The Joy of (Somebody Else’s) Failure

On December 1, 2017, Los Angeles welcomed an exhibit taken from the collection of the Museum of Failure in Helsingborg, Sweden. The exhibit showcases examples of innovations that didn’t just flop, but have become classic examples of “what were they thinking?” This is especially true when the fiasco is dreamed up, manufactured, and taken to market by an established, successful corporation that ought to know better.

Now, most of these products you’ve probably never heard of, which is exactly what the companies that made them have been praying for. But like that old high school acquaintance who reminds everyone at the classroom reunion of the day you streaked across the football field during half time, the curators of the Museum of Failure are not going to let those really bad ideas die.

You may recall the Olestra disaster, Procter & Gamble’s calorie-and-fat-free substitute for potato chips that gave consumers who ate it explosive bouts of diarrhea. But did you know that Harley-Davidson decided what the beefy, high-testosterone, easy riders who were their target audience craved was a line of cologne and beauty products? The company named the line “Hot Rods.” It was an epic fail. Harley’s marketeers overlooked one teensy detail: their customers wouldn’t wear cologne even if it smelled like diesel exhaust.

In 2012 — remember that year, it’s 2012, not 1952 — Bic came out with Bic for Her pens. The pen was slimmer than the standard Bic pen, which apparently was best suited to big-handed guys. And Bic for Her was not only petit, it was prettier — available in ladylike shades of pink or purple, and offered in an array of feminine-colored inks that women would find more appealing than macho black or blue. Not just a garden-variety flop, but an offensive, outdated, The Donna Reed Show, sexist flop.

On Amazon.com, consumers had a field day deriding Bic for Her. One poster wrote, “AT LAST! Bic, the great liberator, has released a womanly pen that my gentle baby hands can use without fear of unlady-like calluses and bruises.” Although one shopper lamented that Bic for Her had failed to address the obvious: “I was hoping it would be less phallic.”

In Sweden, the Museum of Failure is anything but a flop. It welcomes 17,000 visitors a month. Its curator, clinical psychologist Samuel West, told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s hilarious to think of the Museum of Failure as a success.”

Only one “artifact” in the museum’s collection is not authentic. Colgate — yes, the toothpaste people — came up with the idea of breaking into the frozen food market. Strangely, the public had no interest in lasagna that tasted minty fresh. Colgate pulled, then destroyed the entire product line. The museum’s team had to make a replica of the lasagna box since they couldn’t find an original.

While it’s fun to poke fun at train-wreck products from respected brands, there is also joy in discovering long-forgotten innovations that took a nosedive. One such product was designed and manufactured in Sweden which, as you’ll recall, is the home of the Museum of Failure. The Itera was a guaranteed rust-free bicycle — because the whole thing was made of plastic. It sank like the 17th-century Swedish warship Vasa because the manufacturer failed to take into consideration changes in temperature from season to season, which cracked the plastic. Furthermore, useful parts on the gizmo had a tendency to fall off in mid-ride. The pedals, perhaps out of embarrassment, was the part that bailed most often.

Years ago a publisher friend called and asked if I would be interested in writing book he wanted to entitle, Failures of the Presidents. I wondered if the subject would put off prospective buyers. “Not a chance,” my friend said. “Everybody loves to read about somebody else’s failure.” He was correct. The book sold nicely.

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

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