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.

A Soloflex is pictured
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 is pictured in a Soloflex ad
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.

The 10 Best Memorial Day 2020 Sales

iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth
iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth

The Memorial Day sales have started early this year, and it's easy to find yourself drowning in offers for cheap mattresses, appliances, shoes, and grills. To help you cut through the noise and focus on the best deals around, we threw together some of our favorite Memorial Day sales going on right now. Take a look below.

1. Leesa

A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
Leesa

Through May 31, you can save up to $400 on every mattress model Leesa has to offer, from the value-minded Studio by Leesa design to the premium Leesa Legend, which touts a combination of memory foam and micro-coil springs to keep you comfortable in any position you sleep in.

Find it: Leesa

2. Sur La Table

This one is labeled as simply a “summer sale,” but the deals are good only through Memorial Day, so you should get to it quickly. This sale takes up to 20 percent off outdoor grilling and dining essentials, like cast-iron shrimp pans ($32), a stainless steel burger-grilling basket ($16), and, of course, your choice of barbeque sauce to go along with it.

Find it: Sur la Table

3. Wayfair

KitchenAid Stand Mixer on Sale on Wayfair.
Wayfair/KitchenAid

Wayfair is cutting prices on all manner of appliances until May 28. Though you can pretty much find any home appliance imaginable at a low price, the sale is highlighted by $130 off a KitchenAid stand mixer and 62 percent off this eight-in-one GoWise air fryer.

And that’s only part of the brand’s multiple Memorial Day sales, which you can browse here. They’re also taking up to 40 percent off Samsung refrigerators and washing machines, up to 65 percent off living room furniture, and up to 60 percent off mattresses.

Find it: Wayfair

4. Blue Apron

If you sign up for a Blue Apron subscription before May 26, you’ll save $20 on each of your first three box deliveries, totaling $60 in savings. 

Find it: Blue Apron

5. The PBS Store

Score 20 percent off sitewide at Shop.PBS.org when you use the promo code TAKE20. This slashes prices on everything from documentaries like Ken Burns’s The Roosevelt: An Intimate History ($48) and The Civil War ($64) to a Pride & Prejudice tote bag ($27) and this precious heat-changing King Henry VIII mug ($11) that reveals the fates of his many wives when you pour your morning coffee.

Find it: The PBS Store

6. Amazon

eufy robot vacuum.
Amazon/eufy

While Amazon doesn’t have an official Memorial Day sale, the ecommerce giant still has plenty of ever-changing deals to pick from. Right now, you can take $100 off this outdoor grill from Weber, $70 off a eufy robot vacuum, and 22 percent off the ASUS gaming laptop. For more deals, just go to Amazon and have a look around.

7. Backcountry

You can save up to 50 percent on tents, hiking packs, outdoor wear, and more from brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and others during Backcountry's Memorial Day sale.

Find it: Backcountry

8. Entertainment Earth

Funko Pops on Sale on Entertainment Earth.
Entertainment Earth/Funko

From now until June 2, Entertainment Earth is having a buy one, get one half off sale on select Funko Pops. This includes stalwarts like the Star Wars and Batman lines, and more recent additions like the Schitt's Creek Funkos and the pre-orders for the upcoming X-Men movie line.

Find it: Entertainment Earth

9. Moosejaw

With the promo code SUNSCREEN, you can take 20 percent off one full-price item at Moosejaw, along with finding up to 30 percent off select items during the outdoor brand's summer sale. These deals include casual clothing, outdoor wear, trail sneakers, and more. 

Find it: Moosejaw

10. Osprey

Through May 25, you can save 25 percent on select summer items, and 40 percent off products from last season. This can include anything from hiking packs and luggage to outdoorsy socks and hats. So if you're planning on getting acquainted with the great outdoors this summer, now you can do it on the cheap.

Find it: Osprey

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.