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Remembering Reebok's "Dan and Dave" Campaign 20 Years Later

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Twenty years ago, Reebok introduced us to "Dan and Dave."

Once American sports fans moved beyond their game of word association -- "Who?" -- the two men involved became part of one of the most memorable marketing campaigns in history despite a letdown of Olympic proportions.

In 1992, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson were given such a great chance to medal in the Olympic decathlon in Barcelona that Reebok launched a $25 million "Clash of the Titans" marketing campaign. The campaign was really about Reebok's clash with a titan, Nike. Reebok hoped to crack Nike's stranglehold on the track-and-field market.

We saw clips of Dan as a little boy taking a bath, Dave as a toddler in a high chair. Dan riding a stick pony in his yard, Dave pedaling his bike. Dan in a Little League uniform. Dave competing at the Goodwill Games. Dan at the World Track and Field championships.

"Battling it out," Reebok reminded us, "for the title of world's greatest athlete."

Meet Dave

Dave Johnson grew up in Missoula, Montana. Not a place you'd associate with street gangs but Johnson was part of the West Side Gang. They broke into houses. They fought other gangs. One story told of how he made his own brass knuckles out of a dog chain. Once, Johnson stole the key to a Budweiser distributorship and the gang stole $5,000 worth of beer.

Johnson would later tell reporters covering his accomplishments in the decathlon, "Running from the police made me fast."

When his father was transferred to Oregon, Johnson got a fresh start. A friend introduced him to Christianity and he straightened out his life.

Attending Azusa Pacific College, Johnson began to blossom as a decathlete. When the United States Olympic Committee identified him as a possible medal winner, it offered him a position through the USOC job opportunity program.

Johnson had to think long and hard because he felt the job clashed with his religious beliefs. Others found it only ironic. The job was with Budweiser.

In 1990 he won the gold medal at the Goodwill Games. Over the next two years, he got endorsement deals with Body Fuel and Oakley. Nothing quite compared to the offer and exposure Reebok came up with for him and Dan O'Brien.

http://youtu.be/yKJkfE1M9wA

Meet Dan

O'Brien grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Born to an African-American father and a Finnish mother, he was adopted at age two by an Irish-American family.

O'Brien attended the University of Idaho. Sort of. He flunked out. After a few legal entanglements, he dedicated himself to returning to school and track and field. By 1991, he was the reigning world decathlon champion. At one point he'd won all eight decathlons he entered. That and his point totals made him the favorite to win Olympic gold.

His impact on American track and field was as quick as it was impressive. Daley Thompson, the great British decathlete who won gold in 1984 with a record 8,847 points, said of O'Brien, "I see him as a 9,500 point man."

O'Brien was 25 years old in 1992, a few years younger than Johnson. The friendly competition they shared fit perfectly in Reebok's plan to launch an eight-month world-wide marketing campaign to grow the company brand leading into Barcelona.

Johnson was 3-2 against O'Brien in head-to-head competition. O'Brien was better in the first-day events (100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters). Johnson was the stronger second-day decathlete (100-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters).

Reebok was betting nothing could keep them from a great showdown at the Olympics. Reebok was expensively wrong.

False Start

At the Olympic Trials in New Orleans in June of 1992, while Johnson scored 8,649 in an impressive showing, the unthinkable happened to O'Brien.

He failed to clear any height in the pole vault. He missed all three attempts at 15-9 and was done. Just like that, his Olympic dream was over.

The Reebok ad campaign soldiered on, significantly altered. The company ran some ads of Dan shown cheering for Dave to win Olympic gold.

Except that didn't happen either.

Competing with a stress fracture in his foot, Johnson managed to win the bronze medal in Barcelona -- becoming the first American to medal since Bruce Jenner in 1976.

But a country that needed to be introduced to them in a marketing campaign suddenly knew them best for not winning Olympic gold -- in O'Brien's case for not even making the Olympics.

Not all was lost for Reebok. The winner of the gold medal, Czech Robert Zmelik, was a Reebok client.

The Next Chapter

O'Brien kept compiling world championships, winning two more. Then he won the gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Armed with a sports psychologist and four more years of training, he wisely lowered his opening vault to 15-1 and easily cleared it at the 1996 Olympic Trials.

