Deeply Absorbing: The ShamWow Story

ShamWow
ShamWow

Across three weekends in the summer of 2007, an Israeli-born filmmaker and entrepreneur named Offer Shlomi shot a two-minute commercial extolling the virtues of the ShamWow, a cleaning towel that promised to soak up 20 times its weight in spilled liquids.

Shlomi—going by the name Vince Offer—handled the yellow cloth with the dexterity of a stage magician, wiping up small puddles and blotting soda-soaked carpets.

The towels were made in Germany. “You know the Germans always make good stuff,” Offer told the camera. And it wasn’t just for the kitchen: you could use it as a bathmat, as an RV polisher, or to dry the dog. “Olympic divers use it as a towel," Offer said. Did they? Who knew?

In contrast to the polished infomercial pitchmen of the era, like the high-decibel Billy Mays, Offer’s approach was more conversational. “You following me, camera guy?” he asked, motioning for a close-up of a wring-out. Even the ad’s catchphrase (“You’ll be saying 'wow' every time”) was delivered as though Offer had just rolled out of bed. He seemed profoundly unconcerned with the whole thing. If viewers didn't know a good deal when they saw it, it wasn't his problem.

The lackadaisical approach worked: millions of ShamWows were sold. Offer became the Chewbacca Mom of his time, a curious personality that lent a new kind of attitude to the kitschy direct-sales market once dominated by chicken roasters and hair-in-a-can.

"The ShamWow Guy," however, would stress that he wasn’t looking to become the next Ron Popeil. (Or the next Billy Mays, who would shortly become something of a nemesis.) What he really wanted to do was direct.

ShamWow

Vince Offer had arrived in Los Angeles after dropping out of his Brooklyn high school in the late 1970s, picking up odd jobs before finding that he could capture attention at area flea markets. Raised on a diet of Crazy Eddie commercials that once showered the East Coast, he spoke quickly and with conviction, pushing items like an early version of the Slap Chop vegetable dicer and honing his blasé attitude.

“Nice doesn’t get people to stop,” Offer told CNBC in 2008. “People stop when you are aggressive and when you bring them in.”

By 1996, Offer had sold enough Slap Chops to fund an independent sketch comedy film he wrote and directed titled The Underground Comedy Movie. The reviews were unkind—The New York Times called it a "sorry enterprise"—but Offer was convinced the raunchy approach could work with the right marketing. After watching an infomercial for the amateur video series Girls Gone Wild, Offer produced an ad pushing the film that ran between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. on Comedy Central. Underground went on to sell 50,000 copies via mail order, and another 50,000 in stores.

The direct-to-consumer approach made Offer think back to his flea market days. In 2006, he developed a twist on the kind of super-absorbable and reusable cleaning towels common at booths by stressing their value over sponges and disposable paper towels. After dismissing Sham It Up! and Sham It as possible names, Offer settled on ShamWow. (It was a play on the French pronunciation of chamois, a soft leather wipe.) The commercial, shot in Glendale, California, cost $20,000 to produce and began to air in early 2008.

Almost immediately, Offer’s bizarre sales approach captured people's attention. Slate columnist Seth Stevenson endorsed Offer's “street smart” persona. “He makes us feel like idiots for even entertaining the notion of not buying a ShamWow,” Stevenson wrote. “He seems truly dumbfounded that anyone might fail to see the wisdom of dropping $28 … on a set of rags.”

The 23.5-inch by 20-inch rags (and a smaller 15- by 15-inch blue version) came eight to a set, but three of them went for a wholesale price of just 50 cents. The real value was in Offer's demonstration, which made the ShamWow seem like the kind of forward-thinking sponge that would emerge from an Apple lab.

But the towel wasn’t without controversy. Both Consumer Reports and Popular Mechanics tested Offer’s claim that the cloth could soak up 20 times its weight in spills, finding that it was closer to 10 to 12 times for water and soda. (Consumer Reports did, however, endorse its exceptional motor oil-sucking abilities.) A columnist for the Chicago Tribune inexplicably wrapped a ShamWow around his infant’s midsection and declared the towel contained the coming urine without spilling a drop.

