The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude

John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

Ad Astra: The Time Earth Almost Got a Space Billboard

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iStock

In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, everything associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger was big. Big biceps (22 inches during his bodybuilding heyday). Big box office (1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day made $520 million worldwide, the highest-grossing movie of that year). So it was no surprise to open a newspaper in 1993 and see that Columbia Pictures was spending $500,000 to plaster the actor's name and the title of his pending summer blockbuster, Last Action Hero, on the fuselage of a NASA rocket set for launch that June. Schwarzenegger himself was scheduled to push the button that would propel the spacecraft into orbit.

The NASA project deal was being brokered for commercial advertising purposes by Space Marketing Inc., an Atlanta-based firm specializing in sponsorships and ads located outside of the atmosphere. The company's CEO, Mike Lawson, told the Los Angeles Times that he could've sold "dozens" of ads for the rocket, but that he and NASA officials didn't want it to "look like a pace car at the Indy 500."

The idea of promoting a movie in space was brazen, but not nearly as much as another, more ambitious project that Lawson was planning. If everything went according to plan, his Space Marketing would shoot a payload into space in time for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Once it was in orbit, mylar tubes would inflate with gas and spring open to support a mile-wide, quarter-mile tall reflective sheet that would be visible from Earth. Lawson called it an "inflatable platform," but the press—and critics—quickly labeled it something else: a space billboard.

If Lawson had his way, it would be able to make everything from the Olympic rings to the McDonald's logo as visible to Earthbound consumers as a full moon.

 

In Robert Heinlein's 1950 novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, a lunar entrepreneur hustles to sell advertising space on the moon as part of his attempt to make colonization a profitable venture. Lawson—a onetime director of marketing for his father's publishing company in Atlanta and a fan of science fiction—read the story. In 1988, he founded Space Marketing as a way to defictionalize the concept.

As fantastic as it sounded, the idea wasn't without precedent. In 1981, telecommunications mogul Robert Lorsch made a presentation to Congress that outlined a strategy for allowing corporations to "sponsor" space travel by letting them buy plaques that would go onboard spacecraft. In the same way they endorsed the Olympics, Lorsch said, corporate America could help subsidize space travel.

A McDonald's logo is visible from space
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The plan was a response to then-president Ronald Reagan's plea to have the private sector assist in helping the government overcome their financial burdens. While Lorsch's proposal was prescient—it anticipated the rise of privatized space exploration—the idea of having commercial sponsors for NASA didn't make it through the Byzantine maze of Washington bureaucracy.

Lawson thought the idea could be taken further, and not necessarily with the cooperation of government. Partnering with scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Library and the University of Colorado, Lawson developed a plan to allow instruments developed by these institutions to go into orbit and collect information about the ozone layer. To underwrite the project, he would solicit commercial advertisers for the mile-long mylar sheet that would exit the atmosphere rolled up and then expand to full size once it reached orbit. The aluminized lettering would reflect the sun's rays, making whatever graphic it displayed visible for 10 minutes at a time at any given point on Earth. After roughly 20 days, it would disintegrate, leaving the sensors behind to continue collecting data for researchers.

'We could actually fly [the] Golden Arches in space," Lawson said in May 1993, referring to the ubiquitous McDonald's logo. With an estimated launch cost of $15 to $30 million, companies buying ads would cover expenses as well as contribute to a profit for Space Marketing—perhaps paying as much as $1 million for every day it was visible.

A few months later, the city of Atlanta began investigating Space Marketing's concept as a possible advertising vessel for the 1996 Olympics. "Special" glasses given away at point-of-purchase displays with cooperating sponsors would allow people to see the Olympic rings in orbit.

That last point appeared to be a concession to a growing chorus of concern over the idea of using space as a commercial entity. While proponents of the idea argued it was similar to blimps sailing overhead and displaying corporate propaganda messages, a coalition of scientists argued otherwise. Carl Sagan called it an "abomination," insisting that astronomy could soon become a practice of exploring the stars wedged between mile-wide ads for fast food and automobiles.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader led a group calling for an orbital billboard ban, labeling it a practice of "defacing the heavens." Other groups decried it as commercial pollution of space and vowed to boycott any companies involved. Supporters of Nader's Public Interest Research Group picketed Space Marketing's Atlanta headquarters.

