The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude

John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

Slap Happy: The Slap Bracelet Phenomenon of 1990

Slap Wraps bracelets swept the nation in the fall of 1990.
Slap Wraps bracelets swept the nation in the fall of 1990.
Yvonne Hemsey, Getty Images

In the fall of 1990, as elementary schools around the country were still reeling from the great Bart Simpson T-shirt ban of the previous academic year, teachers and administrators were confronted with another distracting fad. As instructors wrote on blackboards and admonished students to open books, they were frustrated by a steady percussion of steel slapping against skin. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The noise echoed throughout homerooms and school cafeterias, playgrounds and bus trips. Millions of kids had discovered Slap Wraps, the brand name for a 9-inch piece of stainless steel covered in decorative fabric that enveloped the user's wrist with one quick motion. Part toy and part fashion statement, kids found them irresistible. Educators, meanwhile, found them intolerable. Some schools banned them, but not solely due to distraction—knock-offs bracelets had sharp edges and cheap fabric that left some students in literal stitches.

 

Slap Wraps were the invention of Stuart Anders, a Fort Prairie, Wisconsin, native who graduated from college with a degree in education in 1983. Teaching jobs were hard to come by at the time, so Anders took on substitute positions and coached sports.

Sitting down at his mother’s sewing table one day, Anders pulled out a self-rolling tape measure, which curled up with the flick of his wrist, and began fidgeting with it. He thought it would make a cool bracelet, provided someone covered the steel in fabric.

He called the company who made the tape measure, but they were no longer manufacturing it. Anders didn’t know what else to do. While he thought the idea of a snap bracelet could be successful, he didn’t have the money or other resources to commit to producing them himself. But he kept the prototype on his steering wheel.

Later, he wound up enlisting in the National Guard, where he learned to fly helicopters. After that he moved to Florida and began working for a local apparel company. The bracelet had never left his truck.

One day, Anders ran into a man named Philip Bart, who just happened to be an agent for toy designers. Anders, who couldn’t quite believe his luck, ran outside to fetch the bracelet. He clamped it around Bart’s wrist. Thwack.

Bart was sold. Now he just needed to sell someone else.

Bart approached all the big toy companies with the slap bracelet idea, but they rebuffed him. The reason? They weren't interested in investing time and money in a product that amounted to little more than a trinket that would have a low retail price. But Bart found a receptive audience in Eugene Murtha, who had just opened Main Street Toy Company in Simsbury, Connecticut, in 1988. Murtha, a former vice president of Coleco during that company’s Cabbage Patch Kid craze, immediately saw the potential in Anders's invention. He agreed to distribute Slap Wraps, paying Bart and Anders royalties.

Bart and Anders rushed to make prototype bracelets in time for 1990's American International Toy Fair in New York City. The bracelets were the talk of the trade show, and Murtha secured a 250,000-unit order from KB Toys. But there were issues: Murtha appeared ill-equipped to handle the manufacturing end, leaving Bart to start up Main Street Industries and produce the bracelets, which he would then turn around and sell to Main Street Toy Company. It was not a smooth process, as the thickness and quality of the rounded-edge steel had to be adjusted from 0.004 inches to 0.006 inches to ensure the steel wouldn’t protrude from the double-knit fabric, which meant that producing the bracelets took longer than expected. Murtha anticipated a shipment that April, but the Slap Wraps weren’t ready until the summer of 1990.

In the interim, Bart was annoyed that Murtha had permitted some of the prototypes to escape his grasp at Toy Fair, allowing for a rash of knock-offs to appear on store shelves before the Slap Wraps were even released. These versions typically used carbon steel, which rusted easily, and lower-quality fabric, which allowed the steel to become exposed and created opportunity for injury.

Those dangers weren’t understood until Slap Wraps and their Taiwan-produced counterparts began taking off in the fall. Popularized by word-of-mouth, kids scooped up the bracelets and proceeded to turn them into a school fad, slapping the neon-colored accessories against themselves all day long. The New York Times described them as “a Venetian blind with an attitude.”

The disruptiveness of the bracelets (both the noise and the fact that kids were playing while they were supposed to be listening) and the reports of injury—4-year-old Nicole Tomaso of Wallingford, Connecticut, cut her finger on one—led some schools to take action. The bracelets were banned at Colonial School and Siwanoy School in New York after a child was cut at West Orchard Elementary School in Chappaqua, New York. Lehigh Township Elementary School in Pennsylvania banned them on the grounds they were distracting. Steckel Elementary School in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, instituted a no-bracelet-slapping rule. Others asked teachers to inspect the bracelets for frayed edges. A recall of the foreign versions was implemented in Connecticut by the state’s Department of Consumer Protection. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission advised parents to inspect the bracelets for frayed edges.

The controversy bothered Murtha, who repeatedly told press that the injuries were the result of the cheap imports, not the brand-name Slap Wraps. Although Main Street Toy Company had moved 1 million of the bracelets for $2.50 each in just three months and had orders for 5 million more, it was estimated that 10 to 15 million counterfeit versions had been sold, some for as little as $.70 each.

 

As the fad began to flame out toward the end of 1990, Bart and Murtha started finger-pointing. Bart criticized Murtha for allowing the bracelets to be taken at Toy Fair, which led to the rash of knock-off products. Bart believed that had Murtha not been so careless, they could have made $25 million in sales instead of $4 million. He also claimed Murtha had gone to another manufacturer, leaving him with unsold inventory. Murtha countered that Bart had taken too long with production, missing spring delivery goals, and kept raising the price of the bracelets. Plans for slap ponytail bracelets and slap anklets fell by the wayside.

