsel also had new gimmicks that didn't go over so well like push-button automatic transmission with the buttons in the middle of the steering wheel.

  • The scumfuck that I worked for when I was 18 made me drive a Vega without any brakes. The floorboard was rusted out so every time the front tire hit a puddle I got splashed in the face.

  • I went to a focus group for higher-end chewing gum that was in individual packets to make it look classy, but of course would likely be 100% more expensive and no better than typical gum. Of course I knew it would be a flop and…

    Oh crap, that's not an example of an epic marketing failure – it's an example of marketing "genius" wherin people overpay for the same crap they always bought to get more expensive nicely packaged crap. Stupid consumers.

    I think these are fascinating as well. Who would have thought that Under Armour could buy there way into the market so efficiently and not only sell sports undershirts/equipment but now damn near everything. And they had the tenacity to put a u in Armor! Or that a couple of very smart people could start a company and compete in the crowded search space against webcrawler, yahoo, askjeeves, altavista, and lycos. What the fuck is a Google anyway?

  • Re. home grocery delivery: This idea is working out well for FreshDirect. Of course, they service the New York metropolitan area, where a lot of people don't have cars, and even for those who do, driving to the grocery store may be more trouble than it's worth.

  • I could be wrong – I'm so far a strictly dead-trees guy with regards to my reading – but isn't the DIVX model kinda-sorta applied to ebooks at public libraries (and possibly with regards to individual ownership? Like I said, I'm a dead-trees guy for the foreseeable future so I'm not hep to the whole ebook thing)? My understanding is that ebooks can be lent out only a fixed number of times before the library has to "renew" it. And it doesn't seem you can lend a pal your ebook, or trade it in to a used book store.

  • Steve in Iowa says:

    Clear beer! The early-1990s desperation ploy by the big corn-beer brewers to increase sales. Went to several Twins games at which clear beer was the only "brew" served by the vendors working our section. So that's what my friends & drank, asking ourselves: Is this really beer? Are we hammered?

  • Grumblebunnie says:

    AliceBlue – I think those McDonald salad-fails were called Salad Shakers. I remember ordering one and getting a milkshake container (with no straw hole in the dome lid) filled with iceberg lettuce. I squeezed in the huge packet of ranch dressing and shook it up. Unsurprisingly, the ranch remained in a huge glob at the top of the lettuce and spread out all over the top of the lid. So gross. Wikipedia tells me that for some reason, they're still available in Brazil.

  • Grumblebunnie says:

    My favorite experience with failed promotional tie-ins was when I worked for Blockbuster Video (next door to the McDonalds with the ill-fated Salad Shaker) when they were selling Direct TV installation packages. We were supposed to convince people coming to rent a $3.00 videotape (or newfangled DVD!) to sign up for a satellite dish costing something like $60/month plus installation. Blockbuster seems to have had a habit of coming up with lots of ideas to stop people from coming into their brick-and-mortar stores to spend money.

  • Worse than the McDonald's Salad Shakers were the Arby's Chicken Shakers a year or two ago. You got a cup o' chicken with a dome lid and a big packet of goopy BBQ/ranch/etc. to shake up with it. It was up to you to figure out how to eat the results with a plastic fork that couldn't penetrate the hide of hardened batter surrounding each pitiful piece of chicken.

    OK Soda was also a huge bomb; I remember passing by one of my campus's bookstores and simply being handed a bottle because they were dumping their remaining stock.

    And speaking of mid-90s college experiences, those IKE music-video kiosks they had in dorm common areas utterly cratered. I remember noticing that I was often the ONLY person who bothered to use them at all (which worked out for me, because no one else was nearly as likely to play "Bad Reputation" on them). They disappeared after about a year.

  • bingobangoboy says:

    some unrequested & completely unnecessary commentary from a nobody:
    1) A Bloody Mary uses tomato Juice; if you use Clamato it's a Bloody Caesar.
    2) For some reason MiniDisc remained the dominant portable format in Japan until, oh, 2005ish. It turned into a pretty good format, eventually.
    3) Those McDonalds pizzas were actually pretty good; I haven't ingested any McDonalds products since they were nixed.

    Remember Microsoft Bob?

  • I wish people would be reminded of things like this when some wingnut goes on about how government is stupid, wasteful, and inefficient, and everything should be left to "private enterprise," because OBVIOUSLY business types are so genius smart and hyperefficient….

  • Dirk Gently: I liked Crystal Pepsi too! But I don't like cola, so maybe that was the marketing failure. Like if you named a grape soda "Purple Pepsi"; a person drinking it would be expecting something vaguely Pepsi-like and then think it was disgusting.

    Newton wasn't an obvious fail. After they fixed the handwriting recognition, it worked quite well, but it was expensive.

  • Don't forget the Yugo.

    It had a rear-window defroster to keep you hands warm while you were pushing it.

