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The Wet and Wild History of the Super Soaker

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For generations, kids spent their summers chasing each other around the backyard with simple water pistols that barely shot more than a few feet. But squirt guns got a major upgrade in the 1990s when the Super Soaker was introduced by Larami Toys. For over 20 years, these high-powered water guns have dominated the world of water-based warfare, but success hasn't always come easy. Come along as we get drenched in the wet and wild story of the Super Soaker.

In 1982, NASA engineer and spare-time inventor Lonnie Johnson was working on his latest creation — a cooling pump that used water instead of Freon. He had a custom nozzle hooked up to his bathroom sink, and when he turned the water on, it fired a stream across the room. He immediately thought, “This would make a great water gun!”

So Johnson made a prototype gun out of Plexiglas with room for an air pressure chamber and water reservoir inside. To fire the gun, you pumped air into the pressure chamber with an external piston, then pushed a release valve, allowing some of the compressed air to escape, which expelled the water down the barrel. His six-year old daughter and her friends loved it, so Johnson started to look for a company to produce it.

Johnson first approached Daisy, famous for their BB guns, in 1985, and they were interested. However, the project never really got off the ground, so he decided to try his luck with LJN Toys, whose Entertech brand of battery-operated water guns were popular at the time. They, too, started to develop Johnson’s idea, but before the gun could be produced, the company, and the toy gun industry at large, ran into trouble.

At the time, toy guns looked almost exactly like their real-world counterparts, except they were made out of plastic. In 1988, there were a few high-profile cases of kids getting shot by police officers who mistook the kids’ toy guns for the real thing. Additionally, criminals were using toy guns in crimes because they were simple to get and could easily fool a terrified victim. This created a deluge of political debate that eventually led to regulations requiring all toy guns either have a bright orange barrel or feature an unrealistic color scheme.

With all the bad press, Entertech's sales took a nosedive and LJN was soon acquired by Acclaim Entertainment who phased out toy manufacturing to focus on video games. By 1989, Entertech was gone, leaving Johnson on his own once again.

The time spent with Entertech was not wasted, though. Johnson tweaked his gun's design by moving the water reservoir from inside to a separate container on top, using a 2-liter soda bottle on his rebuilt PVC pipe prototype. This small change increased the amount of “ammo” available with every refill, but it also made it much cheaper to build the gun, which he hoped would reduce roadblocks to production.

In 1989 Larami Toys, another water gun maker, became interested in Johnson's design when he wowed the company president by accurately shooting paper cups off a table from across the room. Johnson began working closely with Larami product developer Bruce D’Andrade to iron out wrinkles in the gun’s design, and, finally, in 1990, the “Power Drencher” water gun was released by Larami.

However, with very little advertising, the Power Drencher saw very few sales. So the following year, they retooled the marketing, including a name change to “Super Soaker,” and launched a television advertising campaign. Sales skyrocketed to 2 million guns in 1991 alone. Shortly after, the original Power Drencher became the “Super Soaker 50,” and was just one of many models available with different levels of water capacity and power.

Water Gun Control

By the spring of 1992, Super Soakers were everywhere. One even made an appearance on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson doused his sidekick, Ed McMahon. Unfortunately, just as summer was heating up, a few Soaker-related incidents threatened the water gun's future.

On May 29, 1992, 15-year old Boston native Christopher “Poochie” Miles was walking through his neighborhood when he came upon a Super Soaker water fight between two groups of kids. Then one of the participants started using a real gun instead. Miles was tragically caught in the very real crossfire and killed. Then, only a few days later, two young men were wounded in New York City after one of them accidentally shot a Super Soaker at a passerby who also retaliated with a real gun.

Around the same time, a Boston woman and her 4-year-old son received minor burns when someone in a passing car sprayed them using a Super Soaker filled with bleach. A similar drive-by bleach shooting occurred in Inglewood, California when a school bus driver was hit in the face while he was behind the wheel. Thankfully the bus was empty and he was able to pull over before anyone else was injured.

