The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude

John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

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.

The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of the Fanny Pack

Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella
Matt Cowan, Getty Images for Coachella

Back in 1954, Sports Illustrated ran an advertisement for a leather pouch that was touted as an ideal accessory for cross-country skiers who wanted to hold their lunch and ski wax. Hikers, equestrians, and bicyclists could also benefit from this waist-mounted sack, which was a bit like a backpack situated on the hips.

The “fanny pack” sold for $10 ($95 today). For the next several decades, it remained popular among recreational enthusiasts traveling by bike, on foot, or across trails where hands could be kept free and a large piece of travel luggage was unnecessary. From there, it morphed into a fashion statement, marketed by Gucci and Nike for decorative and utilitarian purposes in the 1980s and '90s, before becoming an ironic hipster joke. Even the name—fanny pack—suggests mirth. But the concept of carrying goods on top of your buttocks was never meant to be a joking matter.

A man sports a ski outfit with a fanny pack in 1969
McKeown/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mankind has looked to belt-mounted storage solutions for centuries. Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old mummy found preserved in a glacier in 1991, had a leather satchel that held a sharpened piece of bone and flint-stone tools. Subsequent civilizations adopted the premise, with Victorian and Edwardian women toting chatelaine purses made of silk or velvet.

The 20th-century obsession with the fanny pack seemingly began on the ski slopes in Europe in the 1960s and '70s. Known as bauchtasche, or stomach bags, in Switzerland, skiers traveling away from the base lodge who wanted to keep certain items—food, money, a map, flares, and occasionally alcohol—within arm's reach wore them proudly. Photographers also found them useful when hiking or traveling outdoors and climbing through obstacles, as they reduced the risk of an expensive camera or lens being dropped or damaged.

Their migration into fashion and the general public happened in the 1980s, due to what Fashion Fads Through American History author Jennifer Grayer Moore dubbed the rise of “athleisure.” This trend saw apparel and accessories typically relegated to sports or exercise—think leggings, track suits, and gym shorts—entering day-to-day use. With them came the fanny pack, a useful depository for keys, wallets, drinks, and other items. They were especially popular among tourists, who could stash travel accessories like cameras and souvenirs without burdening themselves with luggage.

In the late 1980s, fashion took notice. High-end labels like Chanel manufactured premium fanny packs, often with the more dignified name of belt bag. Sporting one was considered cool, as evidenced by their presence in popular culture. The Fresh Prince, Will Smith, wore one. Members of New Kids on the Block were seen with them. Nothing, it seemed, could dissuade people from feeling pragmatic and hip by sporting an oversized pocket on their waist, which they typically pulled to the front.

A model sports a fanny pack, also known as a belt bag, across her shoulder
Hannah Peters, Getty Images

Like most trends, overexposure proved fatal. Fanny packs were everywhere, given out by marketing departments of major brands like Miller Beer and at sports arenas and stadiums. Plastered with corporate logos, they became too crassly commercial for style purposes and too pervasive. By the end of the 1990s, wearing a fanny pack was no longer cool. It was an act that invited mockery and disdain.

The pack, of course, has retained its appeal among outdoor enthusiasts, and lately has been experiencing a resurgence in style circles, with designer labels like Louis Vuitton and Valentino offering high-end pouches. Many are now being modified or worn across the torso like a bandolier (like so), an adaptation prized by skateboarders who want something to hold their goods without hindering movement.

In 2018, fanny packs were credited with a surge in overall accessories sales, posting double-digit gains in merchandise. The fanny pack may have had its day as an accessory of mass appeal, but it’s not likely to completely disappear anytime soon.

A Fad to Dye For: The Brief Life of Hypercolor Clothing

Shadow Shifter, YouTube
Shadow Shifter, YouTube

There's something counterintuitive about a clothing line for young adults that could exhibit outward signs of embarrassment. A shirt, for example, that changes color as a person sweats would seem like something no teenager would want to wear. Yet apparel company Generra struck gold with Hypercolor, their line of thermochromic apparel dyed with a patented process that allowed the cotton fabric to react to spikes in the wearer's body temperature.

It wasn’t just sweat. If someone placed their hand on the shirt, they would leave a handprint that looked almost irradiated. Hugs would deposit lines of color across backs. Even breathing on the fabric caused it to change color. It was interactive “mood” clothing, and for a brief period of time in 1991, it was one of the hottest trends in apparel.

