Flex Appeal: How Soloflex Conquered '80s Fitness

Soloflex ads were must-see television in the 1980s.
Soloflex ads were must-see television in the 1980s.
Jerry Wilson, YouTube

Jerry Lee Wilson thought he had figured out the perfect way to motivate employees: He brought a shotgun to work.

It was the late 1970s, and Wilson was overseeing a factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, that produced his Soloflex machine, an all-in-one resistance exercise device that was quickly taking off thanks to creative print ads of sinewy torsos. Orders were pouring in for the apparatus, but Wilson’s workers insisted they could produce just eight of them per day [PDF]. The high-quality steel construction was too labor-intensive to make any more than that.

But to keep up with demand, Wilson needed at least 20 new machines manufactured daily. That’s when he brought the shotgun.

In front of his employees, Wilson took aim at the clock on the wall and fired. The message was clear: Shifts were a thing of the past. Meeting that 20-machines-per-day quota was all that mattered now.

Soon, Wilson's employees were indeed turning out 20 Soloflex machines a day. Before long it was 48. In 1998, Wilson reached $98 million in sales—$54 million of which was pure profit.

Wilson's motivational tactics may have been unconventional, but so was the man himself. Before launching his Soloflex empire, he was a full-time pilot and a part-time drug smuggler.

 

By Wilson's own admission—he wrote a tell-all autobiography, The Soloflex Story, in 2009—he had considered the fitness industry a viable alternative to running up against the law. In the 1970s, Wilson was an airmail pilot as well as a pilot for private charter planes. In between legitimate flights, he was buzzing thousands of pounds of marijuana across state lines. He was caught and arrested in Oklahoma in 1976; he was put on trial but claimed there was a hung jury after he was accused of attempting to seduce one of the jurors. A second trial was held where he was found not guilty.

Narrowly avoiding a federal prison sentence allowed Wilson to concentrate on his pet project. More than a decade prior, he had been taught a series of weightlifting exercises at the New Mexico Military Institute. Wilson knew the value of a resistance training regimen but recognized the danger it posed to people unfamiliar with free weights. The weights could slip and fall on someone; overexertion could lead to injuries. Wilson believed there would be demand for a device that could safely mimic the exercises he had been taught. Some of his wealthy charter passengers told him there was money to be made in manufacturing.

The Soloflex had an L-shaped design that accommodated a variety of exercises. Soloflex

Wilson couldn’t weld, but he got assistance from Arthur Curtis, who owned Curtis Steel in Las Vegas. Because Wilson couldn’t afford materials for his prototype, he traded Curtis a .22 pistol for the steel. Slowly, an L-shaped pole with a support bar and a bench began to take shape. Instead of free weights, which could be dangerous as well as prohibitively expensive to ship, Wilson equipped his machine with thick rubber bands that could be adjusted to provide greater resistance as users grew stronger. He named the product Soloflex, a possible nod to the fact that you didn’t need a spotter to monitor a heavy weight exercise. He then started plotting how to market his $450 machine.

Third-party distribution was unlikely. While universal workout machines like Nautilus had been popular in gyms for years, casual fitness enthusiasts weren’t buying them for home use. Sears had already turned down a similar type of machine out of fear that people wouldn’t be interested. In the late 1970s, serious resistance training was still stigmatized.

Wilson’s solution to that problem was to make a direct appeal to the consumer, rather than trying to convince a middle man of the product’s value. Wilson began taking out print ads in national magazines touting the benefits of the Soloflex, being careful to avoid the kind of veiny, bodybuilding type of photography that appealed only to hardcore enthusiasts. His ads featured fit but reasonably proportioned bodies with stark captions. “The Chest,” read one. “The Stomach,” read another. “Body by Soloflex,” they announced. By dialing the 800 number listed in the ad, people would receive a VHS cassette explaining the Soloflex and its novel approach to fitness.

In 1978, his first full year of national advertising, Wilson made $80,000. He also accrued $80,000 in debt. But he was able to show investors a steady stream of orders, which kept going up.

Unfortunately, so did print ad rates. In the early 1980s, Wilson saw a nearly 300 percent increase in costs to place the ads, which started cutting into his advertising budget significantly. He needed another way to evangelize his temple to the ideal physique and get the VHS footage directly to consumers.

For the second time, Wilson was able to cut out the middle man. Thanks to Congress, it was now permissible for anyone to buy paid airtime on television.

 

The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 deregulated prohibitions on paid advertising that was program-length. Suddenly, thousands of cable channels were inundated with paid promotional advertising. According to Wilson, it happened so quickly that many didn’t even have a department to handle the checks advertisers were sending them.

Soloflex was an ideal product for the infomercial format. It resonated with people best when demonstrated, which is why Wilson had made such an effort to circulate the VHS tapes. As a narrator extolled the virtues of the device, fit models pulled and tugged on the bars, which provided smooth resistance and allowed for fluid motion. While it was likely not as effective as free weights, which require more muscle activation in order to stabilize the load, it made for excellent television. Wilson bought 100-hour blocks of time on stations and later estimated that one in seven U.S. households ordered the brochure that continued the sales pitch.