Johnson enjoyed some endorsement deals in the year after winning bronze at Barcelona. He published his memoir: Aim High: An Olympic Decathlete's Inspiring Story.

Where Are They Now?

Dan O'Brien, 46, lives in Phoenix and owns a health club, Gold Medal Acceleration. He does some work for Yahoo Sports!

In June, he published Clearing Hurdles: The Quest to be the World's Greatest Athlete. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame this year.

Little known fact: He broke the Guinness Book of World Records mark for the fastest game of hopscotch in 2009. His time of 1 minute, 21 seconds broke the previous mark by two seconds.
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Dave Johnson, 49, became a motivational speaker and educator after retiring from competition. He was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame (along with Dan O'Brien) in 2005. In 2009, he was named athletic director at Corban University in Salem, Ore.

Best quote after the Reebok campaign got sidetracked at the 1992 Olympic Trials: "We were supposed to be on Johnny Carson. Instead we ended up on Arsenio Hall."

The 2012 Decathlon

Twenty years after Dan and Dave, the talk was again of American domination in this week's decathlon in London. With 2008 Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay, defending world champ Trey Hardee, and phenom Ashton Eaton, there was talk of a possible American sweep.

They say history repeats itself, but that's not true. It only resembles itself.

At the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., Clay hit a hurdle and then failed on all three attempts in the discus. Like O'Brien, he missed the Olympics.

O'Brien, who was on hand, told reporters the obvious: "This event can claim you."

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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10 Dangerous Toys from Decades Past (and the Commercials That Sold Them)
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Baby Boomers are a hardy bunch. They rode in cars that weren’t equipped with special toddler seats, walked to and from school without being electronically tethered to their parents, ate lunches filled with allergens and preservatives, played with toys that would be quickly pulled from shelves today, and still persevered to become the largest living generation of the U.S. population. Whether you owned a Johnny Seven One Man Army or just want to know more about the ultra-violent, bestselling toy of 1964, let's take a look back at some of the dangerous toys of yesteryear and the commercials that sold them.

1. SIXFINGER

My younger brother had one of these, and I’m here to tell you that as tiny as it was, this gun had some serious firepower—those little plastic bullets hurt like heck! (You think your average seven-year-old boy is going to pay attention to the package disclaimer that warned against aiming the Sixfinger at human targets?) Just in case the possibility of losing an eye to a sharp projectile wasn’t edgy enough, one of the “bullets” came equipped with a cap—the shock-sensitive exploding variety. All this mayhem was available for the bargain price of two dollars.

2. SWING WING

The Transogram Company had been producing mainstream toys such as Tiddlywinks and doctor's kits since 1959. Then one day in 1965 the vice president of product development, whose brother-in-law was apparently an out-of-work chiropractor, came up with the idea for the Swing Wing. Nothing says “fun” like a cerebral hemorrhage, so Swing Wing was eventually pulled from the market, leaving kids searching for a new fun way to get their spinal injuries on.

3. SLIP 'N SLIDE

Wham-O introduced the Slip ‘N Slide in 1961, a time when neighborhood swimming pools were few and far between and water slide theme parks were nonexistent. The idea was to cool off and have fun at the same time by running up to and then belly-flopping down on a water-slicked strip of vinyl. Wham-O sold millions of Slip 'N Slides over the years, and if a kid broke a toe on one of the stakes that secured the mat to the ground or left most of their epidermis on the driveway because they slid too far, well, as Mom always said, “It’s your own fault, don’t come crying to me.” It wasn’t until the more litigious 1990s that words like “spinal cord injury” and “death” started appearing in the lengthy list of warnings included on the Slip ‘N Slide instruction sheet.

4. WATER WIGGLE

It looked innocent enough, but if your neighborhood had good water pressure and some joker turned the hose on full blast, Wham-O’s Water Wiggle turned into a semi-lethal weapon. It danced and bobbed erratically, and could wrap around you like a boa constrictor. And that plastic head was heavy! But bloody noses and chipped teeth were a small price to pay for some summertime fun.

5. JOHNNY SEVEN ONE MAN ARMY

No wonder kids today get into so much trouble—it’s those consarned video games they’re always playing. Nothing but shooting and street fighting and an overall culture of violence. Not like the toys of the 1960s. Back then we had wholesome products like the Johnny Seven One Man Army, which was the biggest-selling toy for boys in 1964. Johnny Seven came equipped with a cap pistol, rocket launcher, and “armor piercing” bullets, along with a few other features necessary for stopping Communism dead in its tracks.

