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Adjusted for Inflation: A History of the Reebok Pump

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The way Reebok president Paul Fireman figured it, the company’s biggest problem came down to one thing: Michael Jordan had gas.

It was 1988, and Jordan’s Nike Air sneakers were shipping with a balloon in the heel that was filled with compressed gas to provide additional comfort and support. In the sports apparel world, this was a high-tech development that allowed Nike’s marketing team to fuse science with footwear. Combined with Jordan’s fame, the push was quickly eating into market share. Nike would go on to take the lead over Reebok the following year.

Something had to be done. Fireman made engineer Paul Litchfield the point man on the project and told him that the company was in need of a customizable sneaker. How Litchfield and his team arrived at realizing that idea was up to them. The only thing Fireman could point to as a reference was an inflatable ski boot made by Ellesse, a sporting goods brand Reebok had recently acquired. It was clumsy looking, though, with brass fittings and meant for stationary feet. It appeared medieval.

In less than a year, Litchfield and his co-developers would take that primitive notion and turn the sneaker world upside-down, selling nearly $1 billion worth of product. They’d also manage to get a national television commercial banned, call out Jordan in ads, and wind up in a bitter court fight with colleagues. The Reebok Pump was going to be so successful that the company might just burst.

The bladder sewn into every Pump. Reebok

Running enthusiast Joseph William Foster’s idea for spiked racing cleats led him to found the J.W. Foster and Sons footwear company in 1895. When his descendants were going through his things in 1958, they came across a dictionary from South Africa that he had won in a race. It had a listing for rhebok, a type of antelope found in the territory, but spelled it reebok. The family decided a name change would be appropriate.

Sneaker branding didn’t really enter the public consciousness until 1968, when several athletes were seen wearing striped Adidas during the first internationally-televised Olympic Games. It would be another decade before Reebok asserted its market dominance by offering a line of shoes targeted for aerobic activity. The Reebok Freestyle, endorsed by fitness pro Gin Miller, was a tremendous success: At one point, the company was responsible for half of all women’s sneaker sales in the U.S.

Reebok enjoyed their prominence until 1987, when they began a slide that culminated in Nike pulling ahead in 1989. Founded by Phil Knight, Nike had hitched itself to Michael Jordan at a time when athlete endorsements were exploding. Even when Jordan was seen peddling McDonald’s hamburgers, viewers were reminded of his Nike affiliations: the two were inseparable. "Just Do It" burrowed into popular consciousness.  

Losing ground made Fireman want to speed up, but Reebok didn't have a surplus of manpower in design. When he directed Litchfield to develop a customizable sneaker, Litchfield took his team to Design Continuum, a Massachusetts-based consultancy that specialized in making threadbare ideas tangible. A designer with the firm had previously worked on inflatable splints; another had experience with intravenous bags. Putting these seemingly disparate thoughts together gave them the answer: an inflatable bladder built directly into the shoe.

Design Continuum presented Reebok with what amounted to a more complex blood pressure cuff. By pumping air into the bladder, the sneaker would swell to provide better ankle support—and though Reebok would never dare claim it, might even help prevent injuries.

Two prototypes were produced: One allowed users to pump air in manually, and the other would inflate as the wearer walked around. Litchfield thought the latter was cool—almost as though the sneaker had a mind of its own—but was quickly vetoed when he tested both at area high schools. The kids had fun using the pump; even letting the air out produced a satisfying hiss. Litchfield realized that, at least for younger consumers, the Pump was part toy. Working with designer Paul Brown, the fun factor was emphasized by turning the inflation mechanism into a familiar basketball shape.

When the shoe debuted at a trade show in February 1989, Litchfield was excited to see a lot of interest. He was also worried. Just a few feet away and encased in glass was the Air Pressure, another air-chambered sneaker. Nike had developed it and was showing it off in a private room.

Litchfield thought Reebok would be too little, too late. But the Air Pressure had one fatal flaw: Its method of introducing air required an exterior pump that would have to be hooked into the sneaker to inflate it. As Nike would find out, no one was looking to carry tools around for their footwear.

Still, it appeared Nike had undermined them once again; Fireman didn’t want to waste any more time. After a positive reaction at the trade show, he told Litchfield to have the Pump ready by November of that year. It was a highly compressed schedule, but Litchfield thought it was doable.

