NPF: JUMPING THE GUN

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 16th, 2015 by Ed

I am a man who loves, and regularly makes, a good Edsel reference. That car and New Coke are probably American culture's most prominent examples of commercial failure, although I'm not sure if either are familiar to younger generations anymore. Although historical revisionism has emboldened some defenders of both – It is often claimed, for example, that the Edsel failed but contributed to the development of important technologies, which is very stupid and false and also its grille looked like a vagina – they largely deserve their reputation as disasters. We could probably add Netflix's "Qwikster" to the pantheon if it hadn't disappeared so quickly (see what I did there) that already almost nobody remembers it. Americans love winners but are fascinated by losers, provided they lose spectacularly enough. Nobody notices a 2-14 football team, but go 0-16 and suddenly we can't get enough.

What I find really interesting, though, are things that fail but then become huge successes later. My stock example when attempting to explain this phenomenon (side note: we should come up with a name for it. Lazarus effect?) is Zima. Remember Zima, the first mass-marketed "malt beverage" in the United States? Released in 1993, Zima was the butt of about 10% of all American jokes for the duration of that decade. Letterman and Leno beat it to death. Saturday Night Live lampooned it. The public ridiculed it; one commentator noted in a retrospective that, "There are a million ways to slight a rival's manhood, but to suggest that he enjoys Zima is one of the worst." I remember being in junior high – before anyone was even drinking beer or had any meaningful point of reference – and hearing regular Zima jokes. The product disappeared from shelves despite Coors' valiant (and expensive) marketing efforts, but the ironic part is of course that such "alco-pop" and non-beer bottled malt beverages are now wildly popular – Smirnoff Ice and Zima are virtually indistinguishable. While the masculinity-destroying stigma remains, malt beverages are available in hundreds of varieties now and sell briskly. From "hard lemonade" to Smirnoff to a newly available alcoholic root beer, things that come in a beer bottle but aren't beer have never been more popular.

Another example is nowhere near as well remembered as Zima: the Lincoln Blackwood. It is notable mostly as the answer to the trivia question, "What is the worst-selling car of all time in the United States?" Put to death after only a single year on the market, barely 3,000 were sold and today they are about as common as Yugos on American streets. The Blackwood was the Ford Motor Company's attempt at a high-luxury pickup truck. Those terms didn't seem to fit well together when the vehicle was released in 2002. Luxury buyers didn't want a truck, and truck buyers didn't want the image of softness that comes with a luxury vehicle. So it went down in flames, yet just over a decade later the ultra-expensive, high end luxury truck is one of the most profitable market segment in the U.S. Lincoln now sells tons of Mark LTs, and even utilitarian pickup trucks like Ford F-Series, Rams, and Chevrolet Silverados are regularly sold at sticker prices exceeding $50,000 (it's possible to top out an F-150 at nearly $70,000, with luxury features comparable to any Mercedes or Cadillac). And for some generations the word "Escalade" is synonymous with wealth and luxury now.

Maybe it is in our character to laugh at new ideas as a knee-jerk response and then, when sufficient time passes, to fall in love with them. There are plenty more examples out there, I'm sure. Sound off in the comments if you have a particular favorite.