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Oh, what could have been… (the biggest products flops in history)

February 16, 2010

There is always someone, somewhere saying that they have created the next big thing.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  The dot-com boom was a good example of things that were supposed to be huge and ended up turning into massive money pits. While the ones that work really work, the ones that fail become more famous for that failure than any kind of advancement they may have been attempting to make.  Remember WebTV?  Neither do I.  My favorite was virtual reality.  I remember how people were telling me that everybody would be putting on VR helmets and looking like weird cybernerds.

It didn’t happen.  Since that wasn’t really a singular product, I couldn’t include it on this post.  I did find several things over the last few decades that were intensely hyped as world changers.  The only things they ended up changing was the “don’t do this” sections in marketing textbooks.

Dan and Dave

I put this one first because this really isn’t product, but an advertisment for one.  Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson were America’s best decathaletes going into the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.  Reebok put on a massive advertising campaign starting with a Super Bowl commercial.  The commercial asked the public “Who is the better athlete – Dan or Dave?  To be settled in Barcelona…”

The campaign turned the previously little known athletes into household names that spring.  It was all going so well.  That is, until Dan failed to make the Olympic team after missing a pole vault in the trials.  (Although he did go on to win a gold in 1996)  Dave won a bronze in Barcelona, but the ad campaign went down in history as a lesson to not assume the future.


The Segway was definitely the biggest recent letdown.  The Segway is a two-wheeled, self balancing vehicle.  I remember reading about this product years before it came out and how it was going to change the entire thought of transportation.   Dean Kamen, the inventor, was very high on his new baby.  He said that the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy” and that they would be designing cities differently from now on.

Well, not really.  When launched in December 2001, the company expected 100,000 units sold in the first 13 months and to be the fastest company to $1 billion in sales.  Approximately 23,500 were sold in the first five years.

Delorean DMC-12

It’s hard to figure whether the Delorean is more famous for being a flop or for being the recipient of Doc Brown’s 1.21 gigawatts.  Either way, it didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to.  John Delorean rounded up $175 million to fund his dream car, receiving seed money from such personalities as Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson.  After a scheduled release was missed in 1979, the first car was delivered to America in 1982.  While the early reception was good, the market for these vehicles quickly fizzled.

Only 9,100 cars were eventually produced. That’s about $19,230 per vehicle when looking at the original investment.  Not good when the original MSRP was supposed to be $12,000.  To make matters worse, the economy went downhill and John Delorean was arrested on cocaine charges.


Not a lot of people actually remember what the Betamax is.  For those who don’t, it was to the VCR as the HD DVD was to Blu-ray.  In the late 70’s, there were two new home video options released: the VHS by JVC and the Betamax by Sony.  There was a pretty even battle for the consumer dollar for several years.  By 1980, the VHS controlled about 70% of the North American market and the battle was over.

In Japan, however, the Betamax remained a good seller until the introduction of digital technology.

Crystal Pepsi

Another product that was introduced via a Superbowl commercial.  In 1992, Pepsi decided they needed a clear cola to go along with their regular drinks.  They introduced Crystal Pepsi as “a caffeine-free alternative to regular cola”.  They released in after what they considered successful test runs and waited for results.

The drink initially sold decently but quickly fell off.  I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to drink a clear fizzy drink, it better be lemon-lime.  That could be what happened as people bought it to try it, then didn’t buy it again.


In the late 50’s, Ford produced the Edsel.  The name alone has become synonymous with failure, and for several decades it was considered the biggest business flop of all time.  It was created to compete with General Motors’ Cadillac division.  Ford needed a classy car to compete in that market.  It wasn’t and it didn’t.  Sure, part of it was due to an economic recession, but it was also just plain ugly.

Ford put on an entire primetime television program dedicated to creating interest in the car.  Like many other things on this list, it sold well at first, then sales plummeted.  Ford pulled the plug on Edsel in 1960.  When all was said and done, For lost $355 million on the project.  (That would be close to $2 billion today)

New Coke

Pepsi isn’t the only beverage company that suffered a flop. Coke did as well, making the flub by Pepsi look very minor.  Remember when I said that the Edsel was considered the worst mistake in business for decades?  This is the one that supplanted it.  Refusing to live by the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” philosophy, Coca-Cola started testing a new mixture in the mid 80’s.  When they announced the new drink on April 23, 1985, Pepsi gave all of its employees the day off and claimed victory in the Cola wars.

While popular belief was that it was an instant failure, that was not necessarily the case.  The drink did OK early on, but furious long-time Coca-Cola drinkers (myself included) were not very happy with it.  I feel that if Coke would have kept the original mix available instead of completely removing it from the shelves, this would not be considered the failure that it is today.  The media picked up on the petitions being signed by original Coca-Cola drinkers and the end was neigh for New Coke.  Less than three months after New Coke was released, Coca-Cola announced that it was bringing back the old formula under the name “Coca-Cola Classic”.  While Coke did fall behind Pepsi during the New Coke fiasco, they quickly regained their #1 position soon after Classic was introduced, showing how important that recipe is the company’s well being.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2010 10:23 am

    As a former Delorean owner who really loved the car — one of my favorites, other than it being a little underpowered — I’d like to add that the Delorean wasn’t so much a flop as a product that faced an organized conspiracy to destroy it by the big car companies it was taking on… So the reasons it was unsuccessful are very different than the other products you’ve listed.

  2. February 16, 2010 10:40 am

    I’m pretty sure that New Coke was a shrewd marketing ploy on the part of the Coca-Cola company. Real Original Coke had a distinct not as sweet as Pepsi flavor. The New Coke had a slightly sweeter, but not quite as sweet as Pepsi flavor, but this was mostly due to the switch from cane sugar for sweetening to corn surgar for sweetening. Their flavor profiles are quite distinct. Then, when New Coke “failed” they rolled out Classic “formula” Coke, which still had the new corn sweetener, but with a flavor profile made to match the “original” flavor more closely. Sure they were crazy to change Coke. Crazy like a fox.

  3. Gauldar permalink
    February 17, 2010 8:13 am

    @Shannon Larratt

    Whats it like trying to park one of those, is there only particlar parking spots you can use to be able to get the door safely open?

  4. September 11, 2010 6:02 pm

    The Betamax went down because in a fashion they later became known for, Sony refused to allow use of their patent on the Betamax tape cassette. This meant that anyone who wanted to produce them had to pay royalties to Sony, cutting into the competitive marketplace profits that were thin to start with.

    For something completely different from the Delorean story, I had a Bricklin, made in Eastern Canada. It was a great car and as it turned out, easier to get out of in tight parking spaces than a car with conventional doors. On the downside, it was designed in Arizona where rain wasn’t much of a consideration, so when you drove one of these where rainfall was an issue, when you raised the door a lot of water came into the car middle of the car from the center divider section. The builder, a humble guy named Malcolm Bricklin was the builder, exporter from Canada, and also the importer in the U.S. so he sold the cars to himself. It took the Canadian Government about three years to notice that money was somehow not getting to them, the original investor in getting the cars built.

    As an aside, Malcolm Bricklin later became a prominent figure with his work in the importation of those fine European cars, the Yugo. I had a friend who had one, he discovered that the little lines built into the back window were useful as they helped to keep your hands warm when you were push starting the car in the winter.

    Jerry w.


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