14 Lowbrow Ideas That Failed
Celebrity businesses top the list of corporate ventures Americans chose not to buy.
In fact, the history of pop culture is littered with lowbrow ideas that failed to take hold. The success of shows like Jersey Shore and Skins, and the popularity of Krispy Kreme cheeseburgers or the Dollywood theme park notwithstanding, there are some lows to which American culture will not sink. Here's a look at 14 business ventures that flopped, taking large investments down with them.
The Kardashian Kard|
The Kardashian sisters may be a cash cow for E!, which owes the most-watched broadcast in its history to the coiffed ensemble, but as the face of prepaid credit they fall a bit short.
Khloe, Kourtney, and Kim are reality TV famous as the daughters of the late Bob Kardashian, one of O.J.'s lawyers, their general imperviousness to shame, and some really amazing hair. Last year, the sisters hoped to monetize the fascination with their romantic misadventures, raunchy dinner parties and routine bickering via the Kardashian Kard, a credit card embossed with the trio's photo. The "kard" was launched November 9.
Three weeks later, of the 4.7 million viewers who tuned in on August 22 to catch the fifth-season debut of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, only 250 had bought the card.
The ladies may well have waited to see what the holiday shopping season would bring, but on Black Friday, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal sent a cranky postprandial letter to the bank behind the MasterCard-branded card, University National Bank. "I am deeply disturbed by this card's high fees combined with its appeal to financially unsophisticated young adults," he wrote, characterizing the litany of small fees that added up to some $100 a year as "egregious" and unethical if not illegal.
Not caring for the slant of this line of publicity, the Kardashians bailed, triggering a $75 million breach-of-contract suit.
Angelina Pivarnick's Music Debut|
Far be it from an MTV reality show star to try to take a stab at a music career. Well, when it comes to one of the Jersey Shore lot, keeping a restraining order-distance away from any craft that requires an iota of talent should be a rule of thumb. At the very least, as a favor to humanity.
Angelina Pivarnick, the orange-skinned, short-fused former cast member from Staten Island, stormed out of the house and into the studio in order to use her vocal cords for a purpose other than shrieking: rapping. The result was a single called “I’m Hot” (without irony) including lyrics like "I take a shot. It hits the spot. Then dance a lot. Until I drop. I shop. And shop. I just can't stop..." which had the universe begging for Angelina’s swift return to trash-talking.
No such luck. Undeterred by the song’s noted absence from the Billboard Hot 100 and getting universally panned by fans, including former housemate DJ Pauly D who called it “the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life," Angelina says she's poised to drop another bomb on us at month’s end. Her next highly unanticipated follow-up party anthem is called “Going Out Tonight,” and Angelina dubs it a "really good club song." Let this serve as official warning to the world’s wine glasses, windows, and monocles.
"Led Zeppelin - The Ride" and the Freestyle Music Park|
A $400 million stairway to ruin, the Freestyle Music Park featured such headbanger-bait as Led Zeppelin - The Ride, a rollercoaster with fitted speakers for each passenger that belted out “Whole Lotta Love” while your mullet whipped through the air.
That ride, designed with the participation of Zep survivors Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones, was the signature attraction of the doomed rock ’n’ roll theme park built nearly three years ago, but it was just one of many bitchin’ classic rock-themed rides designed to thrill baby boomer rock fans. If the Zep was too heavy, you could check out the Eagles-inspired Life In The Fast Lane coaster, for a smoother, country-tinged ride, or drop the kids off at Banana Splitsville and take in Night In White Satin: The Trip, a druggy, Moody Blues-based 3D experience.
The Myrtle Beach attraction, built by private investors and initially branded as the Hard Rock Park as part of a licensing deal with Hard Rock International, received upbeat reviews from the press -- one British reporter enthused about “theme-park rides based on sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. You don’t get that at Disney” -- but it opened in April of 2008, at precisely the wrong time for such fripperies, and failed to impress Myrtle Beach locals and tourists. As the economy plummeted, few were interested in shelling out the $50 entrance fee, and the park quickly spiraled into debt, closing in Chapter 11 bankruptcy by September, 2008. New investors, including some off-shore Russians, quickly picked up the $400-million investment up for a mere $25 million, re-branding the park in an attempt to make it more family-friendly. But it was not to be. The 2009 season was another bust, lawsuits from unpaid creditors began to pour in, and the park was foreclosed in August 2010. "It's probably the largest catastrophe in our industry” Dennis Speigel, a theme park consultant, told the local paper, and today, the rides sit quietly rusting in the South Carolina air.