The sneaker, however, was unlike any athletic wear ever developed. The shoes were made in Korea, but the bladders were molded by a medical supply company in Massachusetts. That meant Litchfield would get a batch of bladders, have them tested twice, then send them overseas so they could be sewn in. The factory would test them again upon arrival, and then a fourth time after assembly to make sure no sewing needles had punctured the mold.

Litchfield thought this was thorough. But when the initial order of 7000 pairs landed in Boston that September, he got a frantic phone call from the warehouse. None of the sneakers would inflate.

Cristian Borquez, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Korean factory had tried to cut corners. In testing the bladders after the sneakers were completed, they used sewing machines with the needle removed. They thought it would prevent damage, but it wound up kinking the plastic mold. Litchfield and his small staff had to re-sew thousands of pairs with new bladders.

While Reebok was a proven commodity, the launch of the Pump in November 1989 brought with it a considerable amount of controversy. The sneaker was priced at $170, an astronomical sum for the time (even Nike didn’t have the nerve to exceed $100 on their Jordans). While some of the cost was in trying to amortize the expense of the bladder system, Reebok also knew that there might be an upside to a high sticker price. Sneakers had increasingly become status symbols, a pronouncement of cool in high school hallways and on neighborhood basketball courts. If the Pump became a must-have, people would pay what Reebok was asking and cut spending corners elsewhere.

Reebok launched the Pump virtually head-to-head with the Nike inflatable, and it quickly became apparent which space-age technology consumers preferred. With an unattractive design and a tool that could easily get lost, the Air Pressure paled in comparison. Reebok hammered home the idea that no two feet were alike, mentioning that a left foot might need only 16 “pumps” to arrive at a perfect fit while the right could require 21 or more. Kids who couldn’t afford the sneaker crowded around those who could, wanting to see how it worked.  

The company was also aggressive in targeting Jordan, running spots that featured Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins taunting his on-court nemesis: “Michael, my man,” he boasted, “if you want to fly first class, pump up and air out!”

Nike took the high road, telling media their shoes were performance-based and not trying to resort to “gimmickry.” But Reebok persisted. In March 1990, they ran a television spot during an NCAA game that depicted two bungee jumpers descending at the same time. One bounced up, smiling; his Pump sneakers had kept their fit. His companion was nowhere to be found. The ill-fitting Nikes had presumably led to his death.

Parents were furious, complaining the ad was morbid; CBS only aired it once before banning it. But the damage to the competition was done. By the end of 1990, Nike was expecting to sell just $10 million of Air Pressure inventory; Reebok had logged $500 million with their Pump innovation. The New York Times declared that if the sneaker was its own company, it would be the fourth-largest in the industry.

It was a banner year for Reebok, but 1991 would prove to be even bigger. The Pump was about to steal the spotlight away from Jordan near his hometown. And Reebok didn’t even have anything to do with it.

Dee Brown was just a rookie on the Boston Celtics. At six-foot-one, he also wasn’t as physically imposing as some of the players assembled for the NBA’s annual slam dunk contest. For the February 1992 edition, the event would be held in Charlotte, North Carolina, not far from where Chicago Bull Michael Jordan had attended high school and college.

Jordan had won the 1987 and 1988 contests impressively before opting out. That left local hero Rex Chapman to impress the crowd. Waiting his turn, Brown figured he should do something to get their attention. When it was his time to take center court, he bent over and began pumping up his sneakers. The fans went wild with anticipation. Brown won the contest, and the Reebok Pump got a priceless commercial that would send demand into orbit. Total sales for the company increased 26 percent in 1991.

The Pump was soon making its mark across a variety of sports. Michael Chang, a world tennis champion, endorsed the sneaker and modeled a design featuring a fuzzy green tennis ball pump; Boomer Esiason peddled them in football; running shoes, golf shoes, and cleats got the air-bladder treatment. Reebok produced a variety of releases, including one with a digital display and another, the Insta-Pump, that allowed for a canister to be attached and inflate the sneaker instantly. In a nod to the sneaker industry’s debt to the 1968 Olympics, the shoes showed up in the 1992 Games. By that time, the price was a more reasonable $130 for the top model.

As sales boomed, the company had to cope with the expected copycat releases. L.A. Gear, which was seeing sales wane, issued a Regulator shoe with air-bladder inserts that Reebok felt infringed on their now-patented sneaker design. L.A. Gear agreed to pay Reebok $1 million and licensing fees to settle the issue.

