Typecast: Mavis Beacon, The Typing Teacher Who Never Was, Is Turning 30

Encore
Encore

When Software Toolworks co-founder Joe Abrams went to the software convention Comdex in early 1988, he was greeted by industry colleagues offering their congratulations. He had somehow been able to secure famed typing instructor Mavis Beacon to endorse his company’s typing tutorial, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

“We’ve been trying to get her for years,” one said. “How did you do it?”

Abrams shrugged. It had been easy to get Mavis because Mavis didn’t exist. Abrams and his partners had invented her.

“She was not a real person, and we never said she was,” Abrams tells Mental Floss. “A kind of cult developed around this fictitious character.”

In Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, people struggling to adapt to the growing number of personal computers in circulation were led through a series of exercises and lessons intended to improve their typing speed. Other programs had existed prior to Mavis Beacon, but none had bothered to give their sterile software an identity. With Mavis, Software Toolworks developed a digital Betty Crocker—a cheerful, patient, good-humored persona that stood out on retail shelves. By 1998, 6 million copies had been sold.

The company was amused to receive calls requesting interviews or personal appearances by Mavis, a sure sign she was resonating. But before the typing icon became one of the PC industry’s biggest success stories, Abrams discovered that not all retailers would warm to the idea of a woman of color—even a fictional one—endorsing software.

A screen shot from 'Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing'
Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks was the name programmer Walt Bilofsky decided to give to his modest software enterprise in 1980. Selling programs that offered type-to-text features uncommon in those days, Bilofsky built up a business around a small circle of personal computer hobbyists in need of productivity programs. Presentation and marketing was not a priority.

“We sold programs in Ziploc bags,” Bilofsky tells Mental Floss.

By the mid-1980s, working together with his cousin Joe Abrams, Bilofsky was ready to move into more commercial pursuits. Another company, Software Country, solicited his help in putting together a home gaming bundle. When Bilofsky wrote a game called Chessmaster 2000 for Software Country’s Les Crane, the two companies merged, and Crane (who died in 2008) became a partner.

It proved to be a perfect coupling. Bilofsky and his small stable of programmers knew software, while Crane—a former talk show host—knew marketing. For Chessmaster 2000, Crane went to considerable effort and expense to imagine a “chess wizard” who would personify the game for players. They wouldn’t be playing a faceless algorithm, but a wizened old pro who appeared on the game's box. With the photo shoot alone costing $10,000, it was a far cry from the plastic bags of Bilofsky’s past.

“Les’s marketing was huge,” Bilofsky says. “I was aghast he spent that much. But he was right.” Chessmaster 2000 was a huge hit for the company. Their next major effort, a typing tutorial, would eclipse it.

According to Abrams, the company was a “wave rider, not a wave maker.” Chess programs were popular, and Abrams saw opportunity to anthropomorphize it with a mascot of sorts. The same proved true for typing programs, which were numerous but often paid little attention to user interface.

“We wanted to pick something where we could make that interaction different than anything that had come before,” Abrams says. “The difference was immersion.” If someone missed a word while “driving,” a bug might splatter on the windshield. If the user wanted to take a break, the software wouldn’t fight them.

“This was before Windows, when pop-up menus were not the norm,” Bilofsky says. “The user could drive the program. You didn’t need to have the manual open in order to use it.”

Perfecting the software was only half the battle. At the time, the computer industry was getting more invested in personalizing their marketing. Celebrities like Bill Bixby and Isaac Asimov endorsed hardware from IBM and Tandy, respectively, but few human faces appeared on software boxes. Abrams thought some kind of industry typing standard might exist that could be licensed, but came up short.

“The other typing programs at the time, like Typing Tutor or MasterType, had very vanilla names and packaging,” he says. “They didn’t grab you. What we wanted was something to make people go, ‘Woah.’ We wanted people to pick the box up, turn it over, and read it.”