By the end of June, parents and politicians were calling for a ban on Super Soakers. Boston’s Mayor Raymond Flynn asked retailers to stop selling the guns and many stores complied. Naturally, thanks to the Mayor’s war on water guns, those stores that continued to sell Super Soakers couldn’t keep them in stock. The controversy made them the must-have toy in Beantown.

Throughout the summer, the controversy flared, but Larami spokespeople deflected the concerns by insisting the guns were safe when used as directed. They also fired back that maybe politicians concerned about water gun control should spend their time focusing on real gun control instead. Of course, by the following summer, the controversy had fizzled and Super Soakers were just as popular as ever.

Celebrity Soakers

It should come as no surprise that someone who called his home Neverland Ranch was a huge fan of Super Soakers. The clip below comes from the 2003 Fox TV special Michael Jackson's Private Home Movies, which shows Jackson celebrating a Super Soaker soaked Christmas with Elizabeth Taylor in 1993. There's also footage from 1990 of Michael, sister Janet, and Macaulay Culkin engaged in an epic Super Soaker fight across Jackson’s sprawling Neverland Ranch.

Recently, actress Rashida Jones, best known for Parks and Recreation — and for being the daughter of Michael Jackson's record producer, Quincy Jones — told Playboy about her memories of Jackson’s Super Soaker obsession:

"Once, my sister, Michael, Emmanuel Lewis and I got in a car with Super Soakers and went by a movie theater and supersoaked the hell out of people waiting in line. They had no idea they’d just been supersoaked by the King of Pop."

The King of Pop may have reigned over Super Soaker fandom in the 90s, but it appears the crown has since been passed to the Obama White House.

In June 2010, Ed Henry, then-CNN Chief White House Correspondent, tweeted pictures of then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and current Vice President Joe Biden having a water fight with Biden's family at a private party on the White House lawn.

The Most Powerful Water Gun Ever

In 1996, Larami introduced the Constant Pressure System (CPS) line of Super Soakers. This new line had a separate compression chamber that contained a thick-walled rubber balloon. Whenever a user pumped up the gun, water filled the balloon, which stayed under pressure until it was released on some poor, unsuspecting kid. The crowning achievement of the line was the CPS 2000 Mark 1 — perhaps the most powerful water gun ever made by a toy company.

The 2000’s compression chamber could hold approximately 1 liter of highly pressurized water. Once the trigger was pulled, this liter shot out of the gun in about one second, dousing the target before they could react. The stream was so powerful that the shooter could actually feel the gun recoil.

With that much water being shot out under pressure, there were some reports of injuries by those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of a CPS 2000 blast. Some complained of stinging skin, others got bruises, and there were reports of blurred vision and dizziness after getting shot in the head. There’s even an urban legend that someone’s eye popped out of the socket after they were hit in the face at close range.

While Larami never made a public statement about the safety of the CPS 2000 Mark 1, they unceremoniously replaced it with the Mark 2 design, which had a smaller compression chamber that couldn’t hold as much water. The new design was still pretty powerful, though, so even it was slowly phased out and replaced with weaker guns. Of course the legend of the CPS 2000 has made it one of the most sought-after models by Super Soaker enthusiasts, with vintage Mark 1 and Mark 2 guns regularly selling for $100 and up on eBay.

What Were They Thinking?

There have been a lot of popular Super Soakers over the years, but one model from 2006 was well known for all the wrong reasons. The alien creature-inspired gun The Oozinator was a Super Soaker designed to shoot water, as well as a white, slimy substance called “bio-ooze.” The television commercial for the Oozinator left many wondering if the product was real, or a parody made up by someone with a twisted sense of humor.

As you can imagine, the commercial became an instant YouTube sensation, the parody product reviews on Amazon.com oozed with hilarious innuendo, and it even made an appearance on The Daily Show. Hasbro stayed quiet about the whole thing, but it wasn’t long before the gun was discontinued.
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By Super Soaker’s 10th anniversary, more than 200 million guns had been sold, to the tune of $400 million in sales revenue. Toy maker Hasbro absorbed Larami in 2002, but they continue to crank out new Super Soakers every year under the Nerf product line. Since their introduction over 20 years ago, there have been approximately 175 Super Soaker models released, giving kids and adults alike a variety of ways to wage watery warfare.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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