It's a story as old as buccaneer finance capitalism itself. (So, like, the 1980s.) A ubiquitous brand, once respected as a mark of quality, is bought by short-sighted, fast-buck new owners. Rather than make stuff that improves people's lives, their only interest is in wringing every drop of goodwill out of that brand name before the public catches on to the scam.
(Before anybody makes the obvious joke about a certain Amazon subsidiary, let me remind you that Woot has never been respected as a mark of quality.)
The end result: ripped-off, resentful consumers. Business legacies that took decades to build are ruined in a few short years. In a surprising number of cases, the new owners wind up under indictment. Here are six brand names you can't trust like you used to. Buyer beware...
Polaroid, founded 1937
Used to be famous for: the instant-film cameras that revolutionized the American snapshot. When Andre 3000 told us to "shake it like a Polaroid picture," everybody knew what he meant.
But then: when Polaroid ran into financial trouble in the early 2000s, they were gobbled up by notorious brand-name vampires the Petters Group. The new bosses killed the instant-film camera line in 2008 while licensing the Polaroid name to anybody who cared to pay the fee, quality be damned.
But while the instant film has made a comeback thanks to the enthusiasts in the Impossible Project, Petters Group hasn't fared as well. In 2009, founder and CEO Tom Petters was convicted on 20 counts of fraud and money laundering related to a Ponzi scheme involving phony Sam's Club purchase orders. Classy guy.
And now: Polaroid is now owned by a company called PLR IP Holdings, LLC, who seems to have at least a vague understanding that the best way to make money is to make stuff people want. Or hire Lady Gaga as Creative Director. In any case, they're planning to manufacture a new instant camera, compatible with the Impossible Project's film. But returning the Polaroid name to greatness won't happen in an instant.
Westinghouse, founded 1886
Used to be famous for: building the first commercial AC-current electrical plant, founding the world's first commercial radio station (KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh), making the world's first automatic elevator, and selling millions of dependable stoves, refrigerators, and other household appliances while employing tens of thousands of Americans. It's hard to imagine the "American century" without Westinghouse.
But then: starting in the 1980s, company management started putting shareholder value ahead of serving consumers. They sold off various manufacturing divisions of the company while expanding into financial services and buying CBS. The credit division collapsed in the early 1990s, Westinghouse continued to hemorrhage money and jobs and divisions, and in 1999 it was bought by Viacom and eventually renamed the CBS Corporation, managing to drag another respected 20th century icon into the muck. This excellent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, "Who Killed Westinghouse?" details the whole sordid story.
And now: a shell of an outfit called Westinghouse Electric Corporation functions solely to license the famous name and Paul Rand-designed logo to other manufacturers. Another remnant, Westinghouse Electric Company, is still in the manufacturing business, but their only product is nuclear reactors.
National Lampoon, founded 1969
Used to be famous for: creating the American sense of humor as we know it today. The brilliant, acerbic magazine, radio show, and stage show brought us everyone from John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray to John Hughes, P.J. O'Rourke, and Doug Kenney. And we haven't even talked about Animal House and Vacation. Directly or indirectly, National Lampoon is responsible for everything funny in America since the days of Henny Youngman and Bob Hope.
But then: a late-80s effort by Animal House alum Tim "Otter" Matheson to return the magazine to its former glories failed, and in 1991 Matheson was forced to sell the magazine to J2 Communications, the people behind Tim Conway's "Dorf" videos. J2's sole interest was licensing the National Lampoon name to crappy straight-to-video softcore "comedies" with dire titles like National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze 2: Semester at Sea. When asked by the New York Times in 2005 whether the company would work with the magazine's old contributors, consultant Matty Simmons (the founding publisher of the magazine who fired early editors like P.J. O'Rourke and Tony Hendra in the 70s) said "I don't think they have anything to offer. No."