One day, Abrams and Crane went to Saks Fifth Avenue near their offices in Beverly Hills so Crane could buy his fiancée a present. At the perfume counter, they were assisted by a saleswoman who seemed to pique Crane’s interest. “He turned to me and said, ‘This is the person we should have.’ I thought he was crazy.”

The employee, Renee L’Esperance, was Haitian with limited English and 6-inch long fingernails. Abrams observed this incongruous feature as being contrary to what a typing master might opt for, but Crane was insistent. “He said it didn’t matter.”


Software Toolworks

The two went back the next day and offered L’Esperance $500 and a new suit in exchange for doing a photo shoot for the company. The photography took less than a day near the Century City towers, with Abrams’s 5-year-old son walking hand-in-hand with the faux typing teacher. Crane chose a fictitious name, Mavis Beacon, after singer Mavis Staples and the beacon of light she represented to clumsy typists everywhere.

The software had its face. Abrams, however, had no idea not everyone would welcome it. “We really didn’t understand the implications of putting a black woman on the cover of an educational product,” he says.

A screen shot from 'Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing'
Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks began taking orders for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in 1987. As with Chessmaster 2000, interest in a product that humanized a computer program was high. But when the company began circulating materials featuring L’Esperance, Abrams was shocked to see advance orders plummet by 50 percent.

“When they saw the package, orders got cut,” he says. “Even though this was 1987, people were afraid to carry an educational product with a black woman on it. They said people just wouldn’t buy it.” In New York, a major mail order and retail giant refused to carry it, citing a glut of typing product.

Opinions changed after The New York Times ran a glowing review of Mavis Beacon in its November 17, 1987 edition. “I got into the office and the phones were lit up asking where to get it,” Abrams says. “I decided to tell them to go to that retailer. By 11 a.m., a buyer for the company asked where he could get 150 copies immediately.”

From that point on, Mavis Beacon became an unstoppable force in software. Although the company never created a fake biography for Mavis or implied that she was a real person, a kind of mass delusion overtook both the media and the buying public. Teachers would call asking for her; Software Toolworks was inundated with requests for speaking engagements. L’Esperance, who had returned to the Caribbean shortly after the photo shoot, was the most famously anonymous woman in software.

“I thought I read somewhere that she had won a big typing contest, or that she ran a school, or something," a customer told The Seattle Times in 1995. "There really is no Mavis? I can't believe it."

Mavis Beacon would continue to be updated over the years, both in and out of the package: L'Esperance got regular Photoshop updates to upgrade her clothing or hairstyle. In 1994, The Software Toolworks was sold to the Pearson group for $460 million. “They were really interested in the educational side of the business,” Abrams says. “Mavis Beacon was our bestselling product, so you could make the theoretical statement it was a driving force behind the purchase.”

Abrams went on to invest in Intermix, the company behind the pioneering social network hub Myspace. While that’s an impressive milestone, he’s most often asked about the famed typing teacher he helped bring into the burgeoning home computer industry.

“To this day, people will say to me, ‘Why did Mavis disappear?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, she never really appeared.’”

Bottle Service: How Snapple Took Over the 1990s

David Paul Morris, Getty Images
David Paul Morris, Getty Images

For many consumer brands, the ultimate sign of success is being the subject of an urban legend. In 1985, Procter & Gamble had to refute accusations that their moon and stars logo was somehow representative of Satan worship. In the 1990s, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s publicity department fielded questions about raising eight-legged chickens with no beaks in order to satisfy product demand. In the trifecta of brand disparagement, a rumor circulated in the early 1970s that “Mikey,” the spokes-kid for Life Cereal, had died after mixing Pop Rocks candy with Coca-Cola to produce a combustible blend that blew up his stomach.

In 1993, it was Snapple’s turn. For months, word had circulated in California's Bay Area that the massively popular iced tea and fruit drink brand was secretly funneling money to the Ku Klux Klan organization. The reason? A small “K” appeared on the product label. The rumor persisted to the point that Snapple took out ads in California newspapers to declare they had no involvement with the group.

