The Museum of Failure Celebrates Flops and Fiascoes

By: Dave Roos  | 

1956 Ford Edsel
A 1956 Ford Edsel is displayed at the Museum of Failure in Los Angeles on Dec. 7, 2017. The Edsel is often considered the poster child for commercial flops. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Some of the biggest, richest and smartest companies in the world have a long track record of spectacular fails.

Remember Google Glass? Time named the augmented-reality eyewear one of the "best inventions" of 2012, but the public strongly disagreed and decried its weirdo wearers as "glassholes." Apple, arguably the most successful technology company in the world, was also the creator of the doomed Newton, a clunky touchscreen PDA from the late 1990s, and a $600 gaming console called Pippin that absolutely no one bought.

It's easy (and fun) to laugh at the misfortunes of billionaires, but it's also instructive, says Samuel West, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and the founder/curator of the Museum of Failure, a touring collection of product flops and fiascoes.

"We need to accept failure if we want progress and innovation," says West. "You can't have innovation or progress without taking meaningful risks, and as soon as you try to be innovative, there's going to be failure. There's no way around it."

Samuel West, Trump the game
Samuel West, curator of the Museum of Failure, stands next to "Trump: the Game" in Helsingborg, Sweden, Jan. 2, 2019. Released in 1989, and again in 2004, the board game sold poorly both times.
TOM LITTLE/AFP via Getty Images

For every iPhone, Oculus and Netflix, the Museum of Failure reminds us there's an Amazon Fire Phone, Nintendo Virtual Boy and Blockbuster. You can't hit a home run without taking a swing, and it's OK if some of those swings are full-blown whiffs.

When West launched the first Museum of Failure exhibit in Sweden in 2017, he wanted to show corporations and organizations that failure itself isn't bad. (He'd noticed companies were averse to taking the kind of risks that can lead to very successful innovations – though sometimes to bombs, as well.) The only real failure, he notes, is failing to learn from your mistakes and adapt, a popular engineering concept known as "failing forward." But what surprised West was how much the general public embraced the museum's message.

"People felt liberated," says West. "They'd see all of these big bad multinationals with all of their resources and knowledge and realize, 'If they can [foul] up, so can I!'"

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Be Grateful You Never Bought These Gadgets

Twitterpeek
No one wanted to buy a device to access Twitter when you could do so for free from your smartphone.
Museum of Failure

While you've at least heard of LaserDiscs (think giant DVDs from the 80s) or received a Barnes & Noble Nook as a misguided birthday gift, the Museum of Failure has dug up some true technological turkeys that should never have existed.

Take the Twitter Peek. This was a $200 device released in 2009 that did one thing: access Twitter. You might be asking, wasn't there already a Twitter app for smartphones in 2009? Yup. And wasn't it free? Yup. So why would anyone pay for a second handheld device just to read and send tweets? As Gizmodo said in its review, the Twitter Peek "is so dumb it makes my brain hurt."

Google TV was ahead of its time. Back in 2010, the search giant knew that we'd be streaming YouTube and movies on the big screen, but Google TV's execution was clunky and the technology wasn't ready for prime time. Exhibit A is the Sony Google TV Remote, which included a staggering number of buttons and keys — 88 to be exact.

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Food and Beverage Fails

The 1985 release of New Coke was one of the most famous marketing disasters in recorded history. Even The Coca-Cola Co. admits that it was foolheaded to mess with a 99-year-old formula for its flagship soda, even if hundreds of thousands of taste-testers said they preferred the new flavor. The product only lasted a few months before Coca-Cola bowed to public outcry and reintroduced the "Classic" taste.

Crystal Pepsi and New Coke
Crystal Pepsi and New Coke -- two colossal failures from two colossal soft drink brands.
Museum of Failure

But let's not forget about some other high-profile food-and-beverage blunders. Remember Crystal Pepsi? Coke's rival tried to capitalize on the "clear and natural" craze of the 90s with a clear cola. Why did it flop? "It would have been nice if I'd made sure the product tasted good," said former Pepsi COO David Novak in a 2007 interview with Fast Company.

Another food fad from the 90s was olestra, the magic ingredient in fat-free, low-calorie versions of addictive snack foods like Pringles, Lay's, Ruffles and Doritos. Proctor and Gamble spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars developing an artificial fat that tasted just like the real thing, but wasn't absorbed by the digestive tract. Unfortunately, the science of olestra backfired (literally), leading to unpleasant side effects ranging from painful gas to urgent diarrhea.

"I never get tired of standing onstage at posh corporate events in front of top executives and managers and getting to say the words, 'anal leakage,'" says West.

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The Borderline Between Success and Disaster

West might giggle at fumbles like Google Glass and Google Wave (an early and overly complicated version of Slack), but he has nothing but respect for what he calls Google's "evolutionary approach to innovation," basically investing tons of resources into hundreds of new ideas and seeing what sticks.

In evolution, only the beneficial mutations are passed on, and so it is with innovation. The bad ideas either go extinct or are folded back into the DNA for a new and improved version. If you want a lesson in "failing forward," check out The Google Graveyard, a comprehensive list of every single Google product and service that has been killed since 2001, all 264 of them.

So, before you let your own dreams get derailed by a minor setback or a major flop, consider this quote by Alberto Alessi, an award-winning product designer and a favorite of West's: "Revel in your glorious failures. Dance on the borderline between success and disaster. Because that's where your next big breakthrough will come from."

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