NPF: FLOPPY

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 Pets.com 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 Responses to “NPF: FLOPPY”

  1. jill Says:

    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….

  2. Fifth Dentist Says:

    @ whetstone
    Pizza plus cocaine? I'd buy that. Well, I would have during the early '90s …

  3. Fifth Dentist Says:

    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?

  4. Linda Says:

    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.

  5. Linda Says:

    Sorry, I meant a "labor of love from son to father."

  6. Major Kong Says:

    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.

  7. Effin' Effie Says:

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

  8. Ty Says:

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. Ruthie Says:

    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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