The Fashion Cafe|
Even on paper, the Fashion Cafe didn't work. It was "owned" by people who, if they ate at all, certainly didn't eat at knockoffs of the Hard Rock Cafe.
Supermodels Naomi Campbell, Elle MacPherson, and Claudia Schiffer -- and later a grudging Christy Turlington -- fronted the dining chain started by Tommaso Buti and several silent partners in 1995. Buti's bona fides for running a New York City eatery included being European and being married to a model. Still, he managed to raise $30 million on the strength of his charm and access to beautiful women.
The food at any theme restaurant is at best unmemorable, and Buti seemed to be banking on public amnesia. Ruth Reichl, in 1995 the New York Times' most formidable food critic, was so bemused by her surroundings that she forgot to review the food. Her meal was "surprisingly decent," she noted without elaborating, distracted as she was by the gender politics, the kitschy props, and "so many skinny people in form-fitting clothes that my appetite disappeared."
People don't have to eat for a restaurant to succeed; they just have to show up and gawk and buy. And for a while, non-New Yorkers did. The chain hobbled along for three years while Buti leveraged it a reported 400% in expanding to other cities, diverted funds to his personal accounts, and made plaintiffs of his outside business partners. Years after shuttering the business, Buti paid $350,000 to the Fashion Cafe to settle $15 million in partner lawsuits. The owners of Cipriani, a successful New York restaurant group, made some noise about reopening The Fashion Cafe in Grand Central Terminal. They opened two more Ciprianis instead.
"Player substitutions. Rotating zones. The game is becoming so sophisticated. How about this: Kill the guy with the ball?"
So went one of the memorable, in-your-face TV pitches for the XFL, a short-lived breed of football that survived only a single season in 2001. Lauded as football for hardest of hardcore fans, the XFL was the brainchild of Vince McMahon, then head of the World Wrestling Foundation. His goal was to put brutality and recklessness back into football, as if the game needed more violence. McMahon's brand of the bloodsport promised more attitude and sleazier cheerleaders, even fireworks. NBC Sports joined McMahon in the bid, becoming a 50% partner in his "smash mouth football" venture.
But three weeks after its first spring season ended, the XFL folded. Ratings did not live up to the hype, and wrestlers like the Rock and the Undertaker, whom McMahon had trotted out to help sell the league, did not appeal to the larger, more refined football crowd.
Had the experiment worked, the WWF and NBC Sports would have pumped a combined $100 million into a spring-winter 2002 season. Instead each partner's after-tax losses were estimated at $35 million, an expert source told the New York Times.
Sounds like a bump and run for the history books.
Jay Leno at 10 p.m.|
In 2004, Jay Leno had a shred of integrity left. He might've been scraping the bottom of entertainment's barrel with Jessica Simpson interviews and "Jaywalking" segments, but he actually wanted to get out of the business while he was at the top of the ratings. He announced he would bequeath the Tonight Show chair to successor Conan O'Brien come 2009. But show business is a powerful drug and Leno began regretting the decision in a few years' time.
NBC, which was languishing in fourth place among the major networks, had no desire to lose the number one late night host. Already responsible for a wealth of bad ideas, former NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker proposed a revolutionary, cost-cutting prospect: Jay Leno, five nights a week at 10 p.m. EST. Leno, that bastion of honesty and virtue, quickly accepted. Figuring that Jay at 10 would be far cheaper and more accessible to viewers, the network knocked out the cop shows and procedural dramas that NBC normally scheduled for that time slot.
Unfortunately for NBC, the Jay Leno Show was a colossal bust, one of the largest in television history. The dismal ratings hit affiliates' news programs at 11 the hardest, and sunk the viewership for NBC's subsequent late night programming. The experiment didn't even last five months, as NBC shelved the program in February 2010, mainly due to Conan relinquishing the Tonight Show back to Leno and vacating the network.
But the $45 million severance package certainly helped, too.
Growing Up Gotti|
You could, if pressed, make the argument that Growin’ Up Gotti was simply ahead of its time. A precursor of MTV’s current cultural phenomenon Jersey Shore, the 2004-2005 A&E reality show featured Victoria Gotti, the middle-aged daughter of a famous mob boss -- John "the Teflon Don" Gotti, head of the Gambino crime family -- and her three lustrously-haired Guido-esque sons, Carmine, John Jr., and Frank. It lasted three short seasons, of a highly -- what’s the polite phrase here? -- “stylized” version of reality, before succumbing to general indifference and bad publicity around Victoria Gotti’s sham claims of breast cancer.
These days, her Long Island mansion is in foreclosure, she’s filed for bankruptcy with $650,00 in overdue mortgage payments, and her sons were last seen trying to flog an LA-based reality show to no avail.