  • Look, G&T, I was 16 when the Edsel came out, and not until today did I look at an Edsel and think, "Chrome Vagina!" Thanks a lot for corrupting my spotless mind!

  • I don't think they even bother manning the control tower at Mirabel anymore.

    It's not like we're going to run into anybody when we're the only plane landing there.

  • @PWL

    "I wish people would be reminded of things like this when some wingnut goes on about how government is stupid, wasteful, and inefficient, and everything should be left to "private enterprise," because OBVIOUSLY business types are so genius smart and hyperefficient…."

    Duh…the failures are gone (removed from the market by market forces) and usually the people responsible for said failures are also gone.

    Our government on the other hand moves a bit more slowly to get rid of the obviously obsolete.

    From back in 2000

    "Quaint old bit of Americana, you say? Folks, in 1995 — five years ago — we still had an official Federal Tea-taster with an official tea-tasting room in Brooklyn, New York. In salary and operating expenses, the federal government was still spending $120,000 a year to taste tea. Perhaps we suspected the British, still smarting from the Revolutionary War, would try to get us back with a sneak assault of some awfully off Oolong.

    Despite the valiant efforts of the Federal Tea-taster in rejecting 1 percent of all tea tasted in 1995, the Clinton Administration ousted the position in 1996 as part of its Reinventing Government program. American tea-sippers, be careful out there."


  • Death Panel Truck says:

    "Usually I've heard 'toilet seat' used to describe the Edsel grill."

    Horse collar was the most frequent comparison.

    The McDonald's McDLT. It was an attempt to make their own version of a Whopper. "Hot side hot, cool side cool." Tried it. Wasn't the worst thing I ever ate.

  • Nobody will ever hear of this, but the as part of the meal plan at the University of Washington my sister is given "biodegradable cutlery." According to her, "the spoons melt in hot soup and forks break while cutting chicken breast." I told her to get some chopsticks and a Swiss Army Knife.

  • @Ed: I'm not sure if I'm an "Apple fluffer" – the last Apple product that I owned was a bondi-blue iMac running OS 9 (which sucked — incredibly unstable — I assume OSX is better). I got it in 1999 and replaced it with a PC sometime around 2003 or 2004.

    But the Newton was a neat little device. That said, it was too expensive and too large to be a PDA, but underpowered for a slate-type device.

    I just don't think it was an obvious "what-were-they-thinking" style of disaster like New Coke or, say, Quikster.

  • In the late 1980s, there was a cake mix product called "Tunnel of Fudge".

    Someone actually got that through corporate.

    There may be some justice in the world after all.

  • People remember because the idea of sending 40 pound bags of pet food to your house via Fed Ex should be dead no more than 30 seconds after you say it out loud.

    I used WebVan. Once. Good produce. But he was three hours late. I would have saved time driving to the grocery store.

  • @PWL: Amen.

    @Major Kong: Ha!

    @bb in GA: BLUF, don't conflate market theory with market practice; "the failures are gone (removed from the market by market forces) and usually the people responsible for said failures are also gone"?

    Reeeally? I'll believe that when I believe that a private businessman wants a contract out of a sense of civic duty instead of guaranteed profits all too often regardless of performance or cost…honestly, how many companies have been run into the ground by people who escape, capital intact, golden parachute fully deployed, but pensions gutted/gone and employees who built the company basically told, well, usually nothing because the ownership class has such a hard time differentiating between their underlings and office furniture making it sooo much easier for them ruin people's lives: They don't think of us as people, "real" people, like them. All this only to run merrily to the next host/victim/company, hollow it out, cash out, etc., etc.?

    Dude, don't conflate theory with practice…it's what makes most libertarians sound so foolish, critics of socialism sound so ignorant, and non-veteran anti-atheists sound like self-righteous assholes.

  • @My

    I apologize, my example was stupid, Government is the answer, and Kahn, yours is a superior intellect.

    Yours in P.A. in GA


  • smokeless cigarettes… people who smoke don't give a rat's butt whether the product smokes or doesn't. Only people who don't buy them care….

  • Republican/Libertarian think tanks? Sure, they're successful in that they've helped pull off the con job of getting Bubba Joe to vote to have his job shipped to Asia, blame people who were not responsible and love Jesus some more.
    But just how much thinking has gone on in any of them?

  • A word about the Edsel: yes, it's fugly, and it's interesting that you use the term "chrome vagina" about the grille. Many auto executives of the 50s referred to cars of that era with protruding headlights as "Dagmars," named for a famous big-bazoomed commedianne of the day. So maybe the vagina thing came from an unconscious desire to give car buyers the "complete package."