Lawson tried to parry the attacks in media, saying that the phrase "space billboard" was the source of the controversy. He preferred the term "environmental billboard" and said that the whole objective was to have a global company foot the bill for scientific research.

 

Conceptually, the idea of a floating Arby's logo the perceived size of the moon was too dystopian for lawmakers to handle. In 1993, Congress submitted legislation that would prohibit the Transportation Department from issuing a launch license to any company prepared to shoot a corporate image into space. (The bill was eventually signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000.)

None of this publicity was particularly helpful to Space Marketing, which saw its Olympic plans wilt in the face of both legislative opposition and the probability of massive pushback from space advocacy groups. They turned their attention to Russia, which had no ethical objections to space endorsements, and facilitated a 1999 project that saw Pizza Hut attach its logo to the Proton rocket that carried supplies to the International Space Station. (The chain previously considered projecting its logo with lasers on the surface of the moon but abandoned the idea when they realized it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.)

A rocket is propelled into space
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Space Marketing's investors moved on to the blimp industry and the firm was dissolved by 2007, when Lawson became CEO of airship manufacturer Techsphere Systems. As for the Last Action Hero stunt: It dissolved when Columbia learned Lorsch was threatening legal action, claiming he owned a copyright on the idea of commercial space advertising. The movie itself also failed to launch, becoming a notorious summer bomb when it was pitted against Jurassic Park.

While space has largely been off-limits to such "obtrusive" advertising by law, not everyone agrees that's for the best. Earlier this month, it was reported that NASA is looking into selling off the naming right to its shuttles as a way to recoup some of the organization's costs. When Lorsch testified before a Senate subcommittee in 2004 to review his 1981 proposal, he said that his sponsorship program might have earned NASA $5 billion in revenue if it had been implemented.

Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

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iStock

When software engineer Jonathan Abrams arrived in Silicon Valley in 1996, the internet was known for three things: vast amounts of information, pornography, and anonymity. If users weren't investigating the first two, they were exploiting the third to argue about movies or politics, their unfiltered opinions unencumbered by concerns over embarrassment. People were known only by their screen handles.

Abrams, who came to California to program for the web browser Netscape, had an idea. What if people could use their real names, faces, and locations online? Instead of having an avatar, they'd simply upload their existing personality in the form of photos, profiles, and interests. They could socialize with others in a transparent fashion, mingling within their existing circles to find new friends or even dates. Strangers would be introduced through a mutual contact. If executed properly, the network would have real-world implications on relationships, something the internet rarely facilitated at that time.

Abrams called his concept Friendster. Launched in March 2003, it quickly grew to host millions of users. Google began talks of a lucrative buyout. Abrams showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live, anticipating the dot-com-engineer-as-rock-star template. His investors believed Friendster could generate billions.

Instead, Friendster's momentum stalled. Myspace became the dominant social platform, with Facebook quickly gaining ground. Abrams, who once appeared poised to collect a fortune from his creation, watched as copycat sites poached his user base and his influence waned. What should've been a case study of internet success became one of the highest profile casualties of the web's unrestricted growth. It became too big not to fail.

 

Many businesses rely on a creation myth, the idea that a single inciting incident provides the spark of inspiration that turns a company from a small concern into a revenue-generating powerhouse. For publicity purposes, these stories are just that—fictions devised to excite the press and charm consumers. Pierre Omidyar, who programmed AuctionWeb and later renamed it eBay, was said to have conceived of the project to help his wife, Pamela, find Pez dispensers for her collection. In fact, there were no Pez dispensers. It was a fable concocted by an eBay marketing employee who wanted to romanticize the site's origins.

In early press coverage of Friendster, there was little mention of Abrams looking to monetize the burgeoning opportunities available online. Instead, he was portrayed as a single man with a recently broken heart who wanted to make dating easier. Abrams later said there was no truth to this origin story, though he did derive inspiration from Match.com, a successful dating site launched in 1995. Abrams's idea was to develop something like Match.com, only with the ability to meet people through friends. Instead of messaging someone out of the blue, you could connect via a social referral.

Human-shaped icons represent the concept of social networking
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Following stints at Netscape and an aggregation site called HotLinks, Abrams wrote and developed Friendster for a spring 2003 launch. He sent invites to 20 friends and family members in the hopes interest would multiply. It did, and quickly. By June, Friendster had 835,000 users. By fall, there were 3 million. Facebook's launch in February 2004 was months away, and so low-key that Abrams met with Mark Zuckerberg to see if he'd consider selling. If an internet user wanted to socialize in a transparent manner, Friendster was the go-to destination.