There was also a surprising challenge from Design Continuum, who announced they were working with Spalding on a baseball glove that could be inflated for a custom fit. Reebok was angry and filed suit, accusing the firm of appropriating trade secrets. (The two settled out of court, with terms undisclosed.)

By the time Shaquille O’Neal signed with Reebok in 1992, six million pairs of the Pump had been sold. Reebok publicly proclaimed the design would experience a drop in sales moving forward—it was intended to be a launching pad for the company’s other innovations. Fireman considered the company as a brand, not a footwear manufacturer. That would prove to be a mistake.

Reebok

While Reebok had increased their market share by 2 percent since debuting the Pump, they were never able to overcome Nike’s dominance. Thanks to Jordan, Nike enjoyed a 30 percent slice of the industry in 1992. Where Reebok had gained was against vulnerable companies like L.A. Gear and British Knights. They bombarded the market with a variety of Pump models, saturating shelves with product. The novelty began to wear off.  

Nike’s insistence on light, performance-based sneakers proved to be a winning formula: their shoes kept getting smaller while Reebok struggled with their 22-ounce high-top. While Reebok didn’t implode—it reached a record $3.8 billion in sales in 2004—it could never close in on Nike, who sold $12 billion in rubber-soled goods that same year.

The Pump never went away, offered in a variety of contemporary and retro styles. In 2005, the company issued a revamp after consulting with MIT and NASA engineers. Lke Litchfield’s earlier prototype, it would inflate with each stride as the wearer moved around. The company produced variations on the design on and off, but never reached the heights of the 1989 original.

Earlier this year, the ZPump Fusion was unveiled, an attempt to marry the comfort and amusement of a bladder shoe with the sleeker structure of cross-trainers. If it’s successful, Reebok is likely to repeat one of the shrewdest business feats in the history of the sneaker industry: charging people for air, and making millions doing it.

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10 Dangerous Toys from Decades Past (and the Commercials That Sold Them)
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Baby Boomers are a hardy bunch. They rode in cars that weren’t equipped with special toddler seats, walked to and from school without being electronically tethered to their parents, ate lunches filled with allergens and preservatives, played with toys that would be quickly pulled from shelves today, and still persevered to become the largest living generation of the U.S. population. Whether you owned a Johnny Seven One Man Army or just want to know more about the ultra-violent, bestselling toy of 1964, let's take a look back at some of the dangerous toys of yesteryear and the commercials that sold them.

1. SIXFINGER

My younger brother had one of these, and I’m here to tell you that as tiny as it was, this gun had some serious firepower—those little plastic bullets hurt like heck! (You think your average seven-year-old boy is going to pay attention to the package disclaimer that warned against aiming the Sixfinger at human targets?) Just in case the possibility of losing an eye to a sharp projectile wasn’t edgy enough, one of the “bullets” came equipped with a cap—the shock-sensitive exploding variety. All this mayhem was available for the bargain price of two dollars.

2. SWING WING

The Transogram Company had been producing mainstream toys such as Tiddlywinks and doctor's kits since 1959. Then one day in 1965 the vice president of product development, whose brother-in-law was apparently an out-of-work chiropractor, came up with the idea for the Swing Wing. Nothing says “fun” like a cerebral hemorrhage, so Swing Wing was eventually pulled from the market, leaving kids searching for a new fun way to get their spinal injuries on.

3. SLIP 'N SLIDE

Wham-O introduced the Slip ‘N Slide in 1961, a time when neighborhood swimming pools were few and far between and water slide theme parks were nonexistent. The idea was to cool off and have fun at the same time by running up to and then belly-flopping down on a water-slicked strip of vinyl. Wham-O sold millions of Slip 'N Slides over the years, and if a kid broke a toe on one of the stakes that secured the mat to the ground or left most of their epidermis on the driveway because they slid too far, well, as Mom always said, “It’s your own fault, don’t come crying to me.” It wasn’t until the more litigious 1990s that words like “spinal cord injury” and “death” started appearing in the lengthy list of warnings included on the Slip ‘N Slide instruction sheet.

4. WATER WIGGLE

It looked innocent enough, but if your neighborhood had good water pressure and some joker turned the hose on full blast, Wham-O’s Water Wiggle turned into a semi-lethal weapon. It danced and bobbed erratically, and could wrap around you like a boa constrictor. And that plastic head was heavy! But bloody noses and chipped teeth were a small price to pay for some summertime fun.

