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The Origin of the Sports Illustrated Football Phone

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#TBT, our new Thursday series, takes a look back at the people, places, things, and trends that held our fascination in decades past—both the unforgettable ones, and those you only wish you could forget.

In the 1990s, the magazine industry was having some issues. People suffered a five percent drop in circulation in the first half of 1990; Sports Illustrated dropped by seven percent that same year. Publishers could discount titles, but steep markdowns on subscriptions affected ad rates; sales departments needed to be able to say people were paying close to full cover price in order to entice advertisers.

Time, Inc., which owned both People and SI, thought it was time for a different approach. The sports magazine had previously offered tapes of football and basketball bloopers to new subscribers, which had a high "perceived value" due to the exorbitant cost of VHS cassettes in the 1980s. They performed well, but there was only so much footage of uncoordinated athletes to go around.

Michael Loeb, SI's circulation director, was tasked with conceiving of a new idea. What could be done to get people excited about the bland process of ordering a magazine subscription?

The elegant solution: a football-shaped phone. The flip-style receiver and handset were covered in a hard shell of rubber, textured for grip, and featured a ringer that sounded like a referee’s whistle. Oval and unbalanced, it had to be placed on a stand when not in use—in this case, a kicker’s tee. There were “mute” and “redial” buttons and not much else. The appeal was in the absurdist performance art of watching people express delight over a phone you could play catch with, then call people to tell them "you won’t believe what I'm calling you on." 

SI purchased airtime on cable channels to promote the phone. The two-minute commercial spots quickly became something of a phenomenon, blending a recognizable brand with a made-for-TV kitsch product. "A lot of things came together at just the right time," Loeb tells mental_floss. "It was cheap to advertise on cable, and you could get a credible phone product out of China for a few dollars."

Working with SI employee Martin Shampaine, Loeb spent months on the logistics: the phone's weight had to be distributed correctly in order to stand up on the tee, and the cord couldn't obstruct the phone opening. "We needed to find out where exactly the break in the mold would be, where to put the hinge. It took a lot of iterations."

The phone became highly visible during the 1990 holiday season, promising viewers of the mini-infomercial (created by marketing legend Jeff Meltzer, who brought us the Amish fireplace) that a one-year, $55 subscription would earn them the conversation piece.

Anecdotal evidence reports less than favorable experiences with the gift, however: its bulbous shape made it uncomfortable to hold, and tossing it around usually meant it would eventually crash to the floor. "Honestly, when you played catch with it, it would hurt," Loeb says. (Meltzer also owned one. "I couldn't get a dial tone," he says.)

To the best of Loeb's recollection, the phone was only available through early 1991. Fortunately, the marketing department had more than one kind of ridiculously kitschy device available. Another promotion centered around a Get Smart-style sneaker phone. According to Meltzer, both ads were a mixture of real reactions—the football phone segment was shot outside Giants Stadium—and paid actor endorsements.

The promos garnered a lot of attention for Time, Inc. Dennis Miller mentioned the telephonic sneaker in a 1990 stand-up special. In 1993’s Wayne’s World 2, Garth ponders if he’ll ever get his football phone. "It was like a mood ring," Loeb says.

While the notoriety was nice, the gimmicks also accomplished their main goal of raising the magazine’s circulation: Loeb recalls that a million subscribers came on the heels of the novelty phone era. Many had signed up just to get the future-yard-sale item.

SI considered other variations, including a baseball phone and a Volkswagen Bug phone, but nothing made it out of test marketing. The company decided to back away from the offers in the early 1990s, returning to VHS compilation tapes like the one featuring Muhammad Ali.

Novelty phones, previously one of the telecommunication industry’s highest-margin lines, have been relegated to eBay listings; Sports Illustrated currently offers new subscribers a windbreaker and T-shirt with the NFL team logo of your choice. Thanks to cell phones, we’ve probably seen the last of any free gift that requires a phone jack. You can watch the entire two-minute ad below.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images
The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]


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