Mays was unimpressed with ShamWow's capacity for baby pee. He expressed annoyance that the product was similar to the Zorbeez towel he had already been pitching for two years, asserting that his cleaning wipe was the more effective of the two. But in a 2009 test, Popular Mechanics reported the Zorbeez had simply pushed liquids around while the ShamWow had taken care of beer and even melted snow without incident, the messes “sucked up as if with a straw.”

ShamWow

Offer followed the ShamWow with a pitch for his Slap Chop, inserting innuendo in ads in an attempt to draw more viral attention to the product. (Mays popped up again to counter it was derived from the Quick Chop he had been peddling.) Though he declined to offer sales specifics, Offer told CNBC sales of the ShamWow were “in the millions” and that he had no interest in pitching anyone else’s products.

If there was opportunity to do so, it came to a halt in February 2009, when Offer was arrested for fighting with an alleged prostitute. According to NBC, the altercation resulted in a charge of aggravated assault for both parties. (Prosecutors didn’t pursue the case.) Speaking about the incident in 2013, Offer told NBC that he took “full responsibility” and that the event caused him to throttle back on his partying habits.

He later marketed the Schticky, an adhesive roller, and a cleaning solution called InVinceable, but neither resonated with consumers quite like the ShamWow. The product is still for sale via direct mail, and Offer's face still graces the product's home page, which also makes use of consumer testimonials.

“I received a ShamWow set as a gift at Christmas,” reads one endorsement. “I never used them, but yesterday our toilet overflowed. We opened the box of ShamWows, and they were a real life saver! The ShamWows worked better than both mops we had in the house, and they washed up really well. I'm ordering another set today!"

Slap Happy: The Slap Bracelet Phenomenon of 1990

Slap Wraps bracelets swept the nation in the fall of 1990.
Slap Wraps bracelets swept the nation in the fall of 1990.
Yvonne Hemsey, Getty Images

In the fall of 1990, as elementary schools around the country were still reeling from the great Bart Simpson T-shirt ban of the previous academic year, teachers and administrators were confronted with another distracting fad. As instructors wrote on blackboards and admonished students to open books, they were frustrated by a steady percussion of steel slapping against skin. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The noise echoed throughout homerooms and school cafeterias, playgrounds and bus trips. Millions of kids had discovered Slap Wraps, the brand name for a 9-inch piece of stainless steel covered in decorative fabric that enveloped the user's wrist with one quick motion. Part toy and part fashion statement, kids found them irresistible. Educators, meanwhile, found them intolerable. Some schools banned them, but not solely due to distraction—knock-offs bracelets had sharp edges and cheap fabric that left some students in literal stitches.

 

Slap Wraps were the invention of Stuart Anders, a Fort Prairie, Wisconsin, native who graduated from college with a degree in education in 1983. Teaching jobs were hard to come by at the time, so Anders took on substitute positions and coached sports.

Sitting down at his mother’s sewing table one day, Anders pulled out a self-rolling tape measure, which curled up with the flick of his wrist, and began fidgeting with it. He thought it would make a cool bracelet, provided someone covered the steel in fabric.

He called the company who made the tape measure, but they were no longer manufacturing it. Anders didn’t know what else to do. While he thought the idea of a snap bracelet could be successful, he didn’t have the money or other resources to commit to producing them himself. But he kept the prototype on his steering wheel.

Later, he wound up enlisting in the National Guard, where he learned to fly helicopters. After that he moved to Florida and began working for a local apparel company. The bracelet had never left his truck.

One day, Anders ran into a man named Philip Bart, who just happened to be an agent for toy designers. Anders, who couldn’t quite believe his luck, ran outside to fetch the bracelet. He clamped it around Bart’s wrist. Thwack.

Bart was sold. Now he just needed to sell someone else.

Bart approached all the big toy companies with the slap bracelet idea, but they rebuffed him. The reason? They weren't interested in investing time and money in a product that amounted to little more than a trinket that would have a low retail price. But Bart found a receptive audience in Eugene Murtha, who had just opened Main Street Toy Company in Simsbury, Connecticut, in 1988. Murtha, a former vice president of Coleco during that company’s Cabbage Patch Kid craze, immediately saw the potential in Anders's invention. He agreed to distribute Slap Wraps, paying Bart and Anders royalties.

