ShamWow
ShamWow

Deeply Absorbing: The ShamWow Story

ShamWow
ShamWow

Across three weekends in the summer of 2007, an Israeli-born filmmaker and entrepreneur named Offer Shlomi shot a two-minute commercial extolling the virtues of the ShamWow, a cleaning towel that promised to soak up 20 times its weight in spilled liquids.

Shlomi—going by the name Vince Offer—handled the yellow cloth with the dexterity of a stage magician, wiping up small puddles and blotting soda-soaked carpets.

The towels were made in Germany. “You know the Germans always make good stuff,” Offer told the camera. And it wasn’t just for the kitchen: you could use it as a bathmat, as an RV polisher, or to dry the dog. “Olympic divers use it as a towel," Offer said. Did they? Who knew?

In contrast to the polished infomercial pitchmen of the era, like the high-decibel Billy Mays, Offer’s approach was more conversational. “You following me, camera guy?” he asked, motioning for a close-up of a wring-out. Even the ad’s catchphrase (“You’ll be saying 'wow' every time”) was delivered as though Offer had just rolled out of bed. He seemed profoundly unconcerned with the whole thing. If viewers didn't know a good deal when they saw it, it wasn't his problem.

The lackadaisical approach worked: millions of ShamWows were sold. Offer became the Chewbacca Mom of his time, a curious personality that lent a new kind of attitude to the kitschy direct-sales market once dominated by chicken roasters and hair-in-a-can.

"The ShamWow Guy," however, would stress that he wasn’t looking to become the next Ron Popeil. (Or the next Billy Mays, who would shortly become something of a nemesis.) What he really wanted to do was direct.

ShamWow

Vince Offer had arrived in Los Angeles after dropping out of his Brooklyn high school in the late 1970s, picking up odd jobs before finding that he could capture attention at area flea markets. Raised on a diet of Crazy Eddie commercials that once showered the East Coast, he spoke quickly and with conviction, pushing items like an early version of the Slap Chop vegetable dicer and honing his blasé attitude.

“Nice doesn’t get people to stop,” Offer told CNBC in 2008. “People stop when you are aggressive and when you bring them in.”

By 1996, Offer had sold enough Slap Chops to fund an independent sketch comedy film he wrote and directed titled The Underground Comedy Movie. The reviews were unkind—The New York Times called it a "sorry enterprise"—but Offer was convinced the raunchy approach could work with the right marketing. After watching an infomercial for the amateur video series Girls Gone Wild, Offer produced an ad pushing the film that ran between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. on Comedy Central. Underground went on to sell 50,000 copies via mail order, and another 50,000 in stores.

The direct-to-consumer approach made Offer think back to his flea market days. In 2006, he developed a twist on the kind of super-absorbable and reusable cleaning towels common at booths by stressing their value over sponges and disposable paper towels. After dismissing Sham It Up! and Sham It as possible names, Offer settled on ShamWow. (It was a play on the French pronunciation of chamois, a soft leather wipe.) The commercial, shot in Glendale, California, cost $20,000 to produce and began to air in early 2008.

Almost immediately, Offer’s bizarre sales approach captured people's attention. Slate columnist Seth Stevenson endorsed Offer's “street smart” persona. “He makes us feel like idiots for even entertaining the notion of not buying a ShamWow,” Stevenson wrote. “He seems truly dumbfounded that anyone might fail to see the wisdom of dropping $28 … on a set of rags.”

The 23.5-inch by 20-inch rags (and a smaller 15- by 15-inch blue version) came eight to a set, but three of them went for a wholesale price of just 50 cents. The real value was in Offer's demonstration, which made the ShamWow seem like the kind of forward-thinking sponge that would emerge from an Apple lab.

But the towel wasn’t without controversy. Both Consumer Reports and Popular Mechanics tested Offer’s claim that the cloth could soak up 20 times its weight in spills, finding that it was closer to 10 to 12 times for water and soda. (Consumer Reports did, however, endorse its exceptional motor oil-sucking abilities.) A columnist for the Chicago Tribune inexplicably wrapped a ShamWow around his infant’s midsection and declared the towel contained the coming urine without spilling a drop.

Mays was unimpressed with ShamWow's capacity for baby pee. He expressed annoyance that the product was similar to the Zorbeez towel he had already been pitching for two years, asserting that his cleaning wipe was the more effective of the two. But in a 2009 test, Popular Mechanics reported the Zorbeez had simply pushed liquids around while the ShamWow had taken care of beer and even melted snow without incident, the messes “sucked up as if with a straw.”

ShamWow

Offer followed the ShamWow with a pitch for his Slap Chop, inserting innuendo in ads in an attempt to draw more viral attention to the product. (Mays popped up again to counter it was derived from the Quick Chop he had been peddling.) Though he declined to offer sales specifics, Offer told CNBC sales of the ShamWow were “in the millions” and that he had no interest in pitching anyone else’s products.

If there was opportunity to do so, it came to a halt in February 2009, when Offer was arrested for fighting with an alleged prostitute. According to NBC, the altercation resulted in a charge of aggravated assault for both parties. (Prosecutors didn’t pursue the case.) Speaking about the incident in 2013, Offer told NBC that he took “full responsibility” and that the event caused him to throttle back on his partying habits.

He later marketed the Schticky, an adhesive roller, and a cleaning solution called InVinceable, but neither resonated with consumers quite like the ShamWow. The product is still for sale via direct mail, and Offer's face still graces the product's home page, which also makes use of consumer testimonials.

“I received a ShamWow set as a gift at Christmas,” reads one endorsement. “I never used them, but yesterday our toilet overflowed. We opened the box of ShamWows, and they were a real life saver! The ShamWows worked better than both mops we had in the house, and they washed up really well. I'm ordering another set today!"

