The 20 Worst Product Failures
Zac Frank and Tania Khadder
Products come and go all the time. But some new products fail for hilarious reasons. You may not be old enough to remember the Ford Edsel, but you’ve probably heard about it. Does your child have a doll? Odds are its not the Baby Wee-Wee. Listening to an MP3 player now? Is it a Zune? Probably not.
Over the years, these failures and the reasons for thems have become the stuff of myth. We take a look at why these products flopped and try to separate fact from fiction.
Even the best salesperson in the world probably couldn’t sell these…
Baby Wee-WeeTickle his belly, and this anatomically correct doll giggles, gets what looks like erection and pees in your face.
We’re not sure what’s creepier – Baby Wee Wee himself, or the commercial used to sell him.
Baby dolls that pee are nothing new. But baby dolls with a disproportionately large penis that moves when you tickle them? A commercial in which a little girl sings “his little willy moves?” Whaaat?
This doll – manufactured in Spain, but sold in the UK and Ireland – may or may not still be on the market (it appears to be unavailable on Amazon). How it got the green light in the first place is a mystery.
ZuneFirst released in November 2006, the Zune was Microsoft’s “me too” answer to the iPod. While it had some nifty product features that the iPod lacked (like sharing music from player to player), the Zune, despite an expensive marketing effort by Microsoft, never really caught on.
At its best, it was able to crack into low double-digit market share while the dominant iPod took around 65%. More ominously, in a filing with the SEC in January, Microsoft disclosed that it had seen Zune revenues decline 54% in the preceding quarter. (At the same time, iPod revenues increased by 3%.) Of all MP3 players listed on Amazon.com currently, the first Zune model comes in at 36 behind an army of iPods and a few Sansoms.
Why did it fail? On a design level, the Zune lacked style and the simplicity of Apple’s interface. The Zune seemed clunky in comparison. Perhaps more importantly, though, the Zune could not be used with Apple’s iTunes program, an even more dominant product in its market than the iPod. By integrating the music experience (from cradle to grave, so to speak), Apple created strong disincentives to any competitor that just could not be overcome.
Betamax was the first home video recording tape to hit the market in May 1975. Sony, however, was not the only company that had been working on recording video data on magnetic tapes. In 1976, JVC rolled out the VHS format and a format war began. As every American born before the DVD era knows, Betamax lost. But why?
Several explanations have been advanced to explain Betamax’s market failure. Sony was slower to license the technology to other manufacturers. VHS was, for a time, less expensive. Sony refused to let the pornography industry use Betamax. The main problem, though, was time. When VHS was first introduced, the tapes could hold two hours of video compared to Betamax’s one. By 1977, when JVC partnered RCA, VHS could hold four hours. As everyone knows, an hour does not a movie make. As a result, forty production companies adopted VHS instead of Betamax.
In 1988, Sony conceded defeat and began producing its own VHS VCRs.
Developed in the late 1980s following the launch of the first read/write CD, Sony envisioned the MiniDisc (MD) as a replacement for cassette tapes. The company wanted to produce a device that combined the portability of cassettes with the Magnetic-Optical technology being used in CDs.
MDs were introduced at a difficult market time and had to jockey for position with CDs, a battle which it lost. Part of the reason was the standalone nature of the MD players. CD players were being incorporated into boomboxes that also could play cassettes. CDs didn’t force consumers to make a choice between one medium or another. It allowed them to have both.
While Sony avoided the failure of Betamax by widely licensing MD’s technology, record companies did not make extensive pre-recorded music available for the device. Moreover, under pressure to ensure that MDs would not be used to pirate music, Sony made MD-Audio discs incompatible with MD-Data discs, making using the audio files on a computer impossible. Combined with the relatively high cost for the player, most consumers said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
In 1957, Ford debuted the Edsel in what may have been the most elaborate product launch in history. September 4 wasn’t just any day: it was “E Day”, as the new brand was introduced to America. That was followed by The Edsel Show on October 13 and an advertising campaign to sell the country on the charms of car whose name evoked a weasel. Customers, however, weren’t buying it and Ford ended production of the Edsel in 1960, having lost $350 million on the car.
In the pantheon of product failures, the Edsel’s is the first lemon: an unreliable clunker that was so bad no one could sell it. But the truth is that the Edsel was no more or less reliable than any other car on the market at the time.
Ford’s extensive marketing campaign not only didn’t save the car, it may have been what killed the Edsel. In the run up to its unveiling, Ford put out rumors that the Edsel would be a revolutionary car that would change the automotive landscape. When the curtain was finally pulled back, though, people saw that it was just another Ford with a different body. Some have speculated that even that body was a hindrance, with the car’s grill having a certain anatomical resonance.
What’s more, the car’s market positioning was confusing and unclear. Though designed to be a midrange car between the Ford and Mercury brands, the pricing didn’t reflect that. Customers didn’t know what to make of it.