That such a rumor existed was a kind of testament to the brand's market dominance. Originally founded in Long Island as a regional manufacturer of alternative drinks, Snapple had grown from $13.3 million in revenue in 1988 to $774 million in 1994. Positioned as a healthy alternative to soft drinks, the company used clever marketing, homespun consumer relations, and a relatable spokeswoman to become one of the biggest consumer success stories of the 1990s.

Unfortunately, Snapple’s problems went beyond being falsely affiliated with a racist hate group. Despite their raging success and a $1.7 billion valuation, the company lost sight of the marketing strategy that had catapulted them to a leading position in the beverage market. By 1997, consumers were losing their taste for the “best stuff on earth."

 
 

Arnold Greenberg was running a health food store in 1972 when two old friends joined him in a new venture. Leonard Marsh and Hyman Golden were brothers-in-law and owned a window washing business. On the side, they partnered with Greenberg to create Unadulterated Food Products, Inc., peddling fruit juices, eggs, and produce to other health food stores in and around New York City.

The men intended for their flagship product to be a carbonated fruit juice, combining the fizz of a soft drink with natural ingredients. Their first try, apple juice, fermented in the bottle and exploded, popping off caps and ruining their inventory. The drink was abandoned, but the name—Snapple, a mix of “snappy” and “apple”—stuck. (A company in Texas happened to have already trademarked the name. The three men bought it for $500.)

A bottle of Snapple sits on a table
chrisjtse, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Unadulterated Food Products did steady business for much of the 1980s selling to bodegas, delis, and other food service locations where people could pick up a bottle to go along with their lunch. In 1987, they had a breakthrough with their approach to iced tea. By bottling it hot, the company was able to avoid adding preservatives, which bolstered their all-natural claims. And by offering it year-round instead of just in the summer, they appealed to consumers who enjoyed the drink in cooler weather.

Snapple embraced their homemade identity. Sipping tea from their wide-mouth bottles was not unlike sipping from a piece of glassware on a porch somewhere; their labels were haphazard in design, the graphics a little lopsided. Compared to the corporate perfection of Coca-Cola, Snapple seemed scrappy.

 
 

Despite the company’s commitment to a casual aesthetic, Greenberg and his partners were taken aback in 1993, when advertising firm Kirshenbaum Bond presented their newest idea for a national ad campaign. They wanted to film the company’s mailroom lady, Wendy Kaufman.

Kaufman had arrived at Snapple in 1991 after getting a referral from a friend’s father who also happened to be a close friend of Greenberg’s. Working in the shipping department, Kaufman took notice of the many letters that were pouring in to the company’s Valley Stream, Long Island headquarters. She asked a supervisor if she could begin responding to them. From there, Kaufman’s job developed into more of a public relations representative.

The ad firm’s idea was to maintain both Snapple’s simplicity and Kaufman’s unrehearsed appeal by shooting a series of television spots that would feature her reading real letters from behind a desk and then following up with the correspondent. One kid wrote in saying he’d make a good mascot; Kaufman showed up with a film crew and took him to mascot school. Another asked Kaufman to be his prom date; she accepted.

For Kaufman, it was an opportunity to distance herself from a self-admitted coke addiction (not the carbonated kind) that had started in 1980. For Snapple, it represented a chance to further their brand identity by passing up the kind of rock star endorsements common in the beverage industry. The 37 commercial spots, shot between 1993 and 1995, were enormously popular, and Kaufman became a mascot on par with Tony the Tiger. She made personal appearances, storming dorm rooms with cases of Snapple. She sifted through 2000 letters a week. Sales jumped from $232 million in 1992 to $774 million in 1994. Snapple was on Seinfeld, on the lips of radio personality Howard Stern, and celebrated for its unique marketing approach.

Then “Crapple” happened.