Bart and Anders rushed to make prototype bracelets in time for 1990's American International Toy Fair in New York City. The bracelets were the talk of the trade show, and Murtha secured a 250,000-unit order from KB Toys. But there were issues: Murtha appeared ill-equipped to handle the manufacturing end, leaving Bart to start up Main Street Industries and produce the bracelets, which he would then turn around and sell to Main Street Toy Company. It was not a smooth process, as the thickness and quality of the rounded-edge steel had to be adjusted from 0.004 inches to 0.006 inches to ensure the steel wouldn’t protrude from the double-knit fabric, which meant that producing the bracelets took longer than expected. Murtha anticipated a shipment that April, but the Slap Wraps weren’t ready until the summer of 1990.

In the interim, Bart was annoyed that Murtha had permitted some of the prototypes to escape his grasp at Toy Fair, allowing for a rash of knock-offs to appear on store shelves before the Slap Wraps were even released. These versions typically used carbon steel, which rusted easily, and lower-quality fabric, which allowed the steel to become exposed and created opportunity for injury.

Those dangers weren’t understood until Slap Wraps and their Taiwan-produced counterparts began taking off in the fall. Popularized by word-of-mouth, kids scooped up the bracelets and proceeded to turn them into a school fad, slapping the neon-colored accessories against themselves all day long. The New York Times described them as “a Venetian blind with an attitude.”

The disruptiveness of the bracelets (both the noise and the fact that kids were playing while they were supposed to be listening) and the reports of injury—4-year-old Nicole Tomaso of Wallingford, Connecticut, cut her finger on one—led some schools to take action. The bracelets were banned at Colonial School and Siwanoy School in New York after a child was cut at West Orchard Elementary School in Chappaqua, New York. Lehigh Township Elementary School in Pennsylvania banned them on the grounds they were distracting. Steckel Elementary School in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, instituted a no-bracelet-slapping rule. Others asked teachers to inspect the bracelets for frayed edges. A recall of the foreign versions was implemented in Connecticut by the state’s Department of Consumer Protection. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission advised parents to inspect the bracelets for frayed edges.

The controversy bothered Murtha, who repeatedly told press that the injuries were the result of the cheap imports, not the brand-name Slap Wraps. Although Main Street Toy Company had moved 1 million of the bracelets for $2.50 each in just three months and had orders for 5 million more, it was estimated that 10 to 15 million counterfeit versions had been sold, some for as little as $.70 each.

 

As the fad began to flame out toward the end of 1990, Bart and Murtha started finger-pointing. Bart criticized Murtha for allowing the bracelets to be taken at Toy Fair, which led to the rash of knock-off products. Bart believed that had Murtha not been so careless, they could have made $25 million in sales instead of $4 million. He also claimed Murtha had gone to another manufacturer, leaving him with unsold inventory. Murtha countered that Bart had taken too long with production, missing spring delivery goals, and kept raising the price of the bracelets. Plans for slap ponytail bracelets and slap anklets fell by the wayside.

It got uglier. Bart and Anders had not received royalty payments from sales of the Slap Wraps, with both sides contending different interpretations of contracts that had been signed in 1990. Bart and Anders moved to terminate the licensing agreement. Murtha sued, and the legal dispute went to arbitration in 1991. While the arbitrator found fault with both parties, the net sum of money owed fell at the feet of Murtha, who was wrist-slapped for $751,309. Main Street Toy Company was all but insolvent, however, and no payment would be forthcoming. Bart contended he had lost $1 million in manufacturing costs and had 2.5 million Slap Wraps in a warehouse that would never sell, as kids had already moved on to the next thing.

Murtha went on to positions at Mattel and Gund and later reconciled with Anders, who had more success with inventing a tool socket holder he sold to Sears.

Different manufacturers have tackled the slap bracelet phenomenon over the years, but nagging safety problems still remain. In 2017, bracelets adorned with Troll dolls and packaged with a storybook were recalled due to a risk of laceration from exposed edges. So were bracelets made by Yumark Industries and sold at Target in 2018. For better or worse, Anders’s invention continues to leave a mark on pop culture.