The Edsel also suffered from larger economic forces. Similar to today, a recession hit and customers wanted smaller, less expensive and more efficient cars.
United States Football League
Like so many of ventures involving Donald Trump, the United States Football League ended in failure. Originally conceived by an antique dealer from New Orleans, David Dixon, the USFL began as a spring and summer supplement to the NFL’s fall season. After securing broadcasting deals with ABC Sports and ESPN, the USFL was launched in 1982 with teams in twelve cities.
From the outset, the league was plagued with problems. Many teams had trouble finding permanent stadiums in which to play, others were relocated frequently, some merged with other teams or went bankrupt. Despite these problems, the league survived and expanded following the first season in 1983, adding six new teams.
A fateful decision in late 1984, though, sealed the league’s fate. At the urging of Trump, the owners agreed to compete directly with the NFL and planned to begin playing games in the fall in 1986. Seven teams folded because they did not want to or felt they could not compete with NFL teams in their cities. Rather than competing with the NFL, the USFL committed sports suicide, never playing a game after the 1985 spring season.
Total loss: $163 million.
My grandmother knew that Vista was doomed before Microsoft did.
Vista was released on January 30, 2007 after its predecessor Windows XP had been on the market for five years. Though designed to fix many of the security flaws in prior Windows operating systems, customers, and not just IT pros who often malign Microsoft products, gave it a resounding thumbs down.
After buying a new laptop early that year, my 70+ year old grandmother found Vista unusable and paid to have it downgraded to Windows XP. A short time later, Microsoft essentially admitted failure and in April 2007 allowed Dell to start offering XP on new computers again. Microsoft also accelerated development of its next OS, Windows 7.
Vista sucks the performance from a computer and can create a host of problems when using the internet.
Perhaps this product failure isn’t as horrific as some of the others on this list (the theme park that originally beared this name is still in operation). But let’s put it in context.
In 1992, as Euro Disneyland prepared to open, the media warned that there would be chaos on the roads as 500,000 would try to make it to opening day. By midday, the parking lot was half full with attendance of only 25,000. The following month, 3,000 employees walked out on their jobs. Though attendance in the first year met Disney’s target of 11 million, people were not spending and the resort’s hotels were not full. By September 1993, Euro Disney had lost almost a billion dollars.
Realizing that the name might be part of the problem, the park was rechristened Disneyland Paris in 1995 and began to turn around. Today, while it is the most visited tourist attraction in Europe, it has still racked up debts of about $2 billion.
Arch DeluxeWhen you think of McDonald’s target demographic, Bobos and “latte drinking liberals” are not the first that come to mind. Nevertheless, in 1996, McDonald’s made a play for adults with a more refined palate and spent $100 million in advertising to introduce the Arch Deluxe.
The only thing that really seemed to make the Arch Deluxe “refined” was an unnaturally round piece of peppered bacon. McDonald’s failed in thinking that it could expand to a demographic that was totally at odds with the fast food chain’s brand identity. As they say, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
Do you remember LaserDiscs, the gigantic DVDs of decades past? First introduced commercially in 1978, two years after VHS, LaserDiscs offered significant benefits over. The image was much sharper, they could carry both analog and digital audio, “extras” could be included, and they were organized by chapters like DVDs.
LaserDiscs had several problems, though. Most importantly, they were expensive—far more expensive than VCRs. Movie studios also did not produce as many films for LaserDisc as they did for VHS. The discs were large, awkwardly shaped and they could not be used for recording. By 1998, they only existed in 2% of U.S. households, before the DVD boom that made them as obsolete as the vinyl record (but without the charm).
In the age of iPods, iPhones and MacBook Pros, it’s hard to imagine a time before everything Apple touched turned to gold. Oh but there was one. And it wasn’t all that long ago.
Back in 1993, Apple released a handheld device they hoped would change personal computing. It was officially called MessagePad, although it was popularly known as Newton (the more captivating name of its operating system). It was overpriced ($700-1000) and clunky. Its handwriting recognition software – which had been touted by marketers as “unprecedented” – was highly inaccurate.
It was discontinued in 1998, but the Newton was not a complete debacle. After all, the gadget did become a template for the PDA craze followed.
PippinThe Pippin was Apple’s adventure into the game console market…or was it the stripped down computer market? That confusion was why it failed. Launched in 1996, the Pippin sold for $599, far above the price of game consoles like the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. But this was more than a game console! It was a computer! But it didn’t look like one and the only “software” available for it were a few programs produced by Apple’s partner, Bandai.
Only selling 42,000 units, the Pippin was quickly discontinued.
Crystal PepsiIt was the early nineties, and purity was all the rage. As health and wellness moved center stage, more and more consumers were picking up Evian and Perrier instead of cola.
In an attempt to snag a piece of the purity pie, Pepsi launched Crystal. Its new cola was clear, caffeine-free and a total failure.
