Flex Appeal: How Soloflex Conquered '80s Fitness
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.
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.
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.