Johnny Seven weighed about four pounds fully assembled, so a kid got a good aerobic workout when he ran around toting one outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Topper Toys used a unique tactic to give Johnny Seven maximum exposure: instead of only stocking it in toy and department stores, they also made it available in grocery stores, a place mom usually dragged her kids to at least once per week.

6. CREEPY CRAWLERS

An exposed hot plate combined with potentially toxic fumes equaled fun in 1964. The Thing Maker was a gadget you plugged in and then waited until it heated up to 300°F. Then you poured “Plasti-Goop” into the creepy insect-shaped metal molds and waited for them to heat-set. Ideally, you were supposed to wait until after you’d unplugged the Thing Maker and it had cooled off before removing your Creepy Crawlers, but who has time for that when you want to put a fake spider in your sister’s bed before she turns in? Burns and blisters were a fact of life in the plastic bug business, and you simply sprayed the injury with some Bactine and hid it from Mom so she wouldn’t take your Thing Maker away. Plasti-Goop was marketed as “non-toxic,” but that was in 1964 before the dangers of little things like melted PVC and lead paint were generally known.

7. WHAM-O AIR BLASTER

Wham-O introduced the Air Blaster gun in 1965 ... then pulled it from shelves not too long afterward. It turned out that some kids weren’t content to just blow out birthday candles long-distance; they were pointing their Air Blaster right against their friends’ ears to “see what happened.” (Permanent damage was the answer.) Those same pranksters also discovered that any object that could fit into the muzzle could also be shot with missile-like force. You know what they say, it’s all fun and games until someone figures out how to use their Air Blaster as a flamethrower.

8. WHAM-O WHEELIE BAR

The lack of protective helmets in this commercial is understandable, since they weren’t readily available at the time. But barefoot kids popping wheelies, riding no-handed, and performing daredevil stunts like standing on the seat? One has to wonder whether Wham-O held stock in some urgent care clinic chain.

9. SUPER ELASTIC BUBBLE PLASTIC

Surprise! We have yet another entry from those folks at Wham-O. This time the fun was contained inside a metal toothpaste-like tube filled with a colorful liquid-y plastic-y substance. You squeezed out a tiny glob of the stuff, rolled it into a tiny ball, and then plopped it onto the end of a plastic straw, which was included. Then you blew into the straw to create a multi-colored sphere that was more durable than a soap bubble, but a bit more fragile than a traditional balloon. The drawback was that one of the main ingredients in Super Elastic Bubble Plastic was ethyl acetate, a solvent used in nail polish remover. Combine that with polyvinyl acetate, the other primary component, and kids were exposed to some serious health risks if they happened to inhale too much while inflating their plastic bubbles.

10. WITCH DOCTOR HEAD SHRINKER KIT

Who knows exactly what chemicals made up the “plastic flesh” that progressively shrunk over the span of 24 hours. Given the time period (the late 1960s) we’re guessing that either the flesh or the paint had some level of toxicity. But what about the other inherent danger involved? Say you, as a kid, taking advantage of the assurance in the commercial that homemade shrunken heads were appropriate for “all occasions”? Would Mom smack the heck out of you after Grandma nearly collapsed when she unwrapped the shrunken head birthday present you’d made for her?

BONUS: GILBERT U-238 ATOMIC ENERGY LAB

By Webms (online) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m sort of sneaking this one in, as I don’t know if it was ever advertised on television, but it’s too good to pass up. In 1951 A.C. Gilbert, the man who invented the Erector Set, introduced a brand new educational toy: the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. Gilbert worked closely with physicists at M.I.T. while developing the kit, and also had the unofficial approval of the U.S. government, which thought that such a toy would help the average American understand the benefits of nuclear energy.

The Lab came equipped with a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson cloud chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity. It also included a comic book featuring Dagwood Bumstead (the man who couldn’t leave his own house without knocking the mailman down) describing how to split an atom. The Atomic Energy Lab’s main drawback, other than possible radiation poisoning, was its price tag: a whopping $49.50, which would be over $300 in today’s dollars.

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The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
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Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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