Failure is a part of life. It sucks, it hurts, and it’s usually embarrassing. But the thing about failure is that after a while, most people forget about it.
But Dr. Samuel West doesn’t forget about failure. And he’s here to make sure no one else does either.
This weekend, the Museum of Failure kicks off a six-city U.S. tour at the Mall of America, spotlighting the most incredible fails in technology, food, and medicine. Whether it was McDonald’s trying to get adults to eat the Arch Deluxe, designing the 1958 Ford Edsel to look like it had a vagina, or Segways being touted as the future of transportation, the museum is equal parts cautionary tale, business case study, and freakshow of failed innovation.
Dr. West, a licensed clinical psychologist and PhD with a focus on innovation, is the founder and mastermind behind this curation of chaos.
“For me, it’s not important that failures lead to success,” he explains of his collection. “Companies want to talk about the idea of how failure is a stepping stone on the way to success. But if you do that, you’re framing failure as a part of the success. For me, it’s a failure. Period. If they happen to have success after? Great. But the important thing is to learn from it.”
From kids getting maimed with Jarts to failed medications, the museum offers more than 100 examples of tough lessons learned the hard way. But for us, a few stood out above the rest.
Rejuvenique facial toning system
Want to look super banging, like TV star Linda Evans? In the early ‘90s, all you had to do was strap on this terrifying looking Purge mask and let it electrocute your face.
“When you read the customer reviews, they said it felt like a thousand ants biting your face at the same time,” Dr. West explains.
Shockingly, people weren’t zapping their faces for all that long. In the years following people opted instead for things like Botox, electrolysis, and, of course, scary serial killer masks.
The OG Four Loko
Remember the mid-2000s? If so, you probably didn’t drink a lot of Four Loko. When it was first released, Four Loko was packed with caffeine and booze (like 15 percent alcohol) but tasted like an energy drink. The result? Nearly dead teens and college kids. The caffeine rush often delayed the feeling of drunkenness, leading people—often newer to drinking—to consume way too much.
“It got banned everywhere,” Dr. West recalls. “When I first got them [for the museum], I had a Chinese woman working for me and I told her, ‘You wouldn’t know about this. I can do the research on this one.’ And she said, ‘Oh no. I know about it.’ And she actually showed me that in China someone was actually marketing Four Loko as ‘Rape Drink.’”
Yep. Fuck that. Shut it down.
Today, you can get a far less organ killing version of Four Loko, minus the caffeine and a few other “energizing” ingredients. Meanwhile, many people these days who are looking for a deceptively sweet drink with alcohol reach for hard seltzers.
Back in 1995, Nintendo was looking to the future by releasing a 3D gaming console: Virtual Boy. The idea was to provide a totally immersive gaming experience, far superior to the 2D-style games of the past. While it seemed cool on paper, commercially it “virtually” shit the bed.
Virtual Boy had a variety of problems. The console was big and clunky, and definitely not portable. Not that you’d want to bring it to someone’s house; the gameplay was antisocial. (Who wants to come over, crack open a Four Loko, and watch your friend play VR solo?) People also thought the system was way too expensive: It originally sold in the U.S. for $179.95, which would be about $314.21 in 2020. (Simpler times!)
The system was discontinued after just a year, after selling only one million units worldwide. For comparison, the Super Nintendo sold just under 50 million units five years earlier. If that wasn’t enough, doctors said the Virtual Boy was found to cause motion sickness, flashbacks, and even brain damage.
But, as Dr. West points out, something good did eventually come from this abysmal failure.
“If you don’t have the failed Nintendo Virtual Boy and the failed Nintendo Power Glove, you wouldn’t have the Nintendo Wii,” he explains.
The next time you whip a Wii controller at the