In this weekly series, Andrew Eborn shines a light on the products and services, brand extensions and campaigns that failed to take off and have as a result earned entry into the Octopus TV Failure Awards and a place in The Museum of Failure.
Last week, we remembered the terrifying Rejuvenique Facial Toning Mask. This week, a letter flooded in from our reader, Derek Walker: “Andrew, please tell me that the ':CueCat' will make an appearance on this list. I had a front row seat for this train wreck! Oh the horror of this idea.”
Creative juices oozed from every orifice during the dot com interweb boom. The “new economy” hype gave rise to some glorious products and unprecedented failures.
Investors, not wanting to miss out on the next big thing, threw their hard-earned cash in support of some of the most deliciously bizarre products.
:CueCat – with the purrfectly pretentious colon at the start of its name – is a prime example.
The product was invented by the wonderfully named Jeffry Jovan Philyaw, aka J. Hutton Pulitzer, "one of the most prolific independent Inventors of modern times." Launched in 2000 by Digital Convergence Corporation, :CueCat is a cat-shaped barcode scanner which enables users to scan a special bar code / “cue” which would then shepherd them effortlessly to the relevant webpage, thus avoiding all the hassle of having to type long web addresses. It was the bridge between the physical world of the printed page and the internet. The ambition was to make the :CueCat barcode the standard for advertising. A cat designed to work side by side with your mouse.
Money in the Kitty
Funding flooded in from several heavy hitters… Derek Walker told me: “I was at RadioShack when they wrote a $30m check for that thing. $30m. I get sick thinking about that.”
Radio Shack was not alone in putting money in the kitty. Many fat cats were wooed and wowed by the sales skills of JJP. Belo Corporation – the parent company of the Dallas Morning News and owner of a number of TV stations – shelled out $37.5m, Young & Rubicam $28m and Coca-Cola $10m. In total $185m was secured – Juicero would be proud!
:CueCat was made available free of charge including through Radio Shack and was also sent unsolicited to various mailing lists such as subscribers to Wired and Forbes magazines.
:CueCat’s investors supported the roll out and so :CueCat bar codes started to appear in a number of publications such as The Dallas Morning News and other Belo owned publications as well as in product catalogues, including for Radio Shack.
In addition, audio tones in programmes and commercials could act as web address short cuts provided your TV was connected to a computer and both were switched on.
Derision flowed as freely as Trump’s tweets as critics got their claws into :CueCat.
Walt Mossberg, the principal tech columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote: “On the first standard, convenience, the CueCat fails miserably…In order to scan in codes from magazines and newspapers, you have to be reading them in front of your PC. That’s unnatural and ridiculous.”
Jeff Salkowski wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can,"
Glittering prizes were showered upon :CueCat.
;CueCat topped Gizmodo’s list of worst gadgets of the decade and PC World included it as one of the worst 25 products of all time.
Pussy footing around privacy
There were also concerns around privacy. Each :CueCat had a unique serial number and users had to register their ZIP code, gender, and email address. As a result personal profiles could be formed and content could be tailored accordingly. The Denver-based Privacy Foundation expressed concern that a user's reading and television habits could be tracked with precision, stored in a central data bank and resold. Paranoia over privacy was accentuated by the fact that Digital Convergence registered the domain "digitaldemographics.com”.
Clearly Digital Convergence’s business plan was founded on profiting from its marketing database.
Michael Garin, the company's president, insisted, however: ''We cannot, we do not, and we will not track individual information.''
Reports of hacks and cyber-attacks are now almost daily. Way before NHS, WPP, Yahoo and others came to our attention, Digital Convergence was a high-profile victim. To add to its woes, the feline company suffered a security leak when a tech employee left with a development computer and connected to an unsecured net connection and surprise, surprise was hacked. About 140,000 :CueCat users had their personal data stolen including their name, email address, age range, gender and zip code. What was the price of privacy? Digital Convergence offered each victim a $10 gift certificate to Radio Shack. Hmm...
De-clawing the :CueCat
The :CueCat was easy to reverse-engineer. A number of sites provided details as to how to neuter the cat.
Curiosity killed the Cat
As a result several hackers modified the :CueCat for their own purposes such as cataloguing book or CD collections. The problem for Digital Convergence was that the re-engineering could bypass the company's marketing database – the company’s lifeblood.
Digital Convergence got tough and threatened legal action asserting that users did not own the devices and had no right to reverse engineer them. Digital Convergence also tried to change the terms of its licence to prevent reverse engineering. The hackers were hacked off.
Interesting questions for us lawyers arose about whether people could take apart freely distributed hardware and write separate software applications. The right to "reverse engineer" hardware for certain purposes has been well-protected in a number jurisdictions.
There were also questions raised about “enforceability” where a company attempts to assert that a licence is triggered simply by using its hardware.
The old sales strategy of giving away razors to sell razor blades may not always work in the tech space where you give away hardware and try to make money via the software as with software you can make your own blades….
Cue the end
In the end :CueCat was a miserable feline failure and investors lost their US$185million. The database servers which provided the code to Internet URL linking ceased operation in January 2002 and the desktop client is no longer supported.
Interestingly :CueCat is worth more dead than alive. Originally given away for free, you can still buy :CueCat via your favourite online shopping site - some for in excess of $19.99!
Unleashing the Cat
Making it easier for consumers to buy whilst building a valuable database makes sound commercial sense. Today we take for granted the ubiquitous QR codes that can be read easily with smartphones.
Smartphones do not need to be plugged into a PC and they can obviously do far more than just scan QR codes.
Just like the other Octopus TV Failure Nominee Twitter Peek no need to pony up for one trick tech ponies.
A catalogue of failures
:CueCat had everything:
- Pretentious branding – :CueCat with a colon.
- Large-scale attempt at aggregating user data to build profiles and sell that data to advertisers.
- Major security vulnerability leading to the exposure of this data.
- Using the power of copyright law to threaten users who dared to use the :CueCat for anything other than its originally intended purpose.
As one critic put it: “CueCat appears to us as a mirage, a failure, a loser, but unlike all the other crap gadgets, the future it dreamed of came into being. From within that abyss—every sleazily obvious effort to hide consumption in convenience, every privacy failure, every data breach, and every DMCA takedown—CueCat is smirking back at us.”
The Octopus TV Failure Awards
:CueCat was a commercial failure. It was difficult to use relying on being tethered to your computer and there were concerns regarding privacy. Talk of a wireless version was too late.
For all these reasons :CueCat is this week’s nomination for The Octopus TV Failure Awards. Purrfect!
See you next Tuesday for more fantastically fabulous failures ….
From failed products and services to campaigns and ads we would rather forget, we want to encourage organisations and brands to be better at learning from failures not just ignoring them and pretending they never happened.
Send your nominations with full description and images to TOFA@OctopusTV.com.