A Timeless History of the Swatch Watch

Jeff Schear, Getty Images for Swatch
Jeff Schear, Getty Images for Swatch

A curious sight surrounded retail watch counters in the 1980s and early 1990s. The crowds that gathered as salespeople put new Swatch watches out for purchase resembled something out of the Cabbage Patch Kid craze of just a few years earlier. Shoppers would jostle one another in the hopes of scoring one of the $30 plastic timepieces, which came in a variety of colors and designs. The demand was such that sellers often set a one-watch-per-customer limit.

That’s where the odd behavior came in. Customers would buy a Swatch, leave, then return—this time in a different set of clothes or even a wig in an effort to overcome the allocation and buy a second or third Swatch. The watches were the fashion equivalent of Beanie Babies, though even that craze didn’t quite reach the heights of needing a disguise. Limited-edition Swatches were coveted by collectors who had failed in their pursuit at the retail level and paid thousands for them on the aftermarket. The accessories simultaneously became a fashion statement and an artistic canvas.

More importantly, they also became the savior of the Swiss watch industry, which had been on the verge of collapse.

A person models a Swatch watch on their wrist
Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images for Soho House Chicago

To understand the unique appeal of Swatch, it helps to size up the landscape of the timepiece category in the late 1970s. Swiss watches, long considered the gold standard of timepieces, were being outpaced by quartz-powered digital imports from Japan that were cheap to produce and cheap to sell. Faced with the choice of buying a quality watch for a premium price or opting for a bargain digital model, an increasing number of consumers were choosing the imports. Business was down, factories were closing, and jobs were being lost.

Fortunately, a number of things were happening that would prove to offer salvation for the Swiss. ETA SA, a company that made watches and was headed up by Ernst Thomke, had recently invested in an injection-molding machine at the behest of engineer Elmar Mock. Mock, along with his colleague Jacque Muller, spent 15 months crafting a plastic prototype watch that was one piece and welded together. The significance of a sealed unit was that it economized the entire process, turning watches from handcrafted units to models that could be produced by automation. The watches required just 51 parts instead of the 91 pieces typical of most models at the time. In this way, Thomke, Mock, and Muller had produced a timepiece that was both durable and inexpensive.

The issue was why someone might opt for a Swatch watch over a digital Japanese model. Thomke knew that the idea of a “Swiss watch” still held wide appeal in the same way someone might opt for a real Chicago deep-dish pizza over an imitator’s version. Along with Nicholas Hayek, who later became CEO of the Swatch Group, Thomke believed he had cracked the code for a Swiss watch renaissance. He released the first Swatch in Zurich in March of 1983.

But the manufacturing process that allowed Swatches to come in at a reasonable price was also a problem. Automating the process meant the watches and bands were almost always identical in size and shape. If the watch’s general appearance couldn’t be changed, how could it stand out?

A selection of Swatch watches are seen on display
Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

The answer was in the design. The Swatch name came from a contraction of two words: secondary watch. The idea was that a watch could be analogous to a necktie or other fashion accessory. No one owned just one tie, scarf, or pair of dress shoes. They typically had a rotation. Thomke and Hayek didn't believe a watch should be any different.

At the behest of marketing consultant Franz Sprecher, Swatches were soon flooding stores in an assortment of colors and with different designs on the face of the timepiece itself. They could be coordinated for different outfits or occasions, a practice that became known as “watch wardrobing." Someone who bought a red Swatch for summer lounging might opt for a black Swatch as part of their professional attire. The watches retailed for $30 to $40 apiece, so buying more than one was financially feasible.

That was the concept, anyway. Some U.S. retail stores received their Swatch inventory and didn’t know what to make of what was—on the surface—a cheap plastic watch. Neither did their customers.

What Swatch needed was a marketing plan. That largely fell into the hands of marketing consultant Max Imgruth, who was named president of the company’s American division. Swatch saw their sales rise from $3 million in 1984 to $105 million in 1985. Thanks to an effective advertising campaign and more eclectic color choices, public perception of Swatches put them firmly in the fashion category.

