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Fruit of the Loom

The Secret History of Underoos

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Fruit of the Loom

It was 1977, and Larry Weiss was holding a check in his hand for $64,000. “A lot of money back then,” he tells mental_floss, and a lot of money at any other time. A licensing and marketing expert, he had been tasked with conceptualizing a new take on kids' underwear, traditionally as monotonous and boring a product category as grass seed.

His idea was to splash familiar emblems and characters from popular culture on the garments, creating a feeling of empowerment. Tighty whities did little for a child’s self-confidence. Put him in a pair of Batman shorts, however, and maybe he feels a couple of inches taller, a little broader in the shoulders.  

Weiss was confident it had appeal. But Hanes had passed on the idea. So did the Scott Paper Company, which spent a year in development before senior executives got cold feet. Though he began working on the project at the urging of an ad firm, Weiss had taken on the financial burden of licensing Marvel, DC, and other characters himself. When Scott backed out, Weiss had gotten them to agree to pay for the next year’s merchandising rights to Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and all the rest.

The money could buy another year of shopping the idea—but Weiss was broke. “I had my own $64,000 question,” he says. I was poor at the time. I get a check from Scott. I could take it and say, ‘Well, bad idea, but at least I got a little money,’ or I could move forward.”

Even though two companies had shown him the door, Weiss was sure his concept would be a success. He made the renewal payments to DC, Marvel, and the others, and hoped someone would share his enthusiasm—to understand that he wasn’t really selling underwear, but a secret identity, and that his Underoos were destined to become one of the biggest licensing success stories since Fruity Pebbles.

Weiss would know. He came up with that one, too.

Working as a product manager for Post Cereal in the late 1960s, Weiss was determined to crack the problem of kids running out of the house without eating breakfast. After speaking with licensing representatives from DC, Marvel, Archie, and Hanna-Barbera, he pitched the idea of re-branding Post’s flailing Sugar Rice Krinkles into a Flintstones tie-in product.

Fruity Pebbles was an immediate hit. “It was putting entertainment together with cereal,” he says. “Not just promotion, but interweaving mythology.” Instead of 30-second ad spots, Post suddenly had 30-minute cartoons that doubled as marketing tools.    

Though his planned Batman and Superman cereals didn’t make it to shelves, Weiss’s connections with the comics publishers wound up being invaluable. While working as a freelance research and development brain for hire in the late 1970s, he was approached by an advertising firm to see if he had any novel ideas for the underwear category.

Weiss sat down and sketched what was then a revolutionary concept for the market. Instead of selling packs of tops and bottoms separately, he imagined a combination shirt and underwear set—one to a pack—that traded boring white cotton for flashy replicas of comic hero costumes: Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, all part of the modern mythology revered by children. Weiss subverted the misery of buying or receiving underwear as a gift and turned it into a transformative experience.  

An early concept sketch for Fred Flintstone Underoos. Image courtesy of Larry Weiss.

After Hanes and Scott Paper passed, Fruit of the Loom asked if they could step in and take over the entire operation. (The company had originally planned to source apparel for Scott, which didn’t manufacture any of their own.) Weiss, who had put all his chips on the table, agreed. The parties decided to market under the name Underoos, which is what Weiss’s 9-year-old son had come up with after seeing his father’s sketches.  

But Weiss had grown to have some concerns of his own. Having flirted with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology at the University of Minnesota before shifting to business, he feared he knew just enough to hang himself. He consulted with a psychologist at Yale, showed her a bunch of Superman underwear, and asked if his idea might be too good—if it could prompt a kid to climb out of a third-story window and leap out.

No, she answered. No sane child would believe they could fly because of their brand of underwear.

“So that was that,” Weiss says. Not long after, millions of children spent the wind-ups to birthdays, holidays, or school shopping begging their parents for—of all things—underwear.  

The kids wanted Underoos.

Joseph Novak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was a good time to get into the fancy underwear business. When Underoos debuted in 1977, Star Wars had just reignited the idea of modern-day mythology; the following year, Superman: The Movie was the first big-budget attempt to translate the spectacle of a comic book onscreen.

“It kind of all happened together,” Weiss says. “The timing was just right.”

