#4. Fruity Pebbles Goes "Urban"
If there's one product that suffers from a lack of hardcore street cred, it's sugary breakfast cereals. The Fruity Pebbles people wanted to tackle this problem, but since it was 1991, they didn't have the simple option of hiring 50 Cent to eat a bowl while talking about his gunshot wounds.
So they did the next best thing, which was to have Barney Rubble do a 1984-era rap:
To be fair, Barney does a much better job channeling Run-DMC than Fred's attempt at Jam Master Jay. But then again, he's using a pterodactyl for a turntable.
At some point they realized that their attempt to modernize the brand with this hip new "rap" thing was grossly out of date since, by 1991, rap had changed considerably thanks to one Mr. Hammer.
Someone must have brought that to Post's attention, because in 1992, a new and more horrible commercial appeared, with Barney in enormous Hammer pants:
It's Pebbles Time all right. Notice how Barney's rapping actually got worse after one year. Not to mention the nonsensical name "CD Rapper." Why not "FP Rapper" for Fruity Pebbles or "BR Rapper" for Barney Rubble?
We like to picture a guy in 1970s New York, taking part in the birth of the whole hip-hop scene, helping invent the genre. Then, 20 years later, he sits in front of his TV, watches the above ad, and weeps softly.
#3. OK Soda: the Cola with Angst
By the time the masses stopped caring about Hammer in the early 90s, the truly cutting edge didn't care about anything at all. Realizing this, advertisers decided that their products became a lot cooler when they pretended not to give a fuck.
Calvin Klein sold jeans with models who would rather rot in existential torment than wear pants. Benetton sold shirts (or something) by showing dying AIDS patients. It all made perfect sense.
Black T-shirt: $59.95.
In 1993, an exec at Coca-Cola came up with the idea of a beverage made entirely of irony. It was called OK Soda, and it came in gray cans covered with edgy comics. The name of the soda played off the fact that "OK" was the second most recognizable word among worldwide languages, the first being "Coca-Cola."
All right, so OK had a witty name and interesting packaging going for it. They could have left it at that, but OK happened to be the brainfart of one of the geniuses behind New Coke. That meant it was destined to not only cross the border between ironic and stupid, but to keep running until it reached Retardedville.
First, there was the OK Manifesto. It was like the Ten Commandments, except that instead of "thou shalt not kill," you got crap like "never overestimate the remarkable abilities of OK brand soda." Then there were the hotlines. OK had an 800-number where hip young consumers could leave messages. An automated voice on the phone told them that their messages might be used for advertising or "exploited in some way [they] haven't figured out yet." OK's most famous message went like this:
"This is Pam H. from Newton, Massachusetts, and I resent you saying that everything is going to be OK. You don't know anything about my life. You don't know what I've been through in the last month. I really resent it. I'm tired of you people trying to tell me things that you don't have any idea about. I resent it."
Pam H.'s message ended up in OK's TV commercials. This was one soda that was so full of youthful rebellion that it didn't even want you to buy it!
And no one did. OK Soda never reached a national market. It was a corporate version of a kid running away from home and wondering why his parents aren't looking for him.
#2. Earring Magic Ken is Cool and Fabulous
Ken has been a problem for Mattel from the very beginning. The guy never had a chance: he was fully emasculated before the plastic was even poured into the molds. He then spent the next 30 years forced to go on ridiculous dates with a woman he couldn't fuck. Mattel seemed to relish the joke as their efforts to make Ken believably butch became more sarcastic over the years:
Then in 1993, this happened:
Mattel said that their intent was to make Ken "a little cooler." The design execs had presumably held a meeting two years earlier that went like this:
"Let's make Ken look a little cooler. Any ideas?"
"You know who's cool right now? That Right Said Fred group. They've got earrings, mesh shirts and leather pants."
"Hmm. That could work. Keep the mesh shirt idea, but replace the leather pants with some high-waisted jeans and put a vest on him."
"Periwinkle blue?" "Yes! And give him a chain with something that looks like a doll cockring hanging on it. Kids like cockrings, right?"
"Sure. Just keep it subtle."
The little girls didn't know, but the men understood. Earring Magic Ken was uncomfortably fabulous, particularly with what reporters awkwardly dubbed his "ring pendant and vest accessory." The doll was discontinued and even pulled from the shelves in a few stores, but he remains the biggest selling Ken doll in Mattel's history, simply because no other toy lines bothered to make theirs into a gay icon. There's a market there, fellas.
#1. McDonald's Finds Where Sell-Out Rappers Draw the Line
The other attempts on this list may be pathetic, but at least they got off the ground. After the marketing firm Maven Strategies got Kanye West and Petey Pablo to plug Seagram's Gin in their lyrics, their other client, McDonald's, wanted in on the action. So in 2005, McDonald's and Maven asked well-known rappers to name-check the Big Mac in one of their songs. The artist would be paid every time the song was played.
"Go ahead and make it rain, fellas."
No one took the offer. No one.
Ray Kroc must have felt that kick in the nuts from his grave. Think about it: the Big Mac doesn't have the glamor of, say, Courvoisier, but more unlikely brands have shown up in hip hop: Brillo, Microsoft, Carvel, Verizon, Coca-Cola, Jello and Chippendale's should all write checks to MF Doom just for "Beef Rapp." And Seagram's success showed that it wasn't a bad business deal. So what went wrong?
The same thing that happened to Raging Cow and Sony. According to Russell Simmons, the plan would have worked if the details weren't revealed on the Internet. That's the lesson here. Being underhanded and manipulative in your marketing doesn't work unless you can keep it a secret.
To see products that made the successful evolution into awesomeness, check out 8 Old School Toys That Got Badass Makeovers. Or let wayward columnist Ross Wolinsky show you some products that need more than shitty advertising and a makeover to save them, in The 5 Most Ridiculous SkyMall Products Money Can Buy.
And stop by our ridiculous attempt to be badass: the Top Picks!