The Tragic Life of Clippy, the World's Most Hated Virtual Assistant

Microsoft
Microsoft

When a large company stumbles, it’s major news. Coca-Cola infamously angered millions of soda drinkers when it tinkered with its recipe to produce New Coke in 1985. Netflix may now be the country’s biggest single source of entertainment, but it wasn’t long ago they tried to spin off their DVD and streaming services into separate entities, confusing millions of otherwise satisfied consumers.

Stationed somewhere in between those gaffes sits Clippy, the unofficial name for the bouncing, sentient paper clip introduced by Microsoft in 1996 in a bid to help people hone their word processing skills. When Microsoft Office software users began writing a letter by typing “Dear,” for example, out would pop Clippy with an unsolicited offer to help.

The first time this happened, users may have been amused. But as they grew more proficient, Clippy would redouble his efforts to interrupt, his roving eyes scanning documents in what felt like a gross invasion of privacy. In no time at all, he would be the subject of scorn and ridicule, an ever-present voyeur into your home computer navigation.

In order for Microsoft to continue to flourish, Clippy would have to die.

A screen shot featuring Clippy
The Science Elf, YouTube

In the 1990s, Microsoft had already revolutionized personal computing with its Windows interface. Taking navigation out of its sterile DOS command prompts and making it feel more like the welcoming layout of Apple's Macintosh line, Windows helped facilitate the PC boom.

The company wanted to take it one step further with Bob, an operating system programmed to resemble the rooms of a house. Going to the “checkbook” on the desk, for example, would open financial software. Released in 1995, the virtual domain never took off, with users and industry observers declaring it so purposely cute that it was nauseating. (Even worse, the hated typeface Comic Sans was created for use in Bob, perpetuating a cycle of user cruelty.)

Although Microsoft quickly abandoned Bob, it seemed stuck on one of the characters that populated the OS: Clippit, an energetic paper clip that injected itself into tasks to see if it could make the experience easier on users. According to Clippit illustrator Kevan Atteberry, Microsoft had developed over 250 characters for such a purpose: Clippit, which users later re-named “Clippy,” won out, and the company decided to keep him around for the 1996 release of its word processing software.

Despite Microsoft harnessing the knowledge of social psychologists from Stanford to develop these software assistants, there were early signs Clippy was destined to annoy users. Focus groups exposed to the character made frequent references to his “leering” eyes, which female product testers found particularly unsettling. (Though he lacked any genitalia, Clippy was labeled male by Microsoft.)

Failing to heed their criticism, Microsoft inserted Clippy into the version of Office released in 1996. Users opening a blank document were greeted by a jovial paper clip that offered advice on everything from spelling to saving files. Even if keyboard shortcuts and other operating commands were mastered, Clippy materialized from the ether, repeating himself until they could figure out how to shut him up for good. (For Office 1997 users, that meant manually changing his program folder name from "Actors" to "NoActors.")

Although Clippy received the brunt of criticism, he wasn’t the only Office mascot available to distract and annoy. The Genius was an Einstein-esque icon; Power Pup was a dog that could help you retrieve information. But Clippy was the pre-set helper, and his wiggling eyebrows and contorted paper clip frame burrowed into Windows users' psyches.

Clippy meets his maker
Stan Honda/Getty Images

Microsoft was not insulated from the Clippy criticism. Writing of his time working for the company, James Fallows reported for The Atlantic in 2008 that the excitable little stationery accessory was bemoaned by employees. Yet Clippy remained, getting a minor makeover in Office 2000 before being automatically turned off in 2002. (Microsoft poked fun at the user enmity, announcing the character was out of work and creating a game that allowed players to zap Clippy with a staple gun.)

Why the allegiance? Fallows said it was in part related to Clippy’s origin as a resident of the failed Bob operating system. That project was spearheaded by Melinda French, who later became Melinda French Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. While Fallows is quick to point out that it wasn’t the sole reason Clippy remained an uninvited guest, no one was particularly enthusiastic about getting rid of him, either.

Clippy eventually met his end in 2007, when the latest version of Office shipped without his grating interjections. Distanced from the pain of actually having to deal with him, a number of Clippy’s critics began to produce damning fan art, from Clippy being a general nuisance to engaging in lewd acts. In 2015, author Leonard Delaney self-published Conquered by Clippy, a 16-page erotic short story that was either a meditation on how technology is seducing us or just a weird story about a paper clip copulating with a human. (Delaney also penned Taken by Tetris Blocks.)

Clippy’s final bow—for now, at least—came earlier in 2017, when an anonymous programmer offered a Chrome extension that allows Clippy to pop up virtually everywhere you go. Like the original, he’s basically useless.