(Editor's note: in a comment posted to this blog post, Simmons says he resigned shortly after that NYT story was published, when J2 ignored his advice not to license the Lampoon name to such low-quality product. "My relationships with most of the people who worked with the Lampoon over the years has continued to be warm and in many cases, collaborative," Simmons says.)
J2's head honcho at the time, CEO Dan Laikin, was sentenced to 4 years in prison in 2010 for paying people to buy the company's stock, illegally inflating the price. Sounds like a cool dude.
And now: the National Lampoon name is disgraced by a "comedy" website so stupid and crappy I won't inflict a link on you here, along with ventures into pay-per-view strip poker, bikini wrestling, and the endless cascade of straight-to-DVD crud. The new Lampoon continues to spit mashed potatoes, Bluto-style, all over the face of this American icon. They're a zit, get it?
Time-Life, founded 1961
Used to be famous for: high-quality, million-selling series of books on a range of cultural, historical, and scientific subjects, worthy of their affiliation with the most respected magazines of the day. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was hard to find an American home without at least a few volumes of the LIFE Nature Library or The Old West.
But then: the slide started in the 80s with more vacuous, sensationalist series like The Enchanted World and Mysteries of the Unknown. But by the 90s, the company had begun to leave books behind altogether in favor of the music division, mainly K-Tel-style compilations of oldies sold through infomercials. In 2003, Time-Life was acquired by an outfit with the colorful name of Direct Holdings Worldwide, and no longer has any connection to its namesake magazines.
And now: the items currently touted on the Time-Life homepage include The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete DVD Collection, and Easy '80s, a 10-CD collection featuring Michael Bolton and Lionel Richie. We're a long way from Great Ages of Man.
Commodore, founded 1954
Used to be famous for: iconic early home PCs like the Vic-20 (1981), the first computer to sell more than one million units; the Commodore 64 (1982), the best-selling computer of all time; and the Amiga 1000 (1985), which set the standard for PC graphics and audio for the next decade. Commodore's success proved that "a computer in every home" wasn't just a Jetsons pipe dream.
But then: Commodore failed to keep up with Apple and IBM both in terms of technology and sales. A last-ditch attempt to save the company in 1994 with a gaming console, the CD32, failed. The company declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter.
And now: after passing through more hands than a roach clip at a drum circle, the Commodore name is currently used for a line of Vista-based gaming PCs. The original Commodore vision of affordable mass computing is as distant a memory as the company's once-dominant market position.
The Sharper Image, founded 1977
Used to be famous for: outfitting yuppie domiciles across America with the desk toys, hygiene gadgets, and workout gimmicks featured in its catalog, later expanded into a line of retail stores. If you've ever used a nose-hair trimmer or a talking scale, it's probably the Sharper Image's fault.
But then: After years of stagnation and decline, founder Richard Thalheimer was ousted by the board of directors in 2006. The Ionic Breeze Quadra, an air purifier made by the company, stands as the ultimate symbol of Thailheimer's haplessness. When it was savaged as in a 2003 Consumer Reports review, the company sued the magazine. Two years and $525,000 in attorney fees later, the suit was dismissed. By 2007, consumers had won a class-action judgment against the Sharper Image for the ineffectiveness of the Ionic Breeze Quadra.
Thalheimer's replacement, in a classic case of corporate "falling upward": Jerry Levin, who had previously managed Sunbeam Products into bankruptcy. The magic Levin touch helped the Sharper Image's stock sink to 29 cents a share by February 2008. By August of that year, all 184 Sharper Image stores had been shuttered.
And now: a zombie Sharper Image staggers onward, existing solely on licensing fees from companies eager for a shot at the nostalgic yuppie demographic. There's no evidence for the claim on the Sharper Image Wikipedia page that the company currently has only five employees - but nobody has bothered to delete it, either.
What once-trusted brand has broken your heart? Maytag? Napster? Maxis? Lookout Records? Bell? The New York Cosmos? Let your fellow wooters know which names they should be wary of in the forum below.