If there was one gift Sandy Frerking wanted more than anything in 1988, it was the Clapper. With two quick claps, she would be able to turn on (or turn off) her television, or stereo, or lamp, just like the elderly woman did in the ubiquitous television commercials airing at that time.
Sandy was just 12, and far from infirm, but wanted one anyway.
“It would be neat to have so you wouldn’t have to get out of bed to turn off the light when you’re snuggled in,” Frerking told The Orlando Sentinel.
But Sandy Frerking’s mother wasn’t buying it. “It’s for lazy kids,” she said.
It wasn’t really supposed to be for kids at all. A hunk of white plastic, the Clapper was (and still is) a wall outlet adapter that intercepts a plug from a device. When it “hears” claps in succession, it will turn the device on. More claps and it turns off. It was one of the preeminent as-seen-on-TV impulse buys of the 1980s and a true testament to the power of marketing.
A lesser known fact: It actually had origins in the 1970s, and with a far more kitschy name: the Great American Turn-On.
Turning It On
That device was manufactured by a company named Futronics Electrical Systems. They enlisted a marketing specialist named Joseph Pedott to help revitalize the product. According to Pedott, the problem wasn’t just in the silly name. The product itself was flawed, working only intermittently.
The device made little distinction between claps and other repetitive noises: One consumer got spooked when she’d walk into her bedroom and find the television already on. It turned out closing her closet doors activated the set. (So did her husband’s coughing, providing it was in rapid succession.)
According to Slate, it also caused television sets to short-circuit. A cheap device that ruins one of the most expensive electronics in a home was not great for business.
“It didn’t work,” Pedott said later. “But the concept was sound, so I spent a couple of years developing the idea.”
Futronics went bankrupt in 1980, selling off its assets, including the Great American Turn-On. Already engaged in marketing the device, Pedott’s company, Joseph Enterprises, acquired it outright. Soon, Pedott heard from a physicist named Carlisle Stevens, who said he could figure out how to make it work better. While Stevens tinkered, Pedott considered how it could best be sold to consumers.
By 1985, he had figured out a new name: the Clapper. Pedott went with it even though there was internal concern at his company. “Some worried that consumers might connect that name with venereal disease,” he said in 2017. ("The clap" has long been slang for gonorrhea.)
Rather than appeal to shiftless children, the device, which originally retailed for about $20, seemed to be of benefit to seniors and people with disabilities. Instead of climbing out of bed to switch off a light or television, they could applaud and have those things turned off remotely.
“We certainly have this skewed to senior citizens,” Joseph Enterprises vice president Michael Hirsch told the Sentinel. “The value is there for someone who would have trouble getting up. But then there are mornings where we all have problems getting up.”
Key to the Clapper’s success was how demonstrative the ads could be. Commercials showed a woman rolling over in bed while clapping off her television. The jingle was an earworm. (“Clap on…clap off…clap on, clap off, the Clapper!”) It was ridiculous, which made it memorable.
The practicality of the Clapper for those who may be somewhat bed-bound turned out to be only part of the appeal. By 1988, Joseph Enterprises figured most buyers were aged 30 to 40 and presumably fit. Kids, too, saw it as a way to make things easier. While being asked to make up their bed or clean their dishes was an eye-rolling task, the Clapper barely required a calorie’s worth of effort. It was the stuff Sally Frerking’s dreams were made of. But not everyone found the Clapper so magical.
The Clapper Goes to Court
Although Joseph Enterprises had improved the Clapper’s engineering, it still had some issues. Dogs barking could set it off, though occasionally that was intentional: Ambitious Clapper owners sometimes trained their pets for the task.
Nor was the Clapper recommended for small appliances—like, say, a coffeemaker. The device wasn’t rated for use with heat-generating devices over 250 watts. Joseph Enterprises did branch out, though, with the arrival of the Smart Clapper in 1992. It could handle two devices with one plug, and had an “away” setting that would react to any sound at all—like a burglar coming in.
The Clapper’s biggest controversy came in 1991, when 78-year-old Edna Hubbs of Chittenango, New York, received one from her daughter. Unable to get it to function, she clapped extra hard and claimed she suffered hand injuries as a result. She sued Joseph Enterprises. The case was dismissed by an appeals court in 1993. The fault, the judge said, resided with Hubbs choosing to go for “one last ‘extra hard’ clap.”
Joseph Enterprises was acquired by collectibles company NECA in 2018: You can still find the Clapper for sale. As a piece of technology, it’s probably quaint. But as a forebearer of the smart homes of today, it was prescient. And even if it hadn’t been, Pedott would still be a marketing icon. He was also behind the Chia Pet. Both reside in the Smithsonian.