In market testing, Underoos were the only product Weiss had ever been involved with that garnered a 98 percent approval rating; while still exclusive to the Los Angeles and New York areas, they began appearing in other parts of the country. It was a form of underwear bootlegging, and it convinced Fruit of the Loom to roll out the line quickly.

Another Weiss conceit was to get rid of the standard blocky shrink-wrap and package Underoos in what looked like a record album sleeve, with enough room for key art. Huge kiosks stuffed with inventory began erupting all over the country.  

“For a time, it was the only non-Sears clothing product in Sears,” Weiss says. “J.C. Penney wanted to buy it outright, but I had a deal with Fruit of the Loom.”

Though companies like DC and Marvel rarely collaborated with one another, they allowed Weiss to feature both of their characters in the same ads.

Major attractions like Batman and Superman were best-sellers; to avoid shopper fatigue, Weiss advised Fruit of the Loom to cycle them out, with one being available for six months and then swapping places with the other. Spider-Woman, Pac-Man, and the Hulk eventually joined the rotation. (Fred Flintstone was not among the first offerings. An entire spool of leopard-skin fabric wasn’t practical.)

While it seemed Underoos could do no wrong, attempts to monetize Archie in the boy’s category proved futile. No one much cared for “America’s Favorite Teenager” appearing as a logo, and a bowtie didn’t make for much of a costume. (He did come in handy when executives wanted to keep white tops and bottoms as an option for parents who disliked the idea of colored apparel: Archie’s head was affixed to those.) Weiss also considered an Olympic-themed line, but athletic apparel was inconsistent and likely not as magical an experience as wearing Spider-Man’s costume under your shirt during dinner.  

In a testament to how completely Weiss had upended the market, a letter dated December 20, 1979, and published in the Wide County Messenger in Decatur, Texas read:

“Dear Santa, I’ve been a real good boy this month. Please bring me a Mr. Pibb jump car so I can drive it like the Duke boys do theirs and a play hand saw, a Silly Sammy seagull game, a Breyer bull and horse, and most of all—Captain America Underoos.”

Despite having created a money printing press, Weiss had some firm mandates when it came to expanding the line. He preferred characters that had stuck around for decades, proving their appeal across several generations. For that reason, Underoos based on the Dukes of Hazzard and even Star Wars didn’t sit well with him.

“I wouldn’t have done Star Wars until 1995,” Weiss says. “I wanted to see it work across multiple media before doing anything. Obviously, George Lucas really did tap into that mythological stream. But at the time, I thought doing Boba Fett was stupid. Who was going to want to dress up like an intergalactic bounty hunter?”

In a little over two years, Weiss’s royalties for Underoos amounted to enough that it kicked in a contractual sale of the line to Fruit of the Loom. He exited with a seven-figure payout, which answered any questions over the wisdom in gambling $64,000 years earlier.

Though Underoos would remain popular throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the increased availability of licensed merchandise would relegate them to just another product category. If a kid wanted to be Superman, he could do more than just wear the “S” under a shirt: there were video games, action figures, and cartoons to help complete the illusion.

Weiss also believes the perennial poison of any product—oversaturation—led to a decline in sales. “You can sell Daisy Duke Underoos, but they’re a fad,” he says. “You order more and they start to linger. Then stores don’t reorder Wonder Woman because they have too many Daisy Dukes.”

Fruit of the Loom currently licenses the Underoos brand to Bioworld Merchandising, which operates an e-commerce site and also sells the apparel in specialty and comic stores. Owing to the nostalgia factor, they now come in adult sizes; vintage sets can fetch upwards of $70 on eBay.    

Weiss continued in the research and development business, toying with various ideas (a bandana version of Underoos, NFL-themed underwear) and creating concepts for ATM banking. At 77, he has no plans to retire. “To retire is to say I’m through living,” he says.

In the end, the ingenuity of Underoos was not that Weiss upended a category. It’s that he essentially invented a new one. “Kids believe they are something other than what they appear on the surface. They’re forced into subservient roles in school,” he says. “But when you’ve got a superhero costume underneath your clothes and your teacher tells you to sit up straight, well, you’re Batman. And she doesn’t know it.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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