 
 

In 1992, Greenberg, Marsh, and Golden agreed to sell a majority stake in Snapple to the Thomas H. Lee investment firm, with Marsh remaining on as CEO. Then, in 1994, Snapple was sold to the Quaker Oats Company. As successful as Snapple had been, industry observers were excited to see what a global conglomerate could do to carry the brand further.

As the Harvard Business Review would later point out, fostering an already-successful brand is not as easy as it appears. Quaker Oats had enjoyed an explosion of support for its Gatorade sports drink brand and believed it could apply some of those same strategies to Snapple. Bottles got bigger, from the standard 16 ounces to 32 and even 64-ounce containers. Gone was Kaufman, no longer a good fit for Quaker’s polished promotional plans. They also cut ties with Stern, believing the controversial entertainer didn't reflect Snapple’s growing maturity in the market.

Bottles of Snapple line a store shelf
David Paul Morris, Getty Images

In retrospect, Quaker had erred on all counts. Consumers had little interest in vats of iced tea in 64-ounce containers, preferring to sip smaller bottles at work. They missed Kaufman, who was synonymous with the brand’s irreverence and homegrown feel. And Stern, who could be caustic when he felt minimized by sponsors, began using his considerable airtime to roast Snapple, calling it “Crapple.” The rants were beamed to millions of his listeners at stations around the country.

Quaker had, in effect, misjudged or mistimed Snapple’s graduation from plucky beverage upstart to a dignified institution. The company sold the brand to Triarc for $300 million in 1997. They had paid $1.4 billion for it just three years earlier. Following the sale, Quaker CEO Bill Smithburg resigned from his post.

 
 

Though Snapple’s heyday may have passed, there was still considerable consumer enthusiasm for its more adventurous flavors (like Diet Kiwi Strawberry Cocktail, which was allegedly a favorite among some horses at a Seattle stable) and for a return to less aggressive marketing. In 1997, Triarc invited Kaufman not only to come back and shoot a new commercial but to allow her face to be stamped on every bottle of Wendy’s Tropical Inspiration. And instead of limiting distributors to certain flavors, they shipped out more varied assortments and let consumers decide what they liked.

Triarc’s success was as notable as Quaker’s failure. The company sold Snapple to Cadbury Schweppes in 2000 for $1.45 billion. As part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the brand changed hands once more early in 2018, selling to coffee cup giant Keurig, part of the JAB Holdings investment group, in exchange for $18.7 billion to shareholders.

It’s been a roller coaster of a ride for Snapple, which started in a small health food store, became a part of popular culture, was nearly done in by a misguided marketing plan, and was finally restored to its former glory by a company willing to get back to the basics.

As for that hate group involvement: The “K” on the label never had any connection with Klan activity. It stood for “kosher.”

When the Commodore 64 Ruled Personal Computing

Conor Lawless, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Conor Lawless, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the early 1980s—when the average cost of a personal computer was $2700, and the average American earned just over $14,500 per year—Jack Tramiel decided to do for computers what Henry Ford had done for cars with the Model T: roll out a model that could be manufactured cheaply and efficiently, allowing more people to have PCs in their homes. “We design for the masses, not the classes,” Tramiel once famously said.

The result of Tramiel’s effort was the Commodore 64, a personal computer that brought home hardware from the sterile aisles of specialty stores to mass market retailers like Kmart. Priced at $595 in September 1982, it quickly fell to $400, then $300, and eventually $190. Unlike most PCs of the era, the Commodore 64 could play games. Like the Model T, it didn’t have the sexiest aesthetic—the boxy keyboard housed its guts, while a separate monitor quickly crowded one's workspace—but it was cheap enough to sell 500,000 units a month. To this day, it remains the best-selling single model of computer of all time—an impressive statistic for a machine that sold Dragon’s Lair on cassette tape.