Products that respond to the wearer's emotions or behavior are not a new concept. In 1975, a “mood ring” was introduced that purportedly changed color based on the user’s temperament using a heat-sensitive liquid crystal. Soon after, mood lipsticks began appearing in cosmetics aisles. Freezy Freakies, a line of winter gloves with images that materialized in cold weather, gripped the nation in the 1980s.

Freezy Freakies used thermochromic ink, a methodology that was similar to how Hypercolor clothing managed to change appearance. Generra, which was founded by former executives of the Brittania clothing label in 1980, struck upon the idea after coming across a process developed by Japan's Matsui Shikiso chemical company. First, a permanent dye would be used on a cotton garment—blue, for example. Then a thermochromatic dye would be added, with microcapsules bonding to the fabric. That dye would typically be made of leuco dye, which can appear colorless, along with acid and dissociable salt dissolved in a fatty alcohol named 1-Dodecanol.

The 1-Dodecanol is solid at temperatures below 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Above 75.2 degrees, it reacts with the salt, causing the previously colorless leuco dye to take on a new color based on light absorption and reflection in the fabric. If the leuco dye is yellow and the shirt is blue, the warmed spot will appear to be green.

Naturally, few kids cared much about the science behind it—they just knew their T-shirt could change colors. Generra became the exclusive licensee of the Hypercolor technology in the United States and began a heavy promotional campaign in late 1990, blanketing MTV and teen magazines like Seventeen and Thrasher with print ads for the color-shifting apparel that read: “Hypercolor, hypercool.”

The marketing assault created heavy anticipation for the official debut of Hypercolor in January 1991. Available at retail locations, the clothing typically bore the Hypercolor insignia or no logo at all. Prospective buyers could sample the thermochromatic action in stores. Even better, they could do it in schools, where kids who had bought the shirts walked the hallways and acted as living billboards for the line.

“Everybody was touching it and breathing on it and stuff and trying to get it to change colors,” Courtney Signorella, a 12-year-old customer and student at Fort Myers Middle School in Fort Myers, Florida, told the News-Press in July 1991 of her classmates' reaction to her Hypercolor gear. The clothes also changed color in air conditioning, under the sun, and during exercise.

Steve Miska, Generra's chairman at the time, dismissed concerns the clothing could be a potential neon sign of nervousness. After testing the garments on his own employees, he felt the color changes in armpits were blotchy and not terribly noticeable. Even though they made shorts and jeans, there was no apparent issue with any kind of discoloration in groin areas. For a potentially controversial piece of apparel, Hypercolor got by without a scratch.

The only problem? Generra underestimated just how enthralled people would be. The company projected $20 million in sales for 1991. By April of that year, they had sold $50 million in Hypercolor items, from shirts ($24) to tank tops ($15) to shorts ($34). A spin-off line, Hypergrafix, used images that would appear with a temperature spike. All told, the company did $105 million in wholesale revenue for that year, over five times what they had anticipated.

But Hypercolor's success came at a price. There was a shortage of the dyes used, and a backlog of orders that needed to be filled. Generra added employees and new manufacturing facilities in their home base of Seattle but wound up meeting only half of the demand. By the time production ramped back up, consumer enthusiasm for Hypercolor was beginning to wane.

A Hypercolor t-shirt with a handprint is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After the initial novelty of seeing handprints or color changes wore off, the shirts weren’t much different from other apparel in closets. And if the fascination for the clothing didn’t fade, the dye soon did. Repeated washings or drying in machines (which wasn’t recommended) frequently diluted the reaction, turning the clothing into a purple-brown oddity. Younger buyers were also gravitating toward licensed sports apparel, like NBA shirts, as well as fashion trends offered by outlets like the Gap.

“There’s nothing trendy about Hypercolor,” Miska told the Chicago Tribune in 1991, at the height of the product's popularity. Little did he know how true those words would soon become.

By 1992, the fad was over and Generra declared bankruptcy, selling off its screen-printing plant and licensing a company named Seattle T-Shirt to make Hypercolor apparel for an increasingly shrinking consumer base.

Heat-reactive clothing has never disappeared entirely. In 2008, a number of manufacturers, including American Apparel and Puma, tried to resurrect the style with shirts, dresses, and sneakers. Currently, a line of clothing under the brand name Shadow Shifter has taken up the baton, offering shirts and other products that react to both temperature and water. Hypercolor was a thermochromatic flash in the pan, despite Generra’s optimism.

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