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November 16, 2009

8 product categories that were fun to advertise, while they lasted

Posted on Mon Nov 16 2009

A couple of years ago, GPS units were the hot Christmas gift, and the category looked like it had some staying power. But that growth trajectory has taken a detour, thanks to smart phones like Motorola's Droid and Apple's iPhone, which contain GPS navigation functions. That's not the first time that technology has turned a category on its head. Below are eight cases of product categories that used to receive substantial advertising but are now mostly or totally obsolete.

—Posted by Todd Wasserman

Seatbelt   1. Seat belts. Before the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act were passed in 1966, seat belts weren't standard in cars. As a result, an advertising market existed both for makers of seat belts and for repair shops, which made money installing them. There were several makers of seat belts, as well as an American Seat Belt Council, which bestowed its blessing on those that fit the highest safety standard. Hence, this 1962 ad for Irvin Seat Belts pointed out that the belts exceed all standards for strength and safety and "not all seat belts do."


  2. Typewriters. Typewriter sales peaked in the mid-1950s, when Smith-Corona sold 12 million of the machines in the last quarter of 1953. Since then, of course, devices like the one on which you're reading this now have made them a relic. Still, about 400,000 or so typewriters are sold per year these days, not enough to support much advertising.


  3. Long-distance telephone calling. Between the time the first long-distance call was made, in 1951, until roughly 2000, long distance was a thriving business, supporting hundreds of millions in advertising dollars. Then, wireless came in and no longer distinguished between local and long distance. Landline service providers soon dropped it as well. These days, you see lots of ads for wireless service, but none for landlines, unless they're also providing DSL service.


  4. Mid-calorie sodas. It made sense on paper. Some consumers were turned off by the taste of diet sodas, but didn't want the full-calorie version, either. So, marketers concluded, they must want something in the middle. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo dutifully responded with mid-calorie sodas C2 and Pepsi Edge. This may be a case where marketers jumped to the wrong conclusion. Fizzled sales showed consumers weren't so sweet on the concept.

Zipdrive   5. Floppy disks. Not too many years ago, every PC and Mac used to come with a slot for a floppy disk drive, first the 5 1/4-inch version and later the sturdier 3.5-inch version. While most of the companies were no-names, Iomega created a new market by increasing the storage size and giving the disks memorable names like Zip and Jaz. Though the company had some success getting PC makers to build Zip and Jaz drives in, its drives were mostly external plug-ins. But Iomega overcame that hurdle with TV advertising and carved out a nice business, selling some 400 million disks. Then the growth of the Internet made it easy to send a file as an attachment, and USB inputs became standard, meaning you could plug in an external drive. Iomega was bought by EMC in 2008 and is no longer a stand-alone company.

  6. Portable tape players. Twentysomethings of today may have a hard time believing it, but back in the 1980s, it was cool to be seen carrying one of these bulky tape players with those over-the-ear 'phones, particularly if it was a Sony Walkman. Of course, the digital revolution caught Sony completely flat-footed. The iPod, which was a lot smaller and carried a lot more songs than the Walkman, completely redefined the category. Sony tried to introduce an all-digital Walkman after that, but it never caught on.


  7. Laserdiscs. Technically better than VHS tapes, Laserdiscs never caught on like VHS tapes, which were released in the same era. Like the vinyl record, the Laserdisc still has its fans, but most moved on to DVDs, which are smaller, hold more memory and can be used with a PC.

  8. PDAs. A Palm Pilot once had cachet, but of course devices like RIM's BlackBerry, which combine organizers, address books and other features with a wireless phone connection, made non-wired PDAs like Palm's handheld and the Compaq iPaq Pocket PC as old-fashioned as a little black book. Some argue the same thing is happening, albeit much slower, to Apple's iPod.


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