A Commodore 64 computer is set up for public display
afromusing, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Tramiel, often considered the “anti-Steve Jobs” for his lack of interest in design elegance, was born in Poland in 1928. Nazi occupation forced his family into Auschwitz, where the camp's infamous SS captain/physician Josef Mengele hand-picked Tramiel and his father for work camp detail. His mother survived, but his father died under circumstances that were never confirmed. Tramiel later said he believed Nazi experimenters injected him with gasoline.

Tramiel, who was fascinated with all things mechanical, learned to repair typewriters in the Army. Upon discharge, he opened a typewriter shop in the Bronx before relocating to Toronto in the 1950s. His interest grew to calculators, and by the 1970s, his business—Commodore, named after the Opel Commodore car that he admired—was involved in the burgeoning personal computing field.

Tramiel’s aim was economy, and he bought his own chip manufacturer, MOS, to keep costs down. The result of their efforts was the 6502 processor, which could be rolled out inexpensively and rapidly. After the success of Commodore’s VIC-20, a $300 PC that had a color monitor (unheard-of at that price point), Tramiel focused all of his company’s resources on the Commodore 64.

The C64 had 64 kilobytes of RAM, a speedier 6510 processor, and a music synthesizer. While not quite in the league of the most expensive computers of the era, it outworked the Apple II and its 44 kilobytes of memory. Tramiel hoped it would be a kind of gateway computer, capable of introducing home users to BASIC programming language while amusing them with a library of educational and entertainment software. Programs were sold on floppies—which were invariably slow to load—or on data cassettes that could be played with the addition of a $75 peripheral.

Tramiel was so enthusiastic about the potential of the C64 that he rushed it to market, cramming its parts into old VIC-20 cabinets and prompting a quarter of the shipped units to arrive defective. It didn't do much to undermine the launch; Tramiel sent clear instructions to retailers telling them to exchange bad units without hassle. The machine took off, selling for $595 and promising an eclectic end-user experience. Opposing machines like the Apple IIc, Apple Macintosh, and IBM PC Junior, Tramiel’s model cost just a fraction of the price and, subjectively at least, was far more entertaining. Software titles expanded into the thousands, from licensed games like Ghostbusters to Boulder Dash to quasi-adult offerings like Strip Poker. Serious users had Microsoft spreadsheet programs or desktop publishing.

As manufacturing costs dropped—the unit cost Tramiel about $135 to produce—so did the price of the C64. Tramiel offered a $100 trade-in allowance for people who brought in old hardware, and even allowed retailers to accept old video game consoles like the Atari 2600. By 1984, the Commodore 64 represented a staggering 30 percent of the home computing market.

While the price point was appealing, it was Tramiel’s distribution strategy that surprised competitors. Rather than stick to computer stores, the Commodore 64 was stocked at mass market retailers in much the same way television and game systems had broken out of their hobbyist markets. Seeing a Commodore 64 display at Sears helped normalize the idea of home computing.

But not all users were satisfied customers. While the price kept plummeting, consumers realized that the central hardware was only part of the puzzle. A dot-matrix printer, cassette deck, modem, and other accessories could add hundreds of dollars to their investment. At $50, software wasn’t inexpensive, either. Even at its lowest price point of under $200, a fully expanded C64 setup could run $1000 (which would be just over $2600 in today's dollars).

Still, the Commodore 64 managed to permeate an incredible number of U.S. households. By some estimates, 17 to 20 million units were sold through the early 1990s, at which point PCs with greater processing speeds and more attractive design elements became the norm. Commodore tried upping the ante with the Commodore 128 and other models, but consumers were no longer in need of training wheels. With the presence of a home PC having been normalized and other manufacturers bringing costs down, Commodore fell behind.

Tramiel, who had resigned to run the ailing Atari corporation in the mid-1980s, died in 2012. While his creation doesn’t have quite the same popular recognition as Apple, it might have been the single most influential piece of hardware to come around in the nascent home PC era. A “retro” mini version is due in fall 2018. Naturally, it comes with 64 games.

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