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Both What Were They Thinking? and Kids’ Stuff are books that seek to explain quirky and inherently interesting topics—in the case of the former, failed consumer products, and in the latter, children’s toys—but whereas What Were They Thinking? zips by with a winning attitude and a host of fascinating observations, Kids’ Stuff delivers its batch of worthwhile insights through plodding, academic prose that will test most readers’ patience.

Ironically, What Were They Thinking? is targeted to a narrower audience: Its authors frequently address their advice explicitly to the corporate managers and marketing executives they presume to be reading the book. That makes sense: The lead author, Robert McMath, is a longtime consultant on product introductions for such companies as Procter & Gamble, RJR Nabisco, and Lever Brothers. Better yet, in a seemingly obsessive mission, he has managed to collect some 80,000 consumer product samples—most of them failures—at his New Products Showcase and Learning Center in Ithaca, N.Y.

The challenge that McMath and his clients face is a steep one indeed. “There were nearly twice as many [new product] introductions in 1996 as there were in 1989,” the book reports. “The great majority of these products—which include new flavors, sizes and shapes as well as concepts conjured out of thin air—will fail miserably. Just as they did in 1989. And in 1979. And in 1968, when I began to collect new products. In the extremely competitive world of consumer marketing, eight out of ten new products are failures, according to conventional wisdom. Some pundits claim that failure runs as high as 94 percent.”

On these subjects, McMath—something of a cross between P.T. Barnum and Yoda—speaks sagely and entertainingly, without coming off as overly snide. What’s fun about his book is that he doesn’t simply throw up his hands at such odds but rather dissects why so many business ideas fail. Despite chapter-ordering that’s arbitrary and a bit silly, McMath neatly categorizes the most common slip-ups—and then marvels at how often they are committed. For instance:

Besmirching one’s good name. A good product will never, ever sell well if consumers—who are terminally finicky—are turned off during the split second they take to decide whether to purchase a product or not. This problem is easily illustrated by rattling off some of the more misguided product names in recent history. Frito-Lay Lemonade. Ben Gay Aspirin. Smucker’s Premium Ketchup. And Louis Sherry No Sugar Added Gorgonzola Cheese Dressing. This last one, McMath explains dryly, “was everything that Louis Sherry, known for its rich candies and ice cream, shouldn’t be: sugarless, cheese and salad dressing.”

The buy-this-if-you’re-a-loser school of marketing. For Oily Hair Only shampoo. Pepsi A.M. “morning cola.” Need he say more?

No chord of familiarity. In McMath’s eyes, Nabisco’s Oreo Little Fudgies failed because the company had always encouraged its customers to pull apart an Oreo—and no one wanted to get their fingers messy doing that with a chocolate-coated spinoff. Similarly, Sweater Fresh failed even though the product seemed to live up to its claims that it made sweaters clean. Apparently, consumers were freaked out by the thought of using their dryer, not their washer, to do the job, as Sweater Fresh required.

Extraneous extras. To McMath, Jeno’s frozen pizzas from the 1970s were a good idea felled by one significant Achilles’ heel. Along with a cheese-covered pizza, Jeno’s provided an assortment of toppings so consumers could customize their pies. Fair enough, right? Problem was, the pies were already a bit expensive, and customers felt guilty about tossing out perfectly good toppings they didn’t want. Enough to sink the product? You might not think so, but McMath points out that in a tight marketplace, tiny differences like that can spell the difference between a solid success and stark failure.

Killer clerks. At one point, Campbell’s, the canned soup giant, tried to sell fresh pasta, salad, and soup in grocery freezers, but was foiled by supermarket employees who failed to rotate the company’s perishable products properly. Similarly, Kraft’s efforts to sell a salad line from its own, custom-built chiller bins failed when clerks took up extra bin space with any items they felt needed visibility—be they Kraft products or not.

Fooling with your cash cow. Making modest extensions to a company’s major product line may sometimes be smart. (Jell-O brand pudding pops managed to rejuvenate a solid but somewhat tired brand name—even though in the short term the pudding pops themselves lost out to stronger frozen-dessert competitors.) However, most of the time, fiddling with a major brand name is a game of Russian roulette. McMath’s prime example is the $100-million clear-cola flop Crystal Pepsi. Though the idea was not inherently terrible, inane marketing wrote Crystal Pepsi’s epitaph.

“Suppose,” the authors write, “that consumers not only liked the taste of Crystal Pepsi but also believed all the hype about the clear version of the brand they had been drinking since they were kids. Pepsi was telling them that absolutely none of the qualities that drew them to the brand in the first place had any abiding value. The brown coloring was gone because it was not natural. There were no preservatives, which suggested that the ones in regular Pepsi were not healthy. Ditto for caffeine. There was a cola taste, but it was distinctly different from the one they had always loved.”

Worse, Pepsi drinkers who liked Crystal Pepsi might be tempted to try its clear competitors—and in the process, possibly abandon Pepsi products forever. Pepsi, McMath suggests, is lucky to have lost only the $100 million in development and advertising costs that Crystal Pepsi drank up. Did consumers think of all these factors consciously? Of course not. But in a competitive marketplace driven by irrational gut decisions, you can’t give consumers any reason at all not to like you.

This is merely a sampling from McMath’s horror show. The reader probably won’t agree with all of McMath’s hobbyhorses—whether it’s his eagerness to greet the day of online grocery shopping or his curt dismissal of liquid soap—but what’s great about his book is that even when he makes a fairly obvious point, his combination of vast experience in the business and keen insight enables him to offer lots of examples that are both illuminating and entertaining.

