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.

He's Also a Client: The Saga of Sy Sperling's Hair Club

Upper Playground, YouTube
Upper Playground, YouTube

Divorced, depressed, and with his midsection growing, Sy Sperling stood in front of a mirror at his home in Long Island in the late 1960s and adjusted his hair. It wasn’t his hair, exactly, but a toupee purchased for the express purpose of obscuring his prematurely shiny crown.

Though he was only 26, Sperling had been losing his hair for years. Now that he was newly single, he felt self-conscious about his receding hairline, believing it would diminish his chances with the opposite sex. He tried combing tufts of hair from the side over to the front. He tried the toupee, which looked like a road-flattened beaver. He tried weaving, which knitted human locks to his existing strands; the first time he shampooed it, it collapsed into a ball of knotted hair.

Like many pioneering spirits before him, Sperling imagined that there had to be a better way—a solution to regaining his lost self-confidence and living the life he desired.

In the coming years, Sperling and his second wife, a hairstylist, would perfect an existing approach with irresistible marketing that provided a solution for millions of follicle-deprived individuals everywhere. And much of that success came from Sperling admitting that he was not just the president. He was also a client.

 

Baldness “cures” date back to the most ancient civilizations. Egyptians used hippopotamus and crocodile fat as hair growth stimulants. In Rome, burning donkey genitals and mixing the ashes with urine was believed to help grow luscious locks. Various concoctions involving poop were believed to work, too.

In more enlightened times, thinning hair could be addressed with transplantation surgery. In 1939, a Japanese dermatologist extracted hair-bearing skin and replanted it by punching a small hole on sites affected by burn injuries. This practice was mirrored by Norman Orentreich, a New York dermatologist who successfully planted hairs into a patient with male pattern baldness in the 1950s. Orentreich was the first person to observe that hairs on the sides of the head were largely resistant to shedding and would therefore remain in place when transplanted to the top or front of the head.

For decades, this was a crude surgical practice, giving rise to a number of patients who had hair sparsely transplanted and created a reputation for heads that appeared to be implanted with “plugs.” It wasn’t until the 1990s that transplants could be more densely packed, offering a convincing restoration of the hairline.

For Sperling, who was born in 1942 and in his 20s when his hair loss became apparent, invasive surgery that was still years away from being refined wasn’t an option. After his sister admonished him to “do something” about the thinning hair that was causing him such grief, he went to a hairstylist who recommended weaving. While somewhat effective, this only seemed practical if hair was remaining on top. Toupees were out, as Sperling had a particular concern over solutions that could fall off or become dislodged during more intimate moments.

"If you're dating and going to be having special moments, how do you explain, 'I got to take my hair off now?'" he asked.

Even with its drawbacks, weaving seemed like the best option. After learning the technique from his stylist, Sperling left his job in swimming pool sales and opened his own salon on New York City's Madison Avenue in 1968. Using $10,000 in capital from credit cards, he leased a vacant business that already had barber-style chairs. Soon, he and his new wife, Amy—who, it turned out, was indifferent to his hair shortage—perfected a technique in which they used a nylon mesh fitted to the scalp. The net-like fabric allowed the head to breathe and for hairs to grow out from under it. It also acted as a base for human hair strands to be woven on top and secured with a polymer adhesive. The entire “system” was secured to the client by weaving the mesh into the hair on the sides. The result was a relatively natural-looking addition that would remain in place through showering, exercising, and—key for Sperling—sexual activity.

The approach took off, enticing New Yorkers and celebrities alike. (Sperling later insisted Jimi Hendrix came in for a fitting in 1969.) Sperling’s business grew steadily throughout the 1970s, but by 1979, sales were leveling off. The problem was that even though he had happy customers, they were reticent to tell friends about their hair-replacement efforts, so word-of-mouth was not reliable. That’s when Sperling decided to advertise.

 

Sperling’s business, then known as the Hair Club for Men, debuted on national television in 1982. One early campaign featured testimonials from actual customers, but the response was minimal. Producers had shot a second spot featuring Sperling himself and considered it as a back-up plan in case the first approach failed. The infomercial aired late at night, when advertising time was cheapest.

Though Sperling was no trained actor or orator, he was genuine. “I’m not just the president,” he said. “I’m also a client.”

When it aired, the reaction was immediate. The Hair Club got 10,000 calls in a month. Interested parties received a brochure discussing various hair-system options and why Sperling’s approach worked. By 1991, there were 40 franchise locations, where clients paid between $2000 and $3500 for a custom mesh that used colored and textured hair to match their natural growth. A maintenance appointment every two months cost $65.

By 1993, the commercial was airing 400 times a day, costing Sperling $12 million annually in advertising expenses. But it was drawing up to $100 million annually in sales. In admitting what most men wouldn't, Sperling engendered trust—and profit.

 

Later, the Hair Club for Men would undergo several cosmetic alterations to its business model. Sperling moved away from strip-mall locations for his clinics and into commercial office spaces to help provide discretion. He even used initials—HCM—on signage to promote privacy.

The “For Men” was dropped as more women suffering from hair loss due to genetics or illness came looking for assistance. Sperling also provided assistance to kids with cancer diagnoses. Through it all, he sold something more than polymers and mesh: Hair Club trafficked in confidence and self-esteem. He allowed reporters to tug on his own hair as a demonstration of quality. It would barely move. "Not bad, eh?" he asked a Spy journalist in 1991. "It really is an amazing transformation."

The hair stayed in place, but Sperling didn’t. In 2000, he sold Hair Club for $45 million to a group of investors who turned around and sold it in 2005 to the Regis hair company for $210 million. Today, Hair Club still offers solutions similar to what Sperling marketed, as well as proven topical treatments like Rogaine (minoxidil), laser combs purported to stimulate growth, and transplantation surgery.

Sperling had an impressive 15-year non-compete clause for the initial sale and spent time in Vancouver and Florida until his death at age 78 in February 2020. Photographs of Sperling in his later years showed that the septuagenarian still had a full head of hair.

Love Is On the Air: How The Dating Game Changed Television

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Chuck Barris had a problem. As the creator and producer of a new ABC game show titled The Dating Game, Barris had thought it would be entertaining to see three men vie for the affections of a woman who quizzed them from behind a screen. Because they'd be unable to rely on visual cues or physical attraction, the contestant and her would-be suitors would have to assess their chemistry based on verbal interplay, and wouldn't see each other face-to-face until she selected a winner.

Unfortunately, early tapings of the game in 1965 had not gone well. Barris later recalled that both the men and women had tasteless responses, answering the contestant's questions with profane remarks full of sexual innuendo that would be unacceptable for daytime television. The shows could not be aired.

Then Barris had an idea. He asked a friend of his who was an actor to dress in a hat and raincoat to give the appearance of a law enforcement official. The man walked into the dressing room where the bachelors were waiting to go on air. He lied and told them that any profanity or overt sexual references would be a violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, a federal offense. They might even get sentenced to jail time.

From that point on, there were no more problems with people uttering expletives on The Dating Game, a long-running series that acted as a precursor to The Bachelor as well as a host of other dating shows. Recognizable for its campy 1960s set, host Jim Lange blowing kisses at the audience, and its inane questioning of contestants, the show marked a pivotal shift away from game shows that offered monetary gain and instead offered a potentially greater reward: true love.

Barris, a game show legend who would go on to create The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, was an ABC executive at the time. As head of daytime programming, he spent much of his time fielding what he thought were many ill-conceived pitches for shows from producers. He told fellow daytime executive Leonard Goldberg that he could come up with something better. But when Goldberg told him to try, Barris replied he had a wife and child and couldn’t spare the time. Goldberg offered to listen to an informal pitch. Barris came up with The Dating Game.

Some have observed the genesis of the show came as a result of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, which posited that women could enjoy more casual relationships without the prospect of marriage looming over their heads. In the more sexually adventurous ‘60s, a show about a simple courtship—particularly one steered by a woman—was still seen as progressive.

At the time, game shows were relegated to contests that typically featured a prize, or at least bragging rights to having won. Jeopardy! and The Price is Right were on the air handing out cash and cars. But Barris was more interested in an intangible benefit. Though the woman and her chosen suitor would be sent out for a dinner date, the expense was minimal, and no one was paid to appear on the show. For viewers, it was about who would find love—or at least the appearance of it.

To select contestants to appear on the series, Barris devised a referral system. After recruiting an initial round of potential participants, his staff had them fill out several forms consisting of their personal information. One of the sheets was reserved for people they already knew and who they felt would be a good fit for the series; a blue form was used for bachelors; and pink for single women. Staffers would be on the phone all day, calling candidates and ushering them in for further evaluation.

For Barris, a contestant on The Dating Game needed to be gregarious, glib, and able to elaborate on answers. If questions weren’t up to snuff, his writers would help craft queries meant to elicit slightly salacious—but never profane—responses. (The questions ranged from perceptive to queries like, “If men are what they eat, which vegetable do you consider yourself?”) Test games would be held in Barris’s Hollywood offices. Out of a pool of 1000 possible contestants, the show would decide on 132 of them to fill their taping needs.

 

For a host, Barris chose Jim Lange, a popular radio personality, to move the game along. Each episode consisted of two complete games, usually a woman interrogating three men—though the format was soon changed to allow for a switch in roles, with three women vying for one man. Barris also enlisted celebrities or soon-to-be celebrities like John Ritter, Farrah Fawcett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Selleck, as well as occasionally sprinkling in a crush, work colleague, or someone else the contestant might know in their private life.

The show was an immediate hit on daytime when it premiered in December 1965. The series soon expanded to primetime in 1966 with a slight change in format: The “dates” now included travel to romantic hotspots like Paris and Rome in an effort to broaden the scope of the show. These trips involved the use of chaperones—a necessity, Barris said, because few parents would allow their young daughters out of the country with a veritable stranger.

The Dating Game aired on ABC through 1973 and entered syndication for one year. In 1978, it went into syndication again (Barris was no longer directly involved), with Lange returning as host. This version, however, was perceived as lewd, with contestants and producers making less of an effort to stifle the sexual wordplay. (“Let’s hear about your tool chest” was among the less-than-clever prompts offered by contestants.) Various other iterations have aired over the years, morphing into the more elaborate find-a-mate series like The Bachelor, which not only expects contestants to have chemistry but eventually wed. Strangely, the conceit seems more old-fashioned than the show that started the genre.

Those shows owe quite a debt to Barris, who eventually left television altogether after feeling as though he was becoming pigeonholed by his game show successes. Barris later penned his 1984 autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which was adapted into a 2002 movie starring Sam Rockwell, directed by George Clooney, and written by Charlie Kaufman), in which he claimed he was an assassin for the CIA and executed targets while chaperoning winners of The Dating Game. That sensational assertion is in doubt, but Barris’s contributions to romance as a television commodity are not. The notion of dating as entertainment goes back to his original idea, a simple partition, and a man in a raincoat.

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