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The “New Vietnam” theme park, slated to open in 1975 in Florida, proposed to recreate an in-country feel with a mock village, rice paddies, and U.S. Army outpost. Staffers were to include Vietnamese refugees who had settled in the area, as well as “soldiers” who would periodically shoot blanks into the woods at those pesky, invisible Viet Cong. Understandably, plans for this park never came to fruition.
“Nobody sets out to fail,” writes author Paul Kirchner in Forgotten Fads and Fabulous Flops, which covers a plethora of half-baked ideas, consumer surveys gone awry, and marketing boners. It’s an ideal volume for the American public, which loves to laugh at others’ lack of foresight and general stupidity: witness the popularity of “News of the Weird,” or Neil Steinberg’s recent book, Complete and Utter Failure.
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While Kirchner covers such conspicuous topics as New Coke, Beta, and the Ford Edsel, he also finds plenty of examples that fall into the New Vietnam-style “what were they thinking?” category. These include Skunkguard, a Macelike spray literally derived from skunk spew. Problem was, whether used as directed or accidentally spilled, Skunkguard tainted your garments forever—apparently, tomato juice just didn’t do the trick. Another dud was the Greenie Beenie, a combination hat/Chia Pet. Owners could presumably rate their green thumbs according to their green heads.
Aside from illustrating obscure or short-lived products (the Picturephone, a 1976 Mego game called “Ballbuster,” and the anatomically correct Joey Stivic doll), Kirchner also profiles a few trends that have caused brief commotions—but this is where he comes up short. Although they take top billing in Fads…Flops’ title, the fads here are banal: topless swimsuits, fallout shelters, and 3-D movies. All, save goldfish swallowing, are linked to commercial products, and Kirchner fails to mention bad ideas of recent vintage like car surfing, lying on yellow highway lines, and wearing clothing backward.
But if he comes up short on fads, Kirchner knows his consumer goods, especially those of the edible variety. He profiles such dubious items as Hagar the Horrible Cola, Tunies (tuna-fish hot dogs), and “Life Savior Jesus” candy. Among Fads…Flops‘ best segments is a list of corporations’ attempts to create zingy labels, without considering the consequences in foreign languages: Products not marketed domestically include a French drink called “Pshitt,” Japanese pants designated “Trim Pecker,” and a Taiwanese notebook branded “Little Hussy.” U.S. companies’ slogans have also lost something in translation: Taken literally, Pepsi’s “Come Alive” became “Arise From the Dead” in Germany, while KFC’s “It’s finger-lickin’ good” tag meant “You’ll eat your fingers” to Chinese consumers.
Fads…Flops is a cross between The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste and a marketing text. Its humor and historical perspective make it better than the average trivia book, even though Kirchner lampoons only the ’60s and ’70s, barely touching this decade of infomercials and home browsing channels. Basically, it’s hard to miss with this material. Could it be that, at last, Billy Beer has found a fail-safe niche?