When users signed up for the site, they were only allowed to message people who were within six degrees of separation or less. To help endorse unfamiliar faces, Friendster also permitted users to leave "testimonials" on profiles that could extol a person's virtues and possibly persuade a connection to meet up in the real world.

Naturally, not all mutual connections were necessarily good friends: They might have been acquaintances at best, and the resulting casual atmosphere was more of a precursor to Tinder than Facebook. One user told New York Magazine that Friendster was less a singles mixer and more "six degrees of how I got Chlamydia."

Still, it worked. The site's immediate success did not go unnoticed by venture capitalists, who had been circling popular platforms—America Online, Yahoo!, and, later, YouTube—and injecting start-ups with millions in operating funds. At the time, the promise of savvy business minds flipping URLs for hundreds of millions or even billions was a tangible concept, and one that Abrams kept in mind as he fielded an offer from Google in 2003 to buy Friendster for $30 million. It would be a windfall.

Abrams declined.

 

Investors—including future PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Google investor K. Ram Shriram—advised Abrams that there was too much money to leave on the table in return for short-term gain. Abrams opted to accept $13 million toward building out the site. He sat on the board of directors and watched as backers began to strategize the best path forward.

Quickly, Abrams noticed a paradigm shift taking place. As a programmer, Abrams solved problems, and Friendster was facing a big one. Buoyed by press attention (including the Kimmel appearance where Abrams handed out condoms to audience members, presumably in anticipation of all the relationships Friendster could help facilitate), the site was slowing down, unable to absorb all of the incoming traffic. Servers struggled to generate customized networks for each user, all of which were dependent on who they were already connected to. A page sometimes took 40 seconds to load.

The investors considered lag time a mundane concern. Adding new features was even less attractive, as that might slow the pages down further. They wanted to focus on partnerships and on positioning Friendster as a behemoth that could attract a nine- or 10-figure purchase price. This is what venture capitalists did, scooping up 10 or 20 opportunities and hoping a handful might explode into something enormous.

But for business owners and entrepreneurs like Abrams, they didn’t have a portfolio to deal with. They were concerned only with their creation. Its failure was all-encompassing; there weren't 19 other venues to turn to if things didn't work out.

Two word balloons represent the concept of social networking
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Abrams saw the need for a site reconfiguration. The board was indifferent. Eventually he was removed and assigned a role as chairman, an empty title that was taken away from him in 2005. As the board squabbled over macro issues, Abrams watched as micro issues—specifically, the site itself—deteriorated. Frustrated with wait times, users began migrating to Myspace, which offered more customizable features and let voyeurs browse profiles without "friending" others. Myspace attracted 22.1 million unique users monthly in 2005. Friendster was getting just 1.1 million.

 

By 2006, Friendster was mired in software kinks and something less tangible: a loss of cachet among users who were gravitating toward other social platforms. Though Abrams was out, investors continued to pour money into Friendster in the hopes that they could recoup costs. In 2009, they sold to MOL Global for $40 million, which would later convert the site into a social gaming destination. But it was too late. Though the site still had an immense number of users—115 million, with 75 million coming from Asia—they were passive, barely interacting with other users. By 2011, user data—photos, profiles, messages—was being purged.

In ignoring the quality of the end-user experience, the decision-makers at Friendster had effectively buried the promise of Abrams's concept. They sold off his patents to Facebook in 2010 for $40 million. Coupled with the MOL sale, it may have been a tidy sum, but one that paled in comparison to Friendster's potential. A 2006 article in The New York Times reported with some degree of morbid fascination that if Abrams had accepted the Google offer of $30 million in 2003 in the form of stock, it would've quickly been worth $1 billion.

In the years since, Abrams has tinkered with other sites—including an evite platform called Socialzr and a news monitoring app called Nuzzel, which is still in operation—and tends to Founders Den, a club and work space in San Francisco. He's normally reticent to discuss Friendster, believing there's little point in dwelling on a missed opportunity.

The site did, ultimately, became a case study for Harvard Business School—though perhaps not in the way investors had intended. Friendster was taught as a cautionary tale, an example that not every good idea will find its way to success.

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