While most fitness models were generally nameless—and perhaps even faceless—to most viewers, Soloflex had managed to make a celebrity out of Scott Madsen, a 21-year-old who was waiting tables when he spotted an ad soliciting a model who looked like a gymnast for a gig in his hometown of Hillsboro, Oregon. Better still, it paid $50 an hour. Madsen not only looked like a gymnast, he used to be one: He had gone to the University of Wisconsin on a full athletic scholarship but dropped out after a year. The job looked to be a way to monetize his physique.

Madsen quickly became the body most closely associated with Soloflex; his popularity earned him a lengthy profile in The Washington Post in 1985 and Soloflex found an additional revenue source by moving more than 70,000 posters featuring Madsen's toned and shirtless body. He auditioned for a potential role in a Hardy Boys film and was cast in another, Leatherboys, which People described as a “post-nuclear holocaust teen gang” movie. (It was never made.) He even scored a book deal for Peak Condition, which a Washington Post reviewer called “more of a sexy photo album than a book about physical fitness.” (In the book, Madsen took the curious tact of endorsing free weights and criticized the current “exercise-machine infatuation.”)

Madsen became a gay icon, too. His print and brochure ads were often taped to people's walls and Madsen once bemoaned the fact that people were far too comfortable asking him to take off his shirt. When one reporter confronted him with the idea he was “genetically perfect,” Madsen scoffed.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “So 'sought-after,' I think that would be a better word.”

To Wilson’s great satisfaction, the Soloflex had become part of popular culture, with revenue to match. Sales in 1992 reached $100 million. But success brings imitators. In a crowded fitness market, Wilson was about to be deluged with knock-offs that threatened both his bottom line and the health of his potential customers.

 

Wilson struck out in 1986 when he introduced the Armchair Quarterback, a scaled-down version of the Soloflex that was intended to conserve space but failed to take off. In 1990, he announced plans for Robox, a full-size robot that purportedly offered a boxing-style workout in which users could both hit the machine (which he claimed used materials similar to those of crash-test dummies) and that the robot could actually hit back. There’s no evidence the $2500 device ever made it to market.

But Wilson had bigger concerns than sentient and violent artificial intelligence. The success of the Soloflex had led to a wave of imitators, most notably the Bowflex, which Wilson alleged stole the trade dress, or commercial style, of his machine. They even used Madsen for some spots. So Wilson sued Bowflex, and won an $8 million settlement in 1998. A few years later, in 2004, 420,000 Bowflex units were recalled due to a risk of collapse. Wilson was quick to point out that people shouldn’t confuse the two machines. Wilson also sued NordicTrack for appropriating his commercial approach and earned an $18.5 million settlement.

Scott Madsen, the Soloflex company's beefcake-in-residence. Soloflex

Those may have been the last great victories of the Soloflex empire. An attempt to market a Soloflex Wall, which was described as a “wood-steel hybrid wall panel” for home construction fizzled in 2000. A steep increase in television ad rates made pervasive infomercials or Super Bowl commercials cost-prohibitive. Worse, Wilson’s own insistence on quality was counterproductive. Because he refused to utilize the kind of “planned obsolescence” common in consumer goods, which allows for products to fail after a finite period of time, people who bought one Soloflex had no cause to ever buy another. There was also a rich secondary market in used fitness devices that were being neglected: Wilson has acknowledged the majority of Soloflex buyers stopped using them after a period of time.

Both Wilson (who is now in his seventies) and Soloflex are still in business, but typically shun print or television advertising and instead rely on word-of-mouth and internet marketing.

Madsen, who seemed to disappear in the late 1980s, resurfaced in 2010 after he was sentenced to two years in prison for embezzling $248,544.60 from his uncle’s mortgage firm. Madsen had fabricated expenses that he charged to the company, making him very sought after by prosecutors.

Since the introduction of the Soloflex in 1978, the fitness industry has seen countless mail-order products, trends, supplements, and endorsements. It now feels like a relic of a bygone era, one where people idly stopped on a televised sales pitch for a device they were unlikely ever to use for any length of time. It was one thing to contemplate the idealized body. Trying to achieve it was another story. For many, the Soloflex became a $500 or $600 clothes hanger—plus $60 shipping.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Overexposed: A History of Fotomat

Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
George, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Like the Golden Arches of McDonald’s that came before it, the familiar gold and pyramid-shaped roofs of Fotomat locations acted as a beacon. Instead of hamburgers, Fotomat was in the photography business, offering tiny huts situated in shopping plaza parking lots that were staffed by just one employee. Men were dubbed Fotomacs. Women were known as Fotomates, and management required them to wear short-shorts, or “hot pants,” in a nod to the strategy used for flight attendants at Pacific Southwest Airlines.

Cars pulled up to the Fotomat location and dropped off film they wanted processed. After being shuttled via courier to a local photo lab, it would be ready for pick-up the following day. And aside from selling film and a foray into renting videocassette tapes, this was all Fotomat did.

