What's Hot, What's Not

The difference between a successful product and a failed one is sometimes hard to discern


A NICE FROSTY CAN of Sweat would certainly taste good right now. That’s Pocari Sweat, a popular Japanese soft drink. The naming of beverages is yet another area in which the United States lags behind Japan (where Sweat shares shelf space with Yogut, Sour White, and Fruit Calpis).

The can of Sweat that I am contemplating at the moment is not actually for sale. It is part of a display at the International Supermarket and Museum, in Naples, New York. The museum is the creation of Robert McMath, the chairman of Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd., a consulting outfit that tries to keep its clients abreast of worldwide developments in packaged goods. McMath is a tall, graying, good-natured man, who says that he sees about 70 percent of all the new products introduced in the United States each year. His museum (which is open only to MIS clients) is a sort of shrine to the best and worst in marketing.

“Being a Scotsman, I never throw anything away,” McMath says. He means that literally. The museum, which is located in a restored nineteenth-century granary, looks like a cross between an art gallery and a grocery store. It displays about 5,000 items on a rotating basis. (McMath has tens of thousands of others stashed in another building.) Among them are disposable “denim” diapers, microwave browning spray, and bug-killing window cleaner from South Africa. McMath and his staff of twenty-one constitute a sort of Platonic ideal of unfettered consumption: simply not having something is enough to make them buy it.

The mainstay of MIS’s business is Product Alert, a “weekly briefing on new product introductions throughout North America.” The publication logs the arrival of new items and occasionally attempts to place them in a larger, historical perspective. When Struntzel Products, of Chicago, recently introduced a beverage called Watermelon Soda, Product Alert noted the existence of a precursor: “an old line of ‘Mickey’s Melon’ soda using watermelon as the flavor—Mickey Rooney’s favorite.” MIS also publishes more-specialized reports and conducts seminars for clients. According to McMath, “A client will come to us and say, ‘We want to know what’s going on in the dry-mix business, nor including baking mixes.’ And we’ll say, ‘Okay, here are 2,000 different products from the last seventeen years.’” McMath’s desk is invisible beneath a mountain of index cards. MIS’s newest venture is CAT*TRACK, an ambitious service that employs a string of 250 free-lance shoppers to sleuth out interesting products in the United States and seventeen foreign countries. Swedish toilet-paper rolls, one learns, are among the largest in the world; Brazilian rolls are among the smallest.

The most arresting part of the museum is a section devoted not to new products but to failed ones. Eighty percent of all new products never make it past the test-market stage, McMath says, and some of the most forlorn losers end up on the shelves at MIS. One of McMath’s personal favorites is Touch of Yogurt shampoo, a doomed extrapolation from the dairy case, but there are many runners-up: Gorilla Balls vitaminenriched malt candy; I Hate Peas (“A Potato and Pea Recipe in French Fry Form”); AfroKola (“The Soul Drink™” and “The Taste of Freedom”); Nullo deodorant tablets; Yogurt Face & Body Powder (“contains a large amount of living yogurt culture and high quality smoothing ingredients”); Male Chauvinist “awfully arrogant aftershave” and “outrageously superior cologne”; Gimme Cucumber hair conditioner; Hair Trigger shampoo; Sillyclean mirror cleaner; Snack in the Mouth creamy freezer pops; Top Coverage hair-colored spray paint for bald spots (still sold to a loyal few); Northwoods Egg Coffee; Mister Meatloaf; Baker Tom’s Baked Cat Food (“the only cat food that is actually baked in an oven the same way you bake at home”).

In truth, the difference between a successful product and a failed one is sometimes difficult for a layman to discern. Coffee in tea bags failed; so did tea for instant coffee makers. Why didn’t Chocolate Styling Gel? Why can you still buy I. T. cheese spray (“One can of ‘instant taste’ will flavor more popcorn than 4 lbs. of butter”) but not Finger Frosting? The gods of marketing are fickle and inscrutable. I felt a small pang when I discovered a can of Silly String displayed ignobly among the losers. Silly String was a pink, extruded, plasticky material that sprayed out of an aerosol can. You could sneak up behind your mother and blanket her with a great mantle of linguine-like bubble-gum-colored gunk. This is not possible anymore, although making Jiffy Pop is. Why?

Some failed products may have failed simply because their manufacturers didn’t quite think them through. In the early 1970s Gerber guessed correctly that busy young adults would be attracted to foods that could be prepared in a hurry. But Gerber then made the fatal error of packaging its entry (Singles) in baby-food jars. The nation’s singles, already grumpy about having no one to eat with, drew the line at dipping their spoons into tiny jars of creamed beef and Mediterranean vegetables. Pokems (“The neat drink in a bag,” sold with its own poking straw) looked an awful lot like those popular juice drinks that are being sold now in aseptic containers. But poking a Pokems was a bit like stabbing a water balloon. The promising new product soon went the way of Captain Cat cat-litter deodorant.

Other products disappeared no doubt because they didn’t live up to the expectations they raised in the minds of consumers. Wine & Dine Dinners, instant meals packaged with their own miniature bottles of spiced and salted cooking wine, sold briskly to people who thought the wine was for drinking but who (yuck! ptui!) quickly discovered otherwise and never bought them again.

Walking through the aisles of failed products at the new-product museum, one quickly develops a sense of the implacable optimism at the heart of free enterprise. Parsnip Chips, Moonshine Sippin’ Citrus, Secret Valet Bathroom Deodorizer and Tissue Roll Holder— somebody once had high hopes for each of them, as high as Procter & Gamble’s hopes for Pampers. Meetings were held, strategies were promulgated, consultants were consulted. The first cases rolled out with fanfare and enthusiasm, and—and nobody paid any attention.

Robert McMath’s collection of failed products also makes it clear that American consumers have more self-control than is commonly assumed. For the most part, it is true, we buy what the people on television tell us to buy. But every now and then we rebel. When we were told to buy cheese-flavored cat food, we did. When we were told to buy cat food in numbered cans, we did. But when we were told to buy cat food that had been baked, we said, “Enough!”

—David Owen