It was hard for consumers to think of cola as a clear liquid. Which was not helped by the fact that Crystal didn’t taste like cola at all. In fact, no one really knew what it tasted like – just that it was not good.
Two years later, the product was pulled from the shelves.
But Pepsi didn’t give up completely on its quest for purity. Shortly after the clear cola fiasco, the company decided to get in on another, more widely accepted clear liquid market: bottled water. That went much better for them.
A few years back, a Las Vegas company launched an energy drink that would turn heads and stomachs.
It was called Cocaine. It contained three times as much caffeine as Red Bull and it made no apologies for its shameless brand strategy. The font in its logo resembled a white powder. Its marketing language was rife with drug references.
Not long after its launch, the FDA pulled the drink from store shelves. They said Redux was illegally marketing its product as an alternative to street drugs, and that it had falsely claimed Cocaine could treat disease and act as a dietary supplement.
But even without the FDAs interference, Redux’s gimmicky energy drink was unlikely to withstand the test of time (and an increasingly skeptical consumer base). Sure, they could generate some buzz and make a quick buck, but what chance would they have had at longevity when retailers like 7-11 refused to carry it?
The product briefly re-entered the market with the oh-so-catchy name “Insert Name Here:” But like its predecessor, it too proved to be something to sniff at.
Brand extensions can be highly successful. Think Apple’s iPhone or Iams’ pet insurance.
They can also fail miserably. Think Colgate Kitchen Entrees.
Never heard of it? You’re not the only one. Once upon a time, Colgate (yes, the toothpaste brand) thought it wise to launch a line of frozen dinners. The logic behind the pairing? Consumers can eat a Colgate meal, then brush their teeth with Colgate toothpaste.
Unfortunately for them, the thought of toothpaste failed to whet consumers’ appetite for a chicken stir-fry. The product was a complete bust, and was pulled from the shelves shortly after.
Americans love to pamper their pets – that’s why there are doggy day spas, gourmet pet foods and diamond-studded puppy collars.
So the idea of bottled water for dogs and cats isn’t all that far-fetched. In theory, Thirsty Dog is kind of brilliant.
Where did this company go wrong? Probably when they decided to infuse the water with flavors like crispy beef (for dogs) and tangy fish (for cats). That was going too far, even for the creepiest of pet owners.
With concern over the dangers of smoking at fever pitch in the late 80s, tobacco giant RJ Reynolds set out to create a “cleaner” alternative. $325 million later, smokeless cigarettes were born.
They were called Premier. But really, they were anything but.
The manufacturer’s own CEO complained they tasted “like sh*t.” They were practically impossible to light. There was no guarantee that they were healthier than regular cigarettes. And to top it all off, they were rumored to be an effective receptacle for smoking crack cocaine. Oops.
Smokers didn’t enjoy them. Non-smokers had no interest in trying them. Four months later, they were pulled from the market.
Back in 2001, Sony released an internet appliance eVIlla. Unfortunately for the electronics giant, this was around the same time that the market for such devices was fizzling out.
What were internet appliances? They were gadgets whose sole purpose was to provide access to the internet. With one core functionality, they were meant to be cheaper and easier to use than a personal computer. That didn’t last.
As computers became cheaper to manufacture, and more user-friendly, the need for internet appliances became totally obsolete. Why pay $499 for Sony’s substandard eVilla, when you can get a fully-equipped desktop computer for around the same price? Two months after its release, the product was pulled.
But you’ve got to hand it to Sony for appreciating the extent of its failure. The company offered customers a full refund, including the $21.99 they’d been paying for monthly internet access.
Nothing evokes nostalgia more than a familiar scent. But the iSmell is one product we’d like to forget altogether.
In 2001 DigiScents set out to create a computer-peripheral device designed to emit smells to go with sites visited or emails opened. The idea behind it was that the all-important olfactory experience was missing from internet use. A perfume manufacturer, for example, could embed a scent into a piece of advertising or their website.
The device held a cartridge carrying 128 different primary odors, and they’d be emitted in various combinations to create the appropriate scent.
The product never made it past the prototype stage, and in 2006, it was deemed one of the world’s 25 worst tech products by PC World Magazine.
At least it was appropriately named.
By the early 80s, Coca-Cola was losing ground to Pepsi-Cola. Americans seemed to prefer the sweeter flavor of Pepsi. Coke decided it was time for a taste makeover.
In April 1985, New Coke hit the shelves. Its taste was said to be “smoother, rounder yet bolder” than the original drink. And with the new release, the company halted production of its original formula. This was the company’s biggest mistake.
People were outraged they couldn’t get their hands on original Coke, and started boycotting the new product.
Coke had underestimated the power of its iconic brand, and America’s deep-rooted attachment to it.
Months later, they brought back the original formula. New Coke stayed on the shelves until the early 90s. But its only success was in teaching Coca-Cola a valuable lesson in branding.
BONUS: The Santa Dreidel
Why did this product fail? It’s a Santa Dreidel.