The idea, which was originally made popular by wealthy aviator Preston Fleet, was almost deceptively simple in concept and execution. At the height of Fotomat’s success in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were more than 4000 of the tiny kiosks located across the United States and Canada. But even with extremely low overhead—the little huts didn’t even have bathrooms—and a widespread love of photography, Fotomat fell victim to its own success. Its legacy even grew to include a former company president who became a federal fugitive from justice.

 

In the 1960s, Americans were fond of Kodak Instamatic cameras and film. People submitted the familiar yellow spools full of images from weddings, birthdays, trips, and other social events to photo processing labs, which might take days to return prints.

That’s where Preston Fleet saw opportunity. Fleet was a wealthy aviation enthusiast. His father, Reuben Fleet, had founded the Consolidated Aircraft Company—later known as Convair—which manufactured aircraft for World War II. Born in Buffalo, New York, Fleet moved with his family when the airplane business was relocated to San Diego. On the West Coast, he met Clifford Graham, an entrepreneur well-known in La Jolla, California, for his multiple business pursuits. Graham also had a reputation for carrying a gun and leading investors astray with questionable business practices.

Fotomat, however, was no hustle. The concept of a kiosk where people could easily drop off and pick up film that would be ready overnight originated in Florida, where Charles Brown opened the first location in 1965. After buying Brown's stock shares and arranging for a royalty, Fleet and Graham founded the Fotomat Corporation in 1967, with Graham president and Fleet vice-president. The concept grew quickly, boasting 1800 sites in its first 18 months of operation. Owing to its color scheme, people often thought Kodak operated the business, which led to complaints from Kodak as well as lawsuits. (Fotomat changed its design in 1970 to avoid confusion.)

While it was relatively easy to slot in a Fotomat hut in a parking lot, a business operating as an island surrounded by traffic had its problems. Remembering an old Fotomat in New Dorp on Staten Island, residents on Facebook recalled plowing into the kiosk or backing into it. (Most notably, terrorists destroy a Fotomat lookalike hut in the Twin Pines Mall lot in 1985’s Back to the Future.)

There was also the matter of bathrooms: They weren’t any. Employees often made arrangements to duck into local supermarkets or other stores when nature demanded it.

Hot pants and a lack of lavatories aside, Fotomat performed so well that Fleet and Graham decided to take it public in 1969, with each man holding stock worth $60 million at one point. But Graham’s controversial business practices made him a short-timer. In 1971, he was ousted from Fotomat over allegations he was misusing funds for his own personal gain, including his political interests—Graham was a supporter of both Richard Nixon and football player-turned-congressman Jack Kemp, who became an assistant to the president in the Fotomat corporation and referred football pros to become franchisees.

 

By the early 1980s, Fotomat—now minus Fleet, who had sold off his shares, and Graham—had opened over 4000 locations. That was both impressive and problematic. Fotomat had far overextended itself, sometimes opening kiosks so close to one another it cannibalized sales. There was also a growing number of pharmacies and grocery stores offering photo development services.

Fotomat locations were usually found in parking lots.David Prasad, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The real death blow for Fotomat, however, wasn’t over-expansion. It was the emergence of the one-hour minilab.

For an investment of $50,000 to $100,000, existing stores could install labs that could process photos in as little as one hour while customers shopped. Minilabs exploded from just 600 locations in 1980 to 14,700 by 1988. And since film never left the sites, it was less likely to get lost. It decimated Fotomat and its copycat businesses, with Fotomat moving from an impressive 18 percent market share in the photo processing industry to just 2 percent by 1988.

The company tried to recalibrate, converting home movies to videotape and even offering VHS rental during the VCR boom of the 1980s, but it wasn’t successful. Mass layoffs and closures followed. (Minilabs would have their own reckoning, both due to the rise of 35mm photography and digital photography.) In 1990, Fotomat was down to just 800 locations.

Fleet, who had exited Fotomat years prior—the company had been sold to Konica—was no worse for the wear. Prior to his death in 1995, he authored a book, Hue and Cry, which called into question the authenticity of works attributed to William Shakespeare. He was a founding director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 1963. He also helped popularize Omnimax, an immersive theater experience owned by Imax, installing a screen at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Space Museum in San Diego in 1973.

Graham’s future after Fotomat was far more colorful. Promoting a bogus gold mining operation he named Au Magnetics, he promised he could turn sand into gold. Instead, he was accused of fleecing investors. When a federal grand jury handed down an indictment that included charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion in 1986, Graham was nowhere to be found. Nor would he ever be located. Associates speculate he either successfully eluded authorities or was possibly killed by an investor who was unhappy with losing money.

As for the Fotomat locations themselves: Following the company’s collapse, many were repurposed into other businesses. Some became coffee shops; others morphed into watch repair kiosks, locksmith huts, windshield wiper dealers, or tailors. Presumably, none of the owners who took over mandated their employees wear hot pants.