Perhaps if they’d stuck the family in a beachside house with a duck-phone and an STD-infested hot-tub Growing Up Gotti could have ignited the kind of pop heat that Snooki and the rest of the Shore crew have been fanning since last summer. These days, with the biggest mafia bust in history bringing characters such as Tony Bagels, Junior Lollipops, and Vinny Carwash into national headlines, maybe another Gotti-centric show could be a four-quadrant hit?
Unlikely. The reality TV genre, which has featured midget marrying (The Littlest Groom), public adultery (Temptation Island), and plastic surgery competitions for “ugly” contestants (The Swan) amid variations even more degrading both to casts and audiences, is frequently hailed as a sign that America is in its last, bloated phase of terminal cultural decline. Yet even this most lurid of entertainment formats has a point that’s simply too low to go. All of the shows mentioned, after a burst of shocked rubber-necking, flailed in the ratings and died.
Hulk Hogan's Pastamania!|
Some bodybuilder-actors become state governors, and others become product pitchmen. Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestler whose fame skyrocketed in the 1980s, chose the latter path. After leaving the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) in the mid-'90s, he opened a restaurant inside Mall of America. His Pastamania! sold such bulk-me-up fare as Hulk-U's and Hulkaroo's. The restaurant opened on Labor Day in 1995, with the fair-haired wrestler making a star appearance at the counter, much to the crazed delight of eight-year-old boys on hand to meet an idol.
Sadly, the Hulk's name alone wasn't enough to create the number of "pastamaniacs" needed to support the pseudo-Italian joint, not in the high-pressure, low-margin world of the restaurant business. Hogan, whose real name is Terrence Bollea, took Pastamania! out of the ring after one year, cutting his losses short. The restaurant concept had been his own, and he had personally bankrolled its operations.
Another opportunity to lend his "Hogan" name to a marketable product came along shortly after the pasta restaurant's closing. This time, Bollea claims, he was offered the chance to be celebrity endorser of a small meat-grilling appliance. He declined, and a retired boxer took the offer. While the George Foreman Grill took off, Bollea was left beating his chest for the "Hulk Hogan Thunder Mixer."
Who could have predicted that a John Travolta pet project film adaptation of a book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard with a $44,000,000 budget wouldn’t translate into instant box office gold?
Well, Hollywood, for starters. Try as Travolta did to peddle his sci-fi (emphasis on the "fi") thriller around Tinsel Town, everyone darted right past the free stress test table. Like an enslaving master race of Psychlos aliens who are driven solely by greed and profit, every major studio turned down the project.
But one lone independent production company, Franchise Pictures, had apparently attained a state of Cleared Theta Clear and could see the inherent good in the movie. Either that or they used it as an opportunity to defraud investors by inflating the budget by tens of millions -- only to get sued and eventually go bankrupt. Potato, Potahto.
In the spring of 2000, Travolta’s labor of love Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, in which he starred, co-produced, and co-financed, was unleashed on the human race. Although it was a colossal critical and commercial flop, it did receive some honors. The highest, in fact, at the 21st Annual Golden Raspberry Awards when it became tied with Showgirls as Razzies’ all-time worst movie.
Brewing a beer that tastes like the water in a kiddie pool after a toddler’s birthday party isn’t, on its face, a bad idea. I mean, look at Schlitz. That swill “made Milwaukee famous” and is still selling after more than a century. Not a bad precedent to set for national brands looking to succeed in the watered down beer market.
Perhaps that was part of the thinking behind struggling Falls City Brewing Company’s Billy Beer, which hit shelves in July 1976. The other key move was using the sitting president’s kid brother, a known beer guzzler, as the namesake of the beverage.
The Louisville brewer convinced Billy Carter, the gas station-owning, self-defined “redneck” sibling of President Jimmy Carter, to lend his name to their new beer, even though he was a faithful Pabst Blue Ribbon drinker. Printed on each orange and blue can was Billy Carter’s testimony, “I had this beer brewed just for me. I think it's the best I've ever tasted. And I've tasted a lot. I think you'll like it, too.”
Falls City plunked its last quarter into mass producing and marketing the beer, but Billy Beer was no Schlitz. The company closed its doors two years later. Billy Carter’s career as a beer endorser came to an end and he was free to go back to throwing Pabst cans into the back of his pickup truck.
Heidi Montag's Pop Career and "Heidiwood", the Clothing Line |
A nightmarish example of the current arc of celebrity careers, Heidi Montag first appeared in the limelight as one of the vapidly attractive cast members of MTV’s hit reality show The Hills in 2006. She and a crew of affectless Southern Californians drifted into a kind of achievement-free stardom typical of the era. What were these people famous for? No one really knew.