    But I feel a bit bad about the Edsel. It was named by Henry Ford II after his father, a man who lived in the shadow of Henry the first, his father, and often picked on and overlooked by the founder, who died before his time. Also, Edsel Ford was responsible for comissioning the Rivera mural in the Detroit Institute of Art, so he was a guy who deserved some tribute. Clearly, there was a labor of love going on there from father to son. Too bad it became a synonym for corporate marketing fail.

  • Another factor for the Edsel's failure was that it was introduced in 1958.

    There was a pretty sharp recession in 1958 and car sales were bad for every maker that year. Edsel was supposed to fit between Mercury and Lincoln in the lineup and it was too much car for too much money at the time.

    For 1959 they redesigned the front end and they redesigned it yet again for 1960 – at which point it looked like any other Ford.

  • The War on Terror. Who was going to buy some bullshit hype about making war on an emotion? Oh, wait…

  • The ablsolute best worst thing ever: Cool Colt, the menthol flavored malt liquor. I remember going into Home Liqours in Denver circa 91 and the man behind the counter saying, "Hey Ty, you like black people drinks. You should try this" My eyes lit up and I opted for the six pack of tall boys rather than the usual 40 ounce bottle. After my initial sip several of my organs, and sense of justice tried to abandon me. I passed the can around to my friends so that we could all know the absolute bottom of the marketing industry. I dumped the rest in the toilet and prayed it would not permanently kill the water table. The remaining five cans were lost to whim and circumstance. I never saw the product again. To this day on quiet nights when the moon is full the after taste will invade my senses and remind me that the rest of life is not so horrible after all.

  • Halloween Jack says:

    You know who else had a giant chrome vagina? Female Robotic King Kong, that's who.

    It's fun to read about some of this stuff, and I have a hard time believing that some of these things actually existed (like the Bic underwear in the first link that @Hazy Davy posted–it doesn't help that the accompanying photo is just the Bic logo superimposed over a stock photo of a panty-clad ass), but it seems that in a number of cases, people are listing things that were successes elsewhere in the world but not in the U.S., things that were a bit ahead of their time or the technology of the time, and things that simply didn't catch on with the public through no particular defect of their own. (I used to live in Memphis, which was a big test market for all sorts of things, and was there when Coca-Cola introduced Surge, a Mountain Dew-like soda based on a similar product in Norway, and thought it was fine, but it never caught on; Vault, however, which was almost identical except for the name and packaging, apparently has.) In particular, things that are ahead of their time often get mocked because people don't recognize them for what they become; @jill may mock smokeless cigarettes, but despite whether or not smokers care about second-hand smoke, non-smokers hate it, and even people like me that grew up in an era when smoking was much more common and didn't mind being around it have come around to where we are really conscious of being around it and hate having our hair and clothes smell like an ashtray the next day, and if you don't want to lose most of your non-smoking friends, you get the gum, the patch, or get into e-cigs, which may not be that common but have a whole subculture of their own, apparently.

    In particular (and this, I guess, will get me classified as an "Apple fluffer", but whatevs), Apple, and particularly Apple under Jobs, tried to push the envelope as much as they could, and while they had their share of flops, there were also some decisions that were highly criticized when the product was introduced, but quickly became part of the computing status quo. The Macintosh, for example (which was nearly a flop, because it wasn't that successful for at least a few years after its introduction; the company depended on Apple II sales to stay profitable, and its lack of immediate return on investment was one of the reasons why Jobs was ousted from the company), was the first computer that was widely available with a mouse, and I read one computer columnist's screed about how the mouse was just about the worst idea that anyone had because you had to take one hand off the keyboard to use it; like me, he'd probably been trained to type in high school by a teacher who taught him to never take his hands off the keyboard, because that, along with touch typing, increased typing speed, which used to be a criteria for entry-level white-collar jobs, although that seems to be a thing of the past. Imagine someone trying to write a column like that now. People bitched when the Macintosh popularized 3.5" floppies, and they bitched when the iMac shipped without a floppy drive at all. Don't even get me started on the teeth-grinding when a new model comes out without a port for someone's beloved peripheral.

    And thus with the Newton, which ended up being mocked even by Doonesbury(I had no idea that Garry Trudeau even knew what a personal computer was, at that point in time), but was both a realization of the Dynabook concept and an ur-iPad, and which later evolved into the eMate, a kind of proto-OLPC device. Just as there are Edsel enthusiasts, there are people still trying to keep their MessagePads alive.

  • Pong. A victim of obsolescence borne of mo' better memory and graphics, and much too vivid imagination.

    chautauqua: The reason Spam probably didn't die the slow and lingering death of TAB is that it's the perfect "white trash" comfort food. It's pre-cooked processed pork plus god-knows-what, so you can slice it and slap it between slices of toasted white bread. Or you can bake it in your favorite macaroni and Velveeta cheese casserole, topped with bread crumbs or Durkee's baked onions for those "special occasions." (Only DFHs ruin a classic dish like this by adding broccoli tips.)

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