The One Where Jennifer Aniston's 'Rachel' Haircut on Friends Became a Phenomenon

NBC Television/Getty Images
NBC Television/Getty Images

The legacy of NBC's Friends isn't one of ratings records or piles of awards—it's about the way the show managed to impact popular culture by showing life at its most mundane. This is a series that turned sipping coffee into an art form, still prompts philosophical debates over the morality of being "on a break," and made it impossible not to shout pivot! when moving furniture. But Friends reached its cultural zenith when it managed to transform a simple hairstyle into a global talking point, as untold millions of women in the ‘90s flocked to salons all wanting one thing: “The Rachel.”

“The Rachel” hairstyle, which was the creation of stylist Chris McMillan, was first worn by Jennifer Aniston’s Friends character Rachel Green in the April 1995 episode “The One With the Evil Orthodontist." It has its roots as a shag cut, layered and highlighted to TV perfection. It may have been a bit too Hollywood-looking for a twenty-something working for tips, but it fit in the world of Friends, where spacious Manhattan apartments could easily be afforded by waitresses and struggling actors.

The Birth of "The Rachel"


Aniston in 1996, during the height of the style.
NBC Universal/Getty Images

The style itself wasn’t designed to grab headlines; McMillan simply gave Aniston this new look to be “a bit different,” as he later told The Telegraph. In hindsight, the ingredients for a style trend were all there: The cut was seen on the show’s breakout star as the series hit its ratings peak; an average of more than 25 million viewers tuned in each week during Friends's first three seasons. You can’t have that many eyeballs on you without fans wanting to get closer to you, and the easiest way to do that is to copy your style.

During the show’s second and third seasons in the mid-1990s, stories began to appear in newspapers and magazines about salons from Los Angeles to New York City and (literally) everywhere in-between being inundated with requests for Aniston's haircut. Some women would come in with their copy of TV Guide in hand for reference; others would record an episode of the show and play it at the salon to ensure accuracy. For these stylists, a good hair day for Rachel on a Thursday night meant big business over the weekend.

"That show has made us a bunch of money," Lisa Pressley, an Alabama hairstylist, said back in 1996. Pressley was giving around four "Rachels" per week to women ages 13 to 30, and she was touching up even more than that. Another hairdresser estimated that, during that time, 40 percent of her business from female clients came from the "Rachel." During the early days of the trend, McMillan even had people flying to his Los Angeles salon to get the hairdo from the man himself—a service that he charged a modest $60 for at the time.

A Finicky 'Do

What many clients learned, though, was that unless you had a trained stylist at your side, “The Rachel” required some real maintenance.

"People don't realize the style is set by her hairdresser," stylist Trevor Tobin told The Kansas City Star in 1995. “She doesn't just wake up, blow it dry, and it just turns out like that."

That was a warning Aniston knew all too well. In recent years, she has expressed her frustration at not being able to do the style on her own; to get it just right, she needed McMillan on hand to go through painstaking styling before shoots. In addition to being impossible to maintain, in a 2011 Allure interview, Aniston called it the “ugliest haircut I've ever seen." In 2015, the actress told Glamour that she found the look itself “cringey."

Though Aniston had grown to loathe the look, it was soon the 1990s' go-to style for other stars like Meg Ryan and Tyra Banks and later adopted by actresses and musicians like Kelly Clarkson and Jessica Alba. Debra Messing had an ill-fated run-in with it when she was told to mimic the style for her role on Will & Grace. They soon realized that trying it without McMillan was a fool’s errand.

“[It] was a whole debacle when we tried to do it on the show,” Messing recalled. “They literally tried for three hours to straighten my hair like [Aniston's]. It was so full and poofy that it looked like a mushroom.”

A Style That Sticks Around

A picture of Jennifer Aniston from 1999.
Aniston sporting her post-"Rachel" hair during the show's sixth season.
NBC Universal/Getty Images

Aniston’s personal preference for longer hair soon made its way on-screen, replacing the shorter, choppier “Rachel” by season 4. The once-iconic look was officially ditched, the last remnants of which were washed away in a flowing sea of ever-growing locks doused in blonde, pin-straight highlights. And once a haircut’s namesake turns their back on the style, it’s likely only a matter of time before the rest of the world moves on, too, right?

Wrong. “The Rachel” endured.

Unlike Farrah Fawcett’s showstopping feathered hair from the ‘70s, celebrities, news anchors, and the average salon-goer were still wearing the hairstyle well into the 2000s. Even now, fashion websites will run the occasional “Is ‘The Rachel’ Making a Comeback?” article, complete with the latest Hollywood star to sport the familiar shag.

It’s a testament to McMillan’s skill, Aniston’s charm, and Friends’s cultural sway over audiences that people are still discussing, and donning, the hairstyle some 25 years later. And in a lot of ways, the haircut's success mimicked the show's: it spawned plenty of imitators, but no one could outdo the original.

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

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