A selection of Swatch watches designed by artist Keith Haring are seen on display
Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

The approach opened up a new market, one Thomke, Hayek, and their colleagues had not quite anticipated: Collectors were rabid about Swatches.

To keep their biannual collections of 22 to 24 watch releases fresh, Swatch began recruiting a number of collaborators to design extremely unique offerings. In 1984, they enlisted artist Kiki Picasso to design a series. The following year, Keith Haring designed his own collection. In a kind of prelude to the sneaker design phenomenon of the 1990s and beyond, these collaborators put their own distinctive stamps on the Swatches, which acted as a kind of canvas for their artistic expression.

Between third-party designers and contributions from Swatch’s Milan, Italy, design team, collectors couldn’t get enough. There was the Swatchetables line, which imagined the Swatches in a series of food-related motifs—a red-hot chili pepper Swatch, a cucumber Swatch, and a bacon-strap and egg-faced Swatch. The entire set sold for $300 and only at select food markets, quickly shooting up to $2400 in the secondary market. (Like all aftermarket Swatches, they needed to be kept in their plastic retail case in order to realize their full value.) Some resellers bought up stock in New York, then resold them for three times the price in Italy.

The 1985 “Jellyfish” model was transparent. The 1989 “Dadali” had a face with Roman numerals that appeared to be melting off the face and onto the strap. Swatches came with cuffs to honor Mozart or adorned with synthetic fur. There were Mother’s Day editions and editions celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Some of the straps were scented.

A selection of Swatch watches are seen on display
Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

The possibilities were endless, and so was the consumer appetite. (Except for yellow straps, which traditionally sold poorly.) Collectors camped out for Swatches at retailers or hundreds of Swatch-exclusive stores around the country. Affluent collectors dispatched employees to different retailers in the hopes of finding a limited-edition watch for retail price. If they failed, some had no problem paying thousands of dollars at auction. A Kiki Picasso Swatch, one of a very limited 121 pieces total, sold for $28,000 in 1992.

Though no one wears disguises to acquire Swatch watches anymore, the company is still issuing new releases. And while the company has seen a decline in sales over the years—the rise of smartwatches like the Apple Watch and Fitbit continue to eat into their marketing share—affection for the brand is unlikely to disappear entirely anytime soon. In 2015, one of the world’s largest collections of Swatches—5800 pieces—went up for sale, and ultimately fetched $6 million.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Dr Pepper's Wild Guns N' Roses Publicity Stunt to Give Everyone in America a Free Soda

rbanbuzz/iStock via Getty Images
rbanbuzz/iStock via Getty Images

At the start of 2008, few people could have predicted a film titled Kung Fu Panda would become the year’s third-highest grossing movie (The Dark Knight was number one); that an Iraqi journalist would throw his shoes at President George Bush (he ducked); or that someone would assemble a world-record setting rubber band ball (it weighed in at 9032 pounds). Nor could they have predicted that lawyers for musician Axl Rose would write an open and sternly worded letter to Dr Pepper, chastising the soft drink company for a public relations campaign the attorneys dubbed a “complete fiasco” and charging them with “reckless indifference or complete stupidity.”

The ire directed toward Dr Pepper, though bizarre, was not without cause. It was the result of a spectacular misstep in marketing—one that started as a joke and quickly became a costly venture for the popular carbonated beverage. In March 2008, Dr Pepper brazenly promised a free soda for every single person in the United States if Axl Rose and his reconfigured band, Guns N’ Roses, finally released their long-awaited Chinese Democracy album by the end of the year.

It seemed like a safe bet. Rose had been working on the record for 14 years. A release was unlikely given Rose’s infamous perfectionism and fractured relationships with his bandmates. In making the claim, Dr Pepper was awash in free publicity.

