Fruit of the Loom
Fruit of the Loom

The Secret History of Underoos

Fruit of the Loom
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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10 Strange Publicity Stunts by Major Food Brands
IHOb Restaurants
IHOb Restaurants

Celebrities have always loved doing crazy things for press—but these days, even corporations will go to extreme lengths to get the word out about their products. Case in point: IHOP's recent attempt to create a little mystery, and sell some burgers, as IHOb. Below you’ll find 10 of the weirdest stunts done to promote mass-produced food items.

1. COLONEL SANDERS RAPPELS DOWN A HIGH-RISE

It’s hard to imagine KFC’s elderly Colonel Sanders doing much outside of eating and talking about his “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken. But in 2011, a man dressed as the Colonel strapped on a harness and rappelled down Chicago’s River Bend building. The Colonel didn't stop at rappelling down the 40-story building; he also handed out $5 everyday meals to window washers. What was KFC’s concept behind this dangerous promotion? They wanted to show the world they were taking lunch to “new heights.”

2. THE WORLD'S LARGEST POPSICLE

Sometimes being the biggest doesn’t mean you’re the best. In 2005, Snapple wanted to make the world’s largest Popsicle to promote their new line of frozen treats. Their plan was to display a 25-foot-tall, 17.5-ton treat of frozen Snapple juice in New York City’s Union Square. However, their plan ended in a sticky disaster. The day Snapple tried to present the Popsicle, New York was experiencing warmer than expected temperatures. The pop melted so quickly that a river of sticky sludge took over several streets. In a city already congested by traffic and tourists, this made Snapple enemy No. 1 that day to the people of New York City.

3. COFFEE CUPS ON CAR ROOFS = FREE COUPONS

A cup of Starbucks coffee
Wikimedia Commons

Starbucks believes in rewarding those who embrace the holiday spirit. In 2005, the Seattle-based coffee giant developed a campaign by which brand ambassadors drove around with replicas of Vente Starbucks cups affixed to their car roofs. If anyone stopped the ambassador to warn them about the coffee cup on their roof, that person received a $5 gift card to Starbucks. Starbucks wanted the world to know being a good samaritan really can pay!

4. MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Imagine walking the beach and finding a sealed bottle of Guinness. But instead of finding beer inside, you find a note from King Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. In 1959, that happened to people along North America’s Atlantic coast. Guinness wanted to build brand awareness in the area, so they dropped 150,000 sealed Guinness bottles into the ocean. The bottle contained Neptune’s scroll announcing the House of Guinness’s Bi-Centenary as well as a document instructing the reader on how to make a Guinness bottle into a table lamp. While no one got a free beer (boo!), they did walk away with an arts and crafts project.

5. EAU DE FLAME-BROILED

Who can resist the smell of flame-broiled burgers? The answer is most people—at least when it comes in the form of a body spray. Burger King’s 2008 campaign promoting the “scent of seduction” may be one of the weirdest ideas on this list. The fast-food company thought they could capture the world’s attention by creating and advertising a meat-scented cologne called FLAME by BK. Though select New York City stores actually sold the scent, all of this was a tongue-in-cheek campaign to make the 18- to 35-year-old male demographic laugh.

6. HERE COMES THE SUN

London commuters experienced an unexpectedly bright morning during January 2012. Tropicana worked with the art collective Greyworld to create a fake sun promoting their “Brighter Morning” campaign. The "sun," made up of more than 60,000 light bulbs, rose over Trafalgar Square at 6:51 a.m. on a particularly chilly morning. The sun set at 7:33 p.m. Tropicana continued to promote their sun day, fun day by having Londoners sit under the sun with branded sunglasses, deck chairs, and blankets. 

7. AIRPORT STEAK DELIVERY

Some of the craziest publicity stunts can’t be planned. We live in a world of 24/7 social media, and when the Twitterverse gave Morton’s Steakhouse an opportunity, they seized upon it. Before flying from Tampa to Newark, Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and author, jokingly tweeted at Morton's Steakhouse that he wanted a porterhouse steak to be waiting for him when he landed. As Shankman was a frequent diner and social media influencer, Morton's Steakhouse saw the opportunity to start a conversation—and they went for it: When Shankman touched down in Newark, he was greeted by his car service driver and a Morton’s deliveryman. If only all travelers could experience that happiness in an airport.

8. BUYING THE LIBERTY BELL

April Fools Day gags can be great for brands … or an embarrassment. In 1996, Taco Bell took out an ad in The New York Times saying they bought Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. The ad also informed people of the bell’s new name: "Taco Liberty Bell." Back in the mid-1990s, people couldn’t go on Twitter or Facebook to find out the truth. Instead, they wrote the publication voicing their outrage. The hoax may have worked in getting press coverage (650 print publications and 400 broadcast media outlets publicized the joke), but what does that say about your brand when people actually believe you would rename a historic monument for your own gain?

9. CREATING THE LARGEST MAN-MADE FIRE


Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, the Costa-Mesa based chain El Pollo Loco sent out press releases saying they planned to create the world’s largest man-made fire. Why would they create a fire? El Pollo Loco needed to get the word out about their new flame-grilled chicken. Spectators attending the event were shocked to see that this stunt was actually a commercial shoot for the brand. The chain says they really did attempt to break the record. But many publications have stated the whole promotion was a fraud. Note to brands: When trying to pull off a publicity stunt and a commercial simultaneously, tell everyone your plan in advance.

10. KFC IN SPACE

KFC may just be the king of wild publicity stunts. In 2006, the company created an 87,500-square-foot logo at Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada. The company wanted to be the first brand visible from space. And it was no coincidence they picked a spot near “The World’s Only Extraterrestrial Highway.”

