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!"

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

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