It got uglier. Bart and Anders had not received royalty payments from sales of the Slap Wraps, with both sides contending different interpretations of contracts that had been signed in 1990. Bart and Anders moved to terminate the licensing agreement. Murtha sued, and the legal dispute went to arbitration in 1991. While the arbitrator found fault with both parties, the net sum of money owed fell at the feet of Murtha, who was wrist-slapped for $751,309. Main Street Toy Company was all but insolvent, however, and no payment would be forthcoming. Bart contended he had lost $1 million in manufacturing costs and had 2.5 million Slap Wraps in a warehouse that would never sell, as kids had already moved on to the next thing.

Murtha went on to positions at Mattel and Gund and later reconciled with Anders, who had more success with inventing a tool socket holder he sold to Sears.

Different manufacturers have tackled the slap bracelet phenomenon over the years, but nagging safety problems still remain. In 2017, bracelets adorned with Troll dolls and packaged with a storybook were recalled due to a risk of laceration from exposed edges. So were bracelets made by Yumark Industries and sold at Target in 2018. For better or worse, Anders’s invention continues to leave a mark on pop culture.

Remembering Fingos, the Hybrid Cereal-Snack Disappointment of the '90s

General Mills was confident Fingos would be a cereal smash.
General Mills was confident Fingos would be a cereal smash.
Retro Stuff, YouTube

For practically as long as dry, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals have existed, people have been eating them out of the box or using them in alternative recipes like Rice Krispies Treats.

The problem was that not enough people were reaching for cereal at other hours of the day. According to research conducted by General Mills in the early 1990s, only 7 percent of those who purchased cereal ate it outside of the breakfast window. The company believed that if more consumers could be persuaded to snack on cereal throughout the day, then maybe General Mills could finally outpace the Kellogg Company as the most dominant cereal manufacturer on the market.

After years of research and development, General Mills introduced their secret weapon in 1993. It was called Fingos, a hexagon-shaped cereal that consumers were encouraged to eat with their hands.

The snack vs. cereal conundrum

Superficially, there was little about Fingos that made it any more of a snack than a cereal. The irregularly-shaped pieces—available in either a toasted honey nut or cinnamon flavor—had roughly the same nutritional and ingredient profile of typical lightly-sweetened cereals. Slightly larger than a corn flake but smaller than a potato chip, Fingos could wind up in milk just as easily as any other kind of cereal. The difference was that General Mills wanted buyers to eat it dry.

It was a “cereal made to eat with your fingers,” according to ad copy, part of a campaign that cost General Mills $34 million—making it one of the largest promotions ever for a cereal launch.

“We’re breaking the traditional bounds of advertising cereal because we’re trying to break the bounds of how people use cereal,” Barry Davis, then the marketing manager for General Mills’ Big G cereals, told The New York Times.

In pushing Fingos as a dry snack, the hope was that it could surmount a market trend of consumers skipping breakfast or opting for healthier foods like yogurt. General Mills felt that giving consumers permission to dive into the box the other 23-odd hours of the day would help offset early-morning avoidance of cereals.

invading the snack market

While breakfast may have been a problematic market, it was still a lucrative one. At the time, the dry cereal industry was worth $8 billion annually, with more than 210 cereals on shelves vying for the attention of 97 out of 100 households who purchased boxes for their pantries. If a new product could capture just 1 percent of that market share, it would still be an $80 million success story and likely enough to vault General Mills and its 29.5 market share over Kellogg, which owned 37 percent.

To increase the chances of Fingos taking off, General Mills designed a package that was wider on top to accommodate hands reaching inside. They also sold Fingos in single-serving packs in vending machines, a snack space typically reserved for potato chips and the like. The box itself featured a wide and smiling face that was animated for commercials, with voice actor Steve Mackall channeling Robin Williams as the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin.

“How wholesome am I?” the Fingos “spokes-box” asked. “Read my hips,” it said, aggressively shoving its nutritional information out at the viewer.

While Fingos was a modest 110 calories and 3 grams of fat per 1-ounce serving, General Mills opted not to market it as a healthy snack, as the market was already glutted with them. Instead, they felt the snack-cereal hybrid approach made Fingos stand out. In focus group testing, it seemed to work, too. Just 1 percent of respondents decided to pair it with milk.

Got milk?

But focus testing is one thing. The real world is another. When Fingos rolled out nationally beginning in the spring of 1993, consumers didn’t know what to make of it. If it was a snack, shouldn’t it have been located in the snack aisle? If it was a cereal, why try to compare it to chips?

Perhaps the most problematic component of Fingos was that consumers didn’t need permission to eat cereal dry and directly out of the box. That urge existed for practically every kind of cereal. Downplaying the appeal of Fingos in milk didn’t make it any more attractive as a snack.

Fingos bombed, eating its $34 million marketing budget whole and leaving only crumbs for General Mills, which had more or less abandoned the product by 1994. Fortunately, they had something else in the pipeline: Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs, a hit that still sells to this day under the shortened name of Reese's Puffs.

Fingos, incidentally, had an unfortunate translation when uttered in Hungarian. Fing means fart, lending the snack the label of farto should it ever be sold in that country.

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