#TBT, our new Thursday series, takes a look back at the people, places, things, and trends that held our fascination in decades past—both the unforgettable ones, and those you only wish you could forget.
In the 1990s, the magazine industry was having some issues. People suffered a five percent drop in circulation in the first half of 1990; Sports Illustrated dropped by seven percent that same year. Publishers could discount titles, but steep markdowns on subscriptions affected ad rates; sales departments needed to be able to say people were paying close to full cover price in order to entice advertisers.
Time, Inc., which owned both People and SI, thought it was time for a different approach. The sports magazine had previously offered tapes of football and basketball bloopers to new subscribers, which had a high "perceived value" due to the exorbitant cost of VHS cassettes in the 1980s. They performed well, but there was only so much footage of uncoordinated athletes to go around.
Michael Loeb, SI's circulation director, was tasked with conceiving of a new idea. What could be done to get people excited about the bland process of ordering a magazine subscription?
The elegant solution: a football-shaped phone. The flip-style receiver and handset were covered in a hard shell of rubber, textured for grip, and featured a ringer that sounded like a referee’s whistle. Oval and unbalanced, it had to be placed on a stand when not in use—in this case, a kicker’s tee. There were “mute” and “redial” buttons and not much else. The appeal was in the absurdist performance art of watching people express delight over a phone you could play catch with, then call people to tell them "you won’t believe what I'm calling you on."
SI purchased airtime on cable channels to promote the phone. The two-minute commercial spots quickly became something of a phenomenon, blending a recognizable brand with a made-for-TV kitsch product. "A lot of things came together at just the right time," Loeb tells mental_floss. "It was cheap to advertise on cable, and you could get a credible phone product out of China for a few dollars."
Working with SI employee Martin Shampaine, Loeb spent months on the logistics: the phone's weight had to be distributed correctly in order to stand up on the tee, and the cord couldn't obstruct the phone opening. "We needed to find out where exactly the break in the mold would be, where to put the hinge. It took a lot of iterations."
The phone became highly visible during the 1990 holiday season, promising viewers of the mini-infomercial (created by marketing legend Jeff Meltzer, who brought us the Amish fireplace) that a one-year, $55 subscription would earn them the conversation piece.
Anecdotal evidence reports less than favorable experiences with the gift, however: its bulbous shape made it uncomfortable to hold, and tossing it around usually meant it would eventually crash to the floor. "Honestly, when you played catch with it, it would hurt," Loeb says. (Meltzer also owned one. "I couldn't get a dial tone," he says.)
To the best of Loeb's recollection, the phone was only available through early 1991. Fortunately, the marketing department had more than one kind of ridiculously kitschy device available. Another promotion centered around a Get Smart-style sneaker phone. According to Meltzer, both ads were a mixture of real reactions—the football phone segment was shot outside Giants Stadium—and paid actor endorsements.
The promos garnered a lot of attention for Time, Inc. Dennis Miller mentioned the telephonic sneaker in a 1990 stand-up special. In 1993’s Wayne’s World 2, Garth ponders if he’ll ever get his football phone. "It was like a mood ring," Loeb says.
While the notoriety was nice, the gimmicks also accomplished their main goal of raising the magazine’s circulation: Loeb recalls that a million subscribers came on the heels of the novelty phone era. Many had signed up just to get the future-yard-sale item.
SI considered other variations, including a baseball phone and a Volkswagen Bug phone, but nothing made it out of test marketing. The company decided to back away from the offers in the early 1990s, returning to VHS compilation tapes like the one featuring Muhammad Ali.
Novelty phones, previously one of the telecommunication industry’s highest-margin lines, have been relegated to eBay listings; Sports Illustrated currently offers new subscribers a windbreaker and T-shirt with the NFL team logo of your choice. Thanks to cell phones, we’ve probably seen the last of any free gift that requires a phone jack. You can watch the entire two-minute ad below.