5. JOHNNY SEVEN ONE MAN ARMY

No wonder kids today get into so much trouble—it’s those consarned video games they’re always playing. Nothing but shooting and street fighting and an overall culture of violence. Not like the toys of the 1960s. Back then we had wholesome products like the Johnny Seven One Man Army, which was the biggest-selling toy for boys in 1964. Johnny Seven came equipped with a cap pistol, rocket launcher, and “armor piercing” bullets, along with a few other features necessary for stopping Communism dead in its tracks.

Johnny Seven weighed about four pounds fully assembled, so a kid got a good aerobic workout when he ran around toting one outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Topper Toys used a unique tactic to give Johnny Seven maximum exposure: instead of only stocking it in toy and department stores, they also made it available in grocery stores, a place mom usually dragged her kids to at least once per week.

6. CREEPY CRAWLERS

An exposed hot plate combined with potentially toxic fumes equaled fun in 1964. The Thing Maker was a gadget you plugged in and then waited until it heated up to 300°F. Then you poured “Plasti-Goop” into the creepy insect-shaped metal molds and waited for them to heat-set. Ideally, you were supposed to wait until after you’d unplugged the Thing Maker and it had cooled off before removing your Creepy Crawlers, but who has time for that when you want to put a fake spider in your sister’s bed before she turns in? Burns and blisters were a fact of life in the plastic bug business, and you simply sprayed the injury with some Bactine and hid it from Mom so she wouldn’t take your Thing Maker away. Plasti-Goop was marketed as “non-toxic,” but that was in 1964 before the dangers of little things like melted PVC and lead paint were generally known.

7. WHAM-O AIR BLASTER

Wham-O introduced the Air Blaster gun in 1965 ... then pulled it from shelves not too long afterward. It turned out that some kids weren’t content to just blow out birthday candles long-distance; they were pointing their Air Blaster right against their friends’ ears to “see what happened.” (Permanent damage was the answer.) Those same pranksters also discovered that any object that could fit into the muzzle could also be shot with missile-like force. You know what they say, it’s all fun and games until someone figures out how to use their Air Blaster as a flamethrower.

8. WHAM-O WHEELIE BAR

The lack of protective helmets in this commercial is understandable, since they weren’t readily available at the time. But barefoot kids popping wheelies, riding no-handed, and performing daredevil stunts like standing on the seat? One has to wonder whether Wham-O held stock in some urgent care clinic chain.

9. SUPER ELASTIC BUBBLE PLASTIC

Surprise! We have yet another entry from those folks at Wham-O. This time the fun was contained inside a metal toothpaste-like tube filled with a colorful liquid-y plastic-y substance. You squeezed out a tiny glob of the stuff, rolled it into a tiny ball, and then plopped it onto the end of a plastic straw, which was included. Then you blew into the straw to create a multi-colored sphere that was more durable than a soap bubble, but a bit more fragile than a traditional balloon. The drawback was that one of the main ingredients in Super Elastic Bubble Plastic was ethyl acetate, a solvent used in nail polish remover. Combine that with polyvinyl acetate, the other primary component, and kids were exposed to some serious health risks if they happened to inhale too much while inflating their plastic bubbles.

10. WITCH DOCTOR HEAD SHRINKER KIT

Who knows exactly what chemicals made up the “plastic flesh” that progressively shrunk over the span of 24 hours. Given the time period (the late 1960s) we’re guessing that either the flesh or the paint had some level of toxicity. But what about the other inherent danger involved? Say you, as a kid, taking advantage of the assurance in the commercial that homemade shrunken heads were appropriate for “all occasions”? Would Mom smack the heck out of you after Grandma nearly collapsed when she unwrapped the shrunken head birthday present you’d made for her?

BONUS: GILBERT U-238 ATOMIC ENERGY LAB

By Webms (online) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m sort of sneaking this one in, as I don’t know if it was ever advertised on television, but it’s too good to pass up. In 1951 A.C. Gilbert, the man who invented the Erector Set, introduced a brand new educational toy: the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. Gilbert worked closely with physicists at M.I.T. while developing the kit, and also had the unofficial approval of the U.S. government, which thought that such a toy would help the average American understand the benefits of nuclear energy.

The Lab came equipped with a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson cloud chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity. It also included a comic book featuring Dagwood Bumstead (the man who couldn’t leave his own house without knocking the mailman down) describing how to split an atom. The Atomic Energy Lab’s main drawback, other than possible radiation poisoning, was its price tag: a whopping $49.50, which would be over $300 in today’s dollars.

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The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
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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.

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