Remembering Fingos, the Hybrid Cereal-Snack Disappointment of the '90s

General Mills was confident Fingos would be a cereal smash.
General Mills was confident Fingos would be a cereal smash.
Retro Stuff, YouTube

For practically as long as dry, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals have existed, people have been eating them out of the box or using them in alternative recipes like Rice Krispies Treats.

The problem was that not enough people were reaching for cereal at other hours of the day. According to research conducted by General Mills in the early 1990s, only 7 percent of those who purchased cereal ate it outside of the breakfast window. The company believed that if more consumers could be persuaded to snack on cereal throughout the day, then maybe General Mills could finally outpace the Kellogg Company as the most dominant cereal manufacturer on the market.

After years of research and development, General Mills introduced their secret weapon in 1993. It was called Fingos, a hexagon-shaped cereal that consumers were encouraged to eat with their hands.

The snack vs. cereal conundrum

Superficially, there was little about Fingos that made it any more of a snack than a cereal. The irregularly-shaped pieces—available in either a toasted honey nut or cinnamon flavor—had roughly the same nutritional and ingredient profile of typical lightly-sweetened cereals. Slightly larger than a corn flake but smaller than a potato chip, Fingos could wind up in milk just as easily as any other kind of cereal. The difference was that General Mills wanted buyers to eat it dry.

It was a “cereal made to eat with your fingers,” according to ad copy, part of a campaign that cost General Mills $34 million—making it one of the largest promotions ever for a cereal launch.

“We’re breaking the traditional bounds of advertising cereal because we’re trying to break the bounds of how people use cereal,” Barry Davis, then the marketing manager for General Mills’ Big G cereals, told The New York Times.

In pushing Fingos as a dry snack, the hope was that it could surmount a market trend of consumers skipping breakfast or opting for healthier foods like yogurt. General Mills felt that giving consumers permission to dive into the box the other 23-odd hours of the day would help offset early-morning avoidance of cereals.

invading the snack market

While breakfast may have been a problematic market, it was still a lucrative one. At the time, the dry cereal industry was worth $8 billion annually, with more than 210 cereals on shelves vying for the attention of 97 out of 100 households who purchased boxes for their pantries. If a new product could capture just 1 percent of that market share, it would still be an $80 million success story and likely enough to vault General Mills and its 29.5 market share over Kellogg, which owned 37 percent.

To increase the chances of Fingos taking off, General Mills designed a package that was wider on top to accommodate hands reaching inside. They also sold Fingos in single-serving packs in vending machines, a snack space typically reserved for potato chips and the like. The box itself featured a wide and smiling face that was animated for commercials, with voice actor Steve Mackall channeling Robin Williams as the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin.

“How wholesome am I?” the Fingos “spokes-box” asked. “Read my hips,” it said, aggressively shoving its nutritional information out at the viewer.

While Fingos was a modest 110 calories and 3 grams of fat per 1-ounce serving, General Mills opted not to market it as a healthy snack, as the market was already glutted with them. Instead, they felt the snack-cereal hybrid approach made Fingos stand out. In focus group testing, it seemed to work, too. Just 1 percent of respondents decided to pair it with milk.

Got milk?

But focus testing is one thing. The real world is another. When Fingos rolled out nationally beginning in the spring of 1993, consumers didn’t know what to make of it. If it was a snack, shouldn’t it have been located in the snack aisle? If it was a cereal, why try to compare it to chips?

Perhaps the most problematic component of Fingos was that consumers didn’t need permission to eat cereal dry and directly out of the box. That urge existed for practically every kind of cereal. Downplaying the appeal of Fingos in milk didn’t make it any more attractive as a snack.

Fingos bombed, eating its $34 million marketing budget whole and leaving only crumbs for General Mills, which had more or less abandoned the product by 1994. Fortunately, they had something else in the pipeline: Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs, a hit that still sells to this day under the shortened name of Reese's Puffs.

Fingos, incidentally, had an unfortunate translation when uttered in Hungarian. Fing means fart, lending the snack the label of farto should it ever be sold in that country.

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