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Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
'Eat Lead!': When Activists Hacked Talking Barbie
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

With his familiar green fatigues and grenade clipped to his chest, G.I. Joe platoon leader Duke appeared carved from granite, not plastic. The 12-inch action figure was part of Hasbro’s Hall of Fame series, a premium-format figure released in 1993. Press his chest and the military specialist’s voice box would be activated, allowing Duke to shout a series of commands or threats.

But for a number of boys who unwrapped him on Christmas Day 1993, Duke appeared to be in no mood for conflict. When pressed to speak, he would instead exclaim, “Let’s go shopping!”

At the same time, parents who had gifted their children Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie—which was also equipped with a voice chip—were equally confused. Instead of talking about clothes or Corvettes, the Barbies sounded like they had been gargling gravel. “Eat lead, Cobra!” shouted one. “Vengeance is mine!”

Families were not amused: The dolls weren't cheap—each had a $40 to $50 price tag. After examining the box for any signs of tampering, some parents came across a small leaflet that helped explain the toys’ out-of-character speeches. A group calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization was taking responsibility for the switch. The goal of their stunt was to reframe the conversation over gender roles in America.

 
 

Since she first hit shelves in 1959, Barbie has transcended her boxed-in identity as mere toy store inventory to become an avatar for girls looking for a role model. (At one point, the doll received 20,000 fan letters a week.) The size of her waist, her job skills, her Malibu beach house—all of it has been commandeered by social anthropologists looking to see whether her influence is enriching young girls' lives or offering dispiriting, stereotyped notions of femininity.

That debate took a turn for the worse in 1992, when Mattel released a teenaged variation of the doll that exclaimed “math class is tough!” Women’s groups were outraged, believing that Barbie was falling victim to harmful tropes that put a ceiling on both her intellect and that of her pre-teen consumers.

Though the phrase was just one of 270 the doll could utter at random—others included “I love school, don’t you?”—it received the brunt of media attention, including demands to recall the dolls. (Mattel apologized, but did not pull the dolls off shelves.)

The debate over whether Barbie had social responsibilities caught the attention of Igor Vamos, a student of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Vamos was intrigued by the idea of “cultural jamming,” a kind of analog hacking that upended conventional ideas to create controversy. If Barbie taught passivity and sexism with her complaints of math being hard, then perhaps she should be given a different script.

Vamos bought several dozen Teen Talk Barbies and Talking Duke figures from toy stores in California and New York. He and several other “operatives” dismantled the toys, performing a crude surgery that allowed them to switch the voice boxes buried in their bodies. Volunteers would use a knife to cut into the dolls' plastic skin, then modify the transistor of the Joe’s voice chip so it would fit into Barbie’s comparatively slimmer torso.

A screenshot of a G.I. Joe Talking Duke figure

21solo, YouTube

After repackaging the dolls, the team “shop-dropped,” surreptitiously restocking them on toy shelves in Albany, San Diego, and Walnut Creek, California. Each box had a piece of paper encouraging disgruntled parents to reach out to the media after discovering the toys weren’t gender-conforming. To speed things along, they also told friends to buy the dolls and make the calls. Then they waited.

Within weeks, adults confused by their child’s new toys did exactly what the B.L.O. suggested, telling local news affiliates that their Barbie was shouting attack commands and informing kids that “dead men tell no lies.” Duke, meanwhile, rebuffed war strategy, preferring to “plan our dream wedding.”

The ensuing media coverage is exactly what Vamos was hoping for. Calling the toys' gender roles “stone-aged,” the B.L.O. claimed responsibility, stayed anonymous, and hoped it would cause consumers to rethink the propagation of violence by male toys and the relatively vacuous ambitions of Barbie.

"Obviously, our goal is to get media attention,” a B.L.O. spokesperson told The New York Times. “We are trying to make a statement about the way toys can encourage negative behavior in children, particularly given rising acts of violence and sexism."

Vamos even supervised production of a video that used Barbie to spell out their mission. “They build us in a way that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes,” the toy said. “Those stereotypes have a negative effect on children’s development.”

 
 

While most considered the act harmless—the toys could, after all, be exchanged for an unadulterated version—not everyone believed the B.L.O.’s mission played fair. "I've got a very strong negative feeling about terrorist acts against children, no matter how noble the motives," Joanne Oppenheim, a toy industry advocate, told the Times. “It's a cheap shot, and it's unfair to the kids.” Others protested the general idea of product tampering.

Mattel and Hasbro were less rattled. Wayne Charness, then-vice president of Hasbro, called it “kind of ridiculous,” while Mattel refrained from commenting. Though the B.L.O. claimed to have tampered with hundreds of toys in 43 different states, the truth was that Vamos and his team had performed surgery on roughly 120 toys. But the media perpetuated the story, making it seem as though the stunt was pervasive.

The story died down after the holidays. The tampered toys were either returned or bought and discarded. Vamos kept his role in the stunt largely under wraps until years later, when he became a part of The Yes Men, a social disruption performance group, under the alias Mike Bonanno. Vamos is now a professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Was the stunt effective? Anecdotally, maybe. Media outlets like Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal profiled kids and parents who had been affected by the switch, including 7-year-old Zach, the recipient of a Barbie-possessed Duke. Asked if he wanted to return the toy, Zach said no: “He’s teaching me not to fight.”

Were kids really influenced by the toys to rethink gender portrayals, or were they yet another example of the B.L.O. manipulating the media by using an undercover operative to articulate their message? If Barbie knows, she isn't talking. 

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iStock
Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail
iStock
iStock

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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