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Why Everyone Stopped Asking Jeeves

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In 14 novels by comic author P.G. Wodehouse, spread over the course of a half-century, a fictional valet named Reginald Jeeves fielded questions of sartorial, societal, and personal etiquette posed by his employer, wealthy London socialite Bertie Wooster.

By the late 1990s, he was being asked where internet users could find nude photos of actresses.

It should be noted that the Jeeves of the Wodehouse books, which were eventually used as a template for the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster, was not quite the same Jeeves of AskJeeves.com, the web portal that debuted in 1997 and encouraged search engine users to field their curiosity in the form of a question. (“What’s the best restaurant in San Diego?” “What is Pamela Anderson’s home address?”) But enough similarities remained for the Wodehouse estate to toy with the idea of litigation in 2000, asserting the dot-com had co-opted the character without any financial arrangement.

That would prove to be the least of the site’s problems. After a spectacular initial public offering (IPO) on the stock market that rocketed from $14 to $190.50 a share, Ask Jeeves became a casualty of the search engine wars of the early 2000s. Eventually, their mascot would be escorted right out the door.


The original AskJeeves.com launch page.
Internet Archive

Long before Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, Garrett Gruener had a notion to humanize information-gathering online. A graduate of UC San Diego, Gruener had been a venture capitalist in the burgeoning computing world of the 1980s. After founding and selling off Virtual Microsystems in the 1980s, he looked for other ways to explore the market and the potential of the internet to become a consumer-friendly user space.

By 1992, Gruener had an interface, but no face to put to it. He liked the idea of a virtual concierge, similar to the hotel employee who fields guest requests, but didn’t think Americans would know exactly what the word meant. He went with a butler motif instead, and named him Jeeves—not after the Wodehouse character, he claimed, but more in line with how the name had become synonymous with servitude. In partnership with his former Virtual Microsystems employee David Warthen, Gruener launched Ask Jeeves in April 1997.

Although Yahoo!, Alta Vista, and Excite were all in the market, Gruener felt Ask Jeeves set itself apart with its interface. His team had spent months building a library of "knowledge capsules," snapshots of answers to questions they felt would be most commonplace. If a question wasn’t addressed in their content, the site would default to a more general search.

For users overwhelmed with pages of results stemming from a simple search, Ask Jeeves was more refined—dignified, even—with Jeeves standing at attention near the search bar. Many of the queries were consumer-oriented—asking for the best eateries, plumbers, or hotels—while others sought the kind of information that required both urgency and specialized knowledge. “How to get rid of skunk smell?” was one common query. (Salaciousness won the day, however. One in five questions pertained to finding nude photos.)

Gruener’s hunch was correct. People enjoyed the direct, personalized navigation, and saw themselves as Ask Jeeves loyalists. He once compared them to Mac users, who had tunnel vision when it came to alternatives. By 1998, the site was handling 300,000 searches a day. By 1999, it was up to 1 million. After going public, shares climbed from $14 to $60 to $190.50.

Jeeves was poised to be the internet’s first breakout character. He appeared in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, reportedly the first web-based personality ever to do so. The site signed with high-profile Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz and plotted an aggressive merchandising campaign that would see toys, apparel, and other product further familiarize Jeeves to the public.

(None of this was lost on the Wodehouse estate, which questioned whether Ask Jeeves had infringed on their rights to the Jeeves character. While they owned the butler, the Jeeves of the web was not quite the Jeeves of the books, and both parties announced a non-disclosed settlement in 2000.)

Jeeves would finally lose his composure in 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst. Advertisers fleeing from web development led to mass casualties online. The company posted a $425 million loss in 2001; shares plummeted to 86 cents in 2002. Despite his sharp appearance, Jeeves was dangerously close to insolvency.


search-engine-land via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Ask Jeeves would rebound from those dark times. The site was reconfigured to be more search-oriented with the addition of a third-party engine, and Jeeves was recast as more of a mascot; a 2003 ad campaign didn’t even feature him. That same year, Gruener was able to post the company’s first-ever profit, thanks in large part to an ad revenue deal with Google. But the behemoth in the search engine space wasn't sharing the market: It owned 32 percent of the industry compared to just 3 percent for Ask Jeeves.

In 2005, Barry Diller’s InterActive Corp. (IAC) purchased the site for $1.85 billion with an eye toward making it less about questions and more about general searches. Gruener departed; Ask Jeeves morphed into Ask.com, with the butler disappearing entirely the following year.

Why? Perceiving Jeeves to be representative of the 1990s internet culture, Diller and IAC believed his charm had run its course. “I don't see many tears on the floor," Diller said about the character’s absence.

While Diller had designs on being competitive with Google, it was not to be: That site went on to claim a clear dominance of the search market. By 2010, corporate support for Ask.com had dwindled, although the URL remains a part of the search engine landscape. Aside from a brief return in 2009 in the UK, Jeeves has been unavailable to field any additional questions.

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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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