McMath is also consistently tough-minded for the right reasons. He criticizes one big beverage manufacturer for marketing rain-forest juices—not because they’re a hippy-dippy fad but because big-business consumer marketing isn’t the most effective way of attacking social and environmental problems. The more profits you make from your products, the more you can donate to your favorite nonprofits with experience in those fields—and the less risk you’ll run of having your worthy cause hurt by well-intentioned businessmen.

Frankly, McMath’s discussions are applicable to just about any profession: The book is a great primer in psychology, bureaucratic politics, and American capitalism. One of McMath’s most intriguing insights is that corporate downsizing doesn’t simply remove “dead wood” but rather guts a company’s institutional memory—the kind of memory that might prevent failures far more costly than the salaries and benefits saved.

Along the same lines, McMath argues that overly conformist thinking has sapped American corporate creativity. These days, fewer and fewer new products are fundamentally different; they’ve mostly been tweaked in insignificant (but highly trumpeted) ways. That’s quite unlike the origins of such mainstays as Ivory Soap, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and Scott Paper Towels, all of which were discovered through what were considered screw-ups. Or Kleenex, which was originally marketed as a tool for removing cold cream. Only when reports came back from the field that people were using the tissues as disposable hankies did the company change its marketing strategy. Sales soared.

“Do such fortuitous mistakes still happen today?” McMath asks. “You bet. But they can only happen in an atmosphere where people are encouraged to think creatively, to experiment, to be willing to make mistakes, to spot an opportunity where other people see failure. Unfortunately, because of all the downsizing at corporations, the employees who are left behind have a hard enough time keeping up with their day-to-day work. There’s little time left to think creatively or thoroughly.”

The toy industry, apparently, would be well advised to heed McMath’s sermon. The thesis of Penn State historian Gary Cross’ Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood is that toy companies used to mediate the sale of their products through a

child’s parents, and that, as a result, child and parent could share in the process of discovery and learning. Now, due to hyperadvertising on television, integrated image licensing, program-length cartoon commercials, and the creation of entire fantasy worlds structured around action figures, toys have become so divorced from any real-life value that kids are being led astray. Parents, Cross says, have grown at best completely clueless about—and at worst quite resentful of—the toys their kids are playing with behind their backs.

It’s not a bad thesis, but if McMath comes off as amiably manic, with a zillion great ideas, Cross is a repetitive, mostly humorless academic with one big (albeit pretty good) idea. Kids’ Stuff is a slow, exasperating book, which would not be such a problem, except that… well, it’s supposed to be a book about toys, for God’s sake!

To be sure, there is much of value in Cross’ book. If the reader has the patience to wade through the chapters on toy history, he will become reasonably well informed. Who knew, for instance, that in the 17th and 18th centuries the use of dolls to advertise the high fashions in the courts of Europe helped establish French dominance in the fashion industry? Or that sewing was such a big part of young American girls’ lives that not a single women’s garment appeared for sale in the Sears catalog until 1894?

Cross also offers cogent discussions of how the institution of Santa Claus arose in part to mask the fact that toys could suddenly be bought rather than having to be made by hand; how the Kewpie Doll, originally patterned after slum caseworkers, lost its Progressivist tinge when the marketplace swallowed it up in a frenzy; how such items as Erector Sets served to indoctrinate young boys into careers as engineers at a time when progress had not yet gained bad connotations; and how the joblessness of so many fathers during the Depression helped create the cowboy as a fantasy version of the strong male role model.

And Cross writes with a measured and reasonable tone. He does not cave in to nostalgia, as, for instance, David Hoffman did in 1996’s similarly titled Kid Stuff. Nor is Cross gratingly political on such themes as Barbie’s body shape or G.I. Joe’s militaristic tendencies. On the contrary, he suggests that the fantasy action-figure toys that so confound parents today seem to have come about because toymakers had been badly stung by feminist and anti-war critiques of their reality-based toys; what better way to avoid attacks than to retreat into fantasy?

In addition, Cross is careful to point out that neither commercialism nor celebrity tie-ins are new; the global television village has simply expanded them beyond anything seen previously. And instead of simplistically blasting toy companies, Cross ultimately places a share of the blame on parents for failing to be engaged in their children’s lives. (He also makes a point of acknowledging that two-working-parent families and the geographic dispersal of grandparents have been contributing factors.)

Of course, Cross hardly believes that the current era of toymaking is a golden age. Toy sales mushroomed from $4.2 billion a year in 1978 to $17.5 billion in 1993 (not including $4 billion for video games) precisely as Toys ‘R’ Us, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target combined to sell almost half the toys in America. In a vicious cycle, the growth in sales fed industry consolidation until toymakers faced a brutal and endless boom-and-bust scenario.

“The toy industry had always attracted gamblers,” Cross writes. “But the stakes were much higher now, and the incentive increased to pick winners rather than meet the developmental needs of children.” Even Coleco—the one-time electronic-game manufacturer that later sold 20 million Cabbage Patch Kids over two years—found that nothing it did could stave off eventual bankruptcy.

Even setting aside issues of preschoolers watching violent and seductive television advertisements, the dwindling numbers of manufacturers and retail outlets have created trends that are ominous indeed. It’s understandable that candy will inevitably win out over spinach in the marketplace, Cross seems to say, but a marketplace that sells candy to the exclusion of almost any variety of spinach is not in anyone’s interest.

Given the current climate, of course, that may be Pollyanna-ish. Is it legitimate to blame market stupidity for shrinking commercial diversity and genuine creativity? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a point both Cross and McMath agree upon, and both of them know a heck of a lot more about the world of business than I do. That by itself suggests that the point is one American businesspeople ought to be listening to.CP