But Montag, after hooking up with fellow cast member Spencer Pratt, became well-known for all the wrong reasons. With would-be Svengali Pratt egging her on, she launched an ill-advised pop music career that cost her nearly two million dollars. The resulting self-released album famously sold fewer than a thousand copies in its first week of release.
An attempt at a fashion line, Heidiwood, was another expensive failure, dropped by partners Anchor Blue Retail Group after less than a year of operation.
Despite increasingly desperate attempts to leverage their reality TV careers into a broader platform, Montag and Pratt were quickly reaching the end of their 15 minutes -- until Montag’s January, 2010 revelation to People that she’d recently undergone ten plastic surgery procedures in one day, including something called “back scooping.” Now a grotesquely plasticized version of herself, this terrifyingly altered version of Montag shrieked wordlessly at her public from tabloid magazine covers for weeks.
Nowadays, even that moment of fame has passed: the latest, grimly inevitable rumors from the Pratt and Montag camp are that a sex tape is in the offing.
The Real Beverly Hillbillies|
Before we were laughing at goons from Jersey, before we mocked broken souls who craved plastic surgery, before we got a kick out of fame-seekers fighting to marry a dwarf, there was a plan to poke fun of a backwoods family moving into a Southern California mansion.
Fashioning a reality show out of the popular 1960s sitcom, CBS had planned to take a group of kin from Appalachia and place them in an artificial lap of luxury. They would call it The Real Beverly Hillbillies. One CBS exec saw the goldmine ahead and was quoted as saying, "Imagine the episode where they have to interview maids."
This being 2003 -- a few years before Flavor "Walking Gollum" Flav sought skank-love on TV -- the concept produced a huge uproar. One group, the Center for Rural Strategies, launched a campaign against the network. After the organization spoke with the press about the series' denigration of families in need and held a private meeting with CBS president Les Moonves, plans for the series were ultimately dropped.
In an interview with MSNBC, Cecil E. Roberts of the United Mineworkers of America said it best, "Poverty is not funny. A lack of a job is not funny. A lack of an education is not funny. And CBS somehow believes that all those things are something people would watch and enjoy and laugh at."
Well, at least that year we got Lorenzo Lamas noting imperfections in women's bodies with a laser pointer.
E-Z Squirt Bottles|
It’s not exactly clear why Heinz thought America’s youth were turned off by condiments. It’s always been the vegetables on their plates that kids have surreptitiously fed to the family dog under the dinner table. In fact, the phrase "ketchup is a vegetable" was the saving grace of school children during the Reagan Administration. Any kid would be be happy slurp down a packet of ketchup before eating an actual tomato.
Nevertheless, Heinz believed kids needed to be enticed to eat, not their veggies, but ketchup and in 2000, introduced EZ Squirt Ketchup. It’s easy to understand the squeeze bottle aspect of the product as Heinz ketchup, in the old glass bottles, was notoriously difficult to pour. It was the color varieties like Blastin' Green, Funky Purple and Stellar Blue that made hot dogs look like they were covered in nuclear waste and had us begging for the old fashioned tomato-red food coloring. After allowing it to languish for six years on the market, Heinz finally threw in the bottle.
Food manufacturers ought to know that Americans like their novelty products in non-edible form. Until Heinz can make a whoopie cushion or musical car horn, they best stick to their bread and butter.
Gerbers' Singles, Baby Food For Adults|
Generally, Americans aren’t terribly picky about food. Hard-to-pronounce chemicals in our cookies? No problem. Taco beef that isn’t actually beef? Sure. But we’ll be damned if you ever try to make us eat baby food.
This point was lost on Gerber back in 1974, when the company launched “Gerber Singles,” a canned food product that looked nearly identical to baby food but was marketed to adults. It’s hard to figure out the exact reason why the product flopped, but let’s review a few possible explanations.
For starters, Gerber makes baby food. Which, apparently, just isn’t terribly appetizing for adults. Secondly, the product was called “Singles.” Why? Because it’s not enough for a product to infantilize you with the very fact that it’s made from a baby food company, but it also has to remind you that the only possible reason you’re eating this stuff is because you are absolutely, positively, and utterly alone.
We can’t blame Gerber for trying. And since then, Gerber has stuck to the kids market, introducing lines like Gerber Graduates to extend their products’ to a slightly older demographic, namely 2 and 3 year olds. Smart move. But let’s just hope Gerber never attempts this flop again.
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