It doesn’t seem like anyone in the company gave serious consideration to what would happen if Rose decided to end the delay and put the album out. In November, that’s exactly what he did. Suddenly, millions of people wanted what they had been promised: a free Dr Pepper.

 

There was nothing in the history of either Dr Pepper or Guns N’ Roses to suggest their storied histories would ever overlap. The drink was the brainchild of Waco, Texas, pharmacist Charles Alderton, who formulated a 23-ingredient fountain beverage in 1885 and saw its popularity soar thanks to its presence at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He dubbed it Dr Pepper, though no one really knows why; one persistent rumor is that it was named after the father of a girl Alderton was in love with, but the origin of the name remains open to apocryphal speculation.

Dr Pepper was initially marketed as a health drink, free of the caffeine or cocaine that was present in similar concoctions. Some people used to drink it hot. It was a popular flavor and largely successful, even though it mostly existed in the shadow of the big two soft drink manufacturers, Coke and Pepsi.

Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses is seen performing on stage
Scott Gries, Image Direct/Getty Images

In 1987, right around the time Dr Pepper was preparing to merge with Seven-Up to create a new soft drink conglomerate, a Los Angeles-based band named Guns N’ Roses released their first studio album, Appetite for Destruction. The band had been formed by William Bruce Rose, an Indiana native who came out to the West Coast to pursue a music career and took the stage name of Axl Rose (an anagram for oral sex). With childhood friend Izzy Stradlin, guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler, the Rose-led band went on to superstardom, holding the record for the biggest-selling debut album of all time, with 30 million copies sold.

The band followed up that success with a dual-disc album, Use Your Illusion I and II, in 1991. Soon, a variety of problems began to plague the group. Stradlin left. Adler struggled with addiction. Rose was alleged to have taken a hardline stance in the creative process, alienating Slash, who left in 1996. Other members came and went.

Through it all, Rose was preoccupied with Chinese Democracy, an ambitious and experimental record that he worked on with no particular sense of urgency. The band’s label, Geffen Records, sent a line of executives to try and persuade Rose to finish the album. Deadlines came and went. Rumors of the album being all but finished were confirmed when Rose let Rolling Stone writer David Wild listen to nine tracks in 1999. The year came and went, but no record was forthcoming.

Rose’s inability or unwillingness to complete Chinese Democracy became something of a running joke in the music industry, with Rose becoming an increasingly elusive figure. He performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002, leading to speculation the album was about to be released. It wasn’t. Geffen released a greatest hits compilation in 2004, leading to the same talk, but that record wasn’t even Rose’s idea: It was Geffen's, as they were looking to recoup the exorbitant costs of the delayed album. By 2005, it was estimated Rose had spent $13 million of the label’s money in production costs. Geffen finally cut him off and insisted he pay for any further studio time himself.

 

That was the state of the band when Dr Pepper marketing director Jaxie Alt proposed a bold strategy. It’s not known whether Alt was a Guns N’ Roses fan or simply someone who thought it would be fun to reference the album’s notorious reputation. Either way, Alt and Dr Pepper announced in March 2008 that if Chinese Democracy came out before the end of the year, they would buy everyone in America a free bottle of Dr Pepper.

A can of Dr Pepper sits next to a glass
Andreas Ivarsson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In a release, Alt wrote:

"It took a little patience to perfect Dr Pepper’s special mix of 23 ingredients, which our fans have come to know and love. So we completely understand and empathize with Axl’s quest for perfection—for something more than the average album. We know once it’s released, people will refer to it as 'Dr Pepper for the ears' because it will be such a refreshing blend of rich, bold sounds—an instant classic."

To Dr Pepper, it must have seemed like betting on a coin toss. But instead of opting for heads or tails, they were betting on the coin landing on its edge—probably the same odds of Rose managing to let go of Chinese Democracy after 14 years of work. (The company also mentioned the offer was good for everyone but Slash and Buckethead, presumably owing to their respective departures from the band.)

Rose, however, took the promotion in good humor, releasing a statement clarifying that he and his management had no official deal with the drink but were still “very happy” to have Dr Pepper’s support.

