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ShamWow

Deeply Absorbing: The ShamWow Story

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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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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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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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