“If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” said Gregg Dedrick, former president of KFC Corp. The world is not enough for KFC. They need the entire universe hooked on their Original Recipe.

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Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail
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In December 1992, media outlets from around the country filed into the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for what soft drink giant Coca-Cola was trumpeting as a “truly out-of-this-world experience.” In front of reporters, the company's North American president, Doug Ivester, unveiled a 16-ounce silver can that he hoped would change the landscape of soda.

The product was Tab Clear, a new version of the sugar- and calorie-free diet drink first introduced in 1963. While it retained its bubbles, the liquid was transparent, an obvious nod to rival Pepsi’s introduction of Crystal Pepsi earlier that year.

Publicly, Ivester boasted that Tab Clear would be yet another success in Coca-Cola’s long history of refreshment dominance. But behind the scenes, Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman were convinced Tab Clear would be a failure—and that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Flying in the face of convention, the launch of Tab Clear was deliberately designed to self-destruct.

 
 

In the early 1990s, beverage manufacturers were heavily preoccupied with the idea of clear drinks that communicated a sense of wellness. The Coors company even produced a clear alcoholic malt beverage, Zima, to capitalize on the craze, but porting it over to the soft drink market was nothing new. In the 1940s, Soviet leader Georgy Zhukov used his friendly relationship with the U.S. to make an appeal for Coca-Cola to produce a clear version of their drink so he could enjoy it surreptitiously and without being accused of indulging in a capitalist product; the soda maker removed the caramel from the recipe, which essentially de-pigmented it. Coca-Cola also produced Sprite, a fizzy, lemon-tinged drink that didn’t use coloring.

But it wasn’t until Pepsi unveiled Crystal Pepsi in 1992 that marketing departments began to pay close attention to transparency in their product. Crystal Pepsi was essentially a fruit-flavored variation of regular Pepsi, with all the typical amounts of sugar and calories but no caffeine. That light could pass through the beverage was a novelty, albeit one that Pepsi believed could help them carve out a 2 percent slice of the $48 billion soft drink market. And if Pepsi could do that, it would mean less money for Coca-Cola.

Like a boxer preparing a counter-attack, Coke couldn’t simply sit back and allow Pepsi to strike without retaliation. But few within the company were sold on the longevity of the clear soda craze. Worse, the company had stumbled badly with New Coke in 1985, a new formula intended to replace the classic version that drew public criticism and created a public relations disaster. Tempting fate with a Clear Coke was out of the question.

Zyman had the answer. Before coming to Coke, Zyman had been a director of sales and marketing for Pepsi; he defected to Coca-Cola just in time for the highly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982. After a sabbatical, Zyman—a notoriously combative executive who earned the nickname the “Aya-Cola” for his management style—returned as chief marketing officer and devised an ingenious plan to stifle Crystal Pepsi without risking the reputation of Coca-Cola Classic. His sacrificial pawn would be Tab.

Sometimes stylized as “TaB," the drink had been introduced in 1963 as an alternative for calorie-conscious consumers. Sold in a pink can, it was targeted specifically at women concerned about their weight and marketed as a solution to increase sex appeal. Tab, ads claimed, could help consumers “be a shape he won’t forget … Tab can help you stay in his mind.”

With Diet Coke available to help keep marriages from crumbling, Tab was relegated to an afterthought, falling from 4 percent of Coke's overall market share to just 1 percent. Zyman believed it was expendable. If Tab Clear happened to catch on, fine. If it didn’t, the failure wouldn’t reflect poorly on the Coke brand.

But Zyman wasn’t content to simply try to compete with Crystal Pepsi. In his mind, Tab Clear was what consumer brands refer to as a “kamikaze effort,” a product expected to fail. Zyman believed that the presence of Tab Clear on shelves would confuse consumers into believing Crystal Pepsi was a diet drink. (It wasn’t, though there was a Diet Crystal Pepsi version available.) By blurring the lines and confusing consumers who wanted either a calorie-free drink or a full-bodied indulgence, Zyman expected Tab Clear to be a dud and bring Crystal Pepsi down right along with it.

“It was a suicidal mission from day one,” Zyman told author Stephen Denny for his 2011 business book, Killing Giants. “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the [Crystal Pepsi] brand and, regardless, we killed it.”

 
 

With Pepsi set for a massive ad spend on the January 1993 Super Bowl, Coke rolled out Tab Clear in 10 cities, with national expansion coming mid-year. Their ad spending was minimal. Coca-Cola made just enough noise to reposition Crystal Pepsi from a hot, trendy new drink to a product with an identity crisis.

“They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink,” Zyman said. "'This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.' And we said, 'No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.' Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three to five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

The dissolution of soda products on shelves is not inherently dramatic, and there was no visceral evidence on display that Tab Clear was flailing. But by the end of 1993, Zyman’s prediction had come true. Crystal Pepsi had grabbed just 0.5 percent of the market, a quarter of Pepsi's prediction. Both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were phased out and Coke was happy to write the dual obituary. “Now both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi are about to die,” Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta told Ad Week in November 1993.

But it was Pepsi that had spent millions in development and $40 million in marketing; it took the company 18 months to formulate their failure. Coke spent just two months on Tab Clear. It was a barnacle that dragged its far more ambitious rival down with it.

Zyman continued to work for Coca-Cola through 1998. Clear products never caught on as some companies anticipated, though they do experience periodic revivals. Zima returned to shelves in 2017, and Crystal Pepsi has had promotional comebacks.

In one final twist, and despite Ivester's earlier declaration that Clear Coke would never see the light of day, the company’s Japanese arm released a zero-calorie Coca-Cola Clear in the country on June 11. This time, they might even want it to succeed.

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