For a time, it seemed as though Dr Pepper’s plan to stir up publicity worked. The story was picked up across several mainstream media outlets as well as Rolling Stone and Billboard. It was a lofty pledge, but few people believed Dr Pepper would ever have to worry about fulfilling their promise.

It’s hard to know when Dr Pepper executives began to grow concerned. It might have been in August 2008, when a blogger named Kevin Cogill was arrested by the FBI for streaming nine tracks from Chinese Democracy on his website, a violation of federal anti-piracy laws. It’s not that it counted as an official release, but Cogill’s source (he didn’t reveal who) must have had their hands on something that was in some stage of preparation for distribution. It’s also possible Rose finally felt the state of music piracy was such that the full album would be leaked without his consent eventually and that he might as well do it himself. Whatever the case, in October, Geffen announced that Chinese Democracy was coming out on November 23.

Axl Rose and DJ Ashba of Guns 'N Roses are seen performing on stage
Adriano Machado, LatinContent/Getty Images

After the requisite fan excitement, people remembered Dr Pepper’s offer and began soliciting the company for comment. Tony Jacobs, the brand’s vice president of marketing, made an announcement: “We never thought this day would come,” he said.

In print, it was hard to know whether Jacobs was excited, worried, or some combination of the two.

 

The logistics of offering a free Dr Pepper to every single person in America was daunting. The U.S. population at the time was 305 million. Clearly, this could not involve giving an unsolicited 20-ounce Dr Pepper to people preemptively. If people wanted a free Dr Pepper, they would have to make their request known.

In a second press release, Dr Pepper explained the details of the offer. People could visit the official Dr Pepper website on November 23, the day of the album’s release as a Best Buy store exclusive, and share their name and address. Within four to six weeks, they would be mailed a coupon good for one 20-ounce bottle of the drink, redeemable at any establishment where Dr Pepper was sold.

Dr Pepper was making good on its offer. But fans felt the method left a lot to be desired. The site would accept registrations for the coupon for just 24 hours. Immediately, people had problems with the page failing to load, crashing, or refusing to save their information. A phone line that had been set up to take requests for the voucher was also tied up. Dr Pepper could not handle the volume of people looking for their free bottle of soda. November 23 was a Sunday, and the company extended the deadline through Monday in an effort to accommodate everyone.

A crumpled-up can of Dr Pepper is pictured
iStock.com/NoDerog

As complaints mounted, Rose’s attorneys took action. In a letter directed at Dr Pepper executives, they lambasted the company for the ill-conceived promotion and alleged it capitalized on the popularity of Guns N’ Roses while simultaneously harming the reputation of the band. They declared the whole idea a “unmitigated disaster which defrauded consumers” and demanded they run apology ads in major newspapers. The stunt, they argued, harmed the release of Chinese Democracy.

Laurie Soriano, an attorney for Rose, said that Rose’s camp had tried to work with Dr Pepper before the album’s release so demand could be met. But, she said, Dr Pepper didn’t want to collaborate. Soriano also told CNN that fans erroneously believed Rose was involved and were holding him partially responsible for the failure. The letter mentioned that the company had never sought out any official tie-in to the record or endorsement from Rose.

It’s not known how many coupons were ultimately redeemed, though site issues, lack of interest in Dr Pepper, or people simply failing to use them probably contributed to a number significantly less than 305 million. Dr Pepper’s brand seemed no worse for the wear, and Chinese Democracy sold a respectable 549,000 copies in its first 12 weeks of release. Despite the claims by Rose's lawyers, it’s unlikely people declined to buy the album out of protest over a soft drink promotion.

Dr Pepper remains a successful brand as part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Guns N’ Roses reunited in 2016 with original band members Rose, Slash, and McKagan with plans to release a new album, Rose’s first since Chinese Democracy. So far, Dr Pepper has not announced what their plans are, if any, should it ever materialize.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER