McMath, 67, is a business consultant and writer who's "an expert at failure," he says -- though, he politely insists, not his own. He began his collection of losers "so that I could learn from them and teach others in return."
The result is, if you'll pardon the pun, a flophouse -- but one that even Rudy Giuliani won't want to shut down. Hizzoner'd be up against the assorted business people who pay McMath thousands of dollars a day for the benefit of his advice and a look in his mausoleum.
The New Products Showcase resembles a supermarket without the seafood and fresh produce sections. Miles of shelves display much entrepreneurial zeal and unintended zaniness. (McMath's collection once boasted more than 80,000 products. A fe w moves and a gang of raccoons sadly decimated his treasure, but there's plenty left.) Virucidal tissues, anyone? They were supposed to be germ-killing, but the scary-sounding name made consumers squirm. Oreo Little Fudgies, then? No thank s, said supermarket shoppers, who for years had been taught to twist oreos apart -- a messy affair when the cookies are fudge-covered. But surely, a smokeless cigarette would be a hit? Only non-smokers liked the idea. Go figure. How about a shampoo "for oily hair only"? It was about as popular as a condom "for modestly endowed men" might be.
"People don't want to be reminded of their shortcomings," McMath believes. Need further proof? Every so often, a manufacturer of body care products will have a flash of brilliance and introduce a 'body shampoo.' "It's a mistake to call it that!" McMath harrumphs. "Women spend millions on the removal of body hair. 'Body shampoo' reminds them of hair they don't want! Body wash, now that's another story." Yet the blunder is made over and over. That's in part because "marketers bury their mistakes," McMath asserts. "They don't learn from them. Companies try a new product and they don't even know they did it 10 years earlier and it bombed. It drives me to distraction."
What's awe-inspiring and, depending on mood, giggle-inducing, is that behind each failed kitty litter introduction and botched bath bar launch lies an ocean of corporate brainpower. To look at those 60,000 dead-as-a-doornail, never-stood-a -chance products is to marvel at the research & development, focus group results, manufacturing, marketing, and advertising that went into them. Not to mention the money (about $8 billion, McMath estimates calmly). All for naught!
Or perhaps not. McMath starts his recent book, What Were They Thinking, with a quote from Julia Child: "You can't turn a sow's ear into a Veal Orloff, but you can do something very good with a sow's ear." Robert McMath has more than 60,0 00 sows' ears, and with the Showcase and the book, he's turned them into something unique and useful. So maybe these duds didn't die in vain after all.
Sometimes McMath the consultant is at loggerheads with his alter ego, the collector. When he received a query from an entrepreneur who wanted to market individual fruit and vegetable wipes, McMath ventured it was probably a bad idea. "Peo ple will think any wipe they've just used is really only half used. What about grapes? And the goal is to wipe your apple or your carrot clean, but you don't really know what you're wiping on it -- some kind of cleaning substance? And you' re going to ingest that? I just didn't think it was a terribly promising idea. To my knowledge, the guy dropped it." McMath's blue eyes darken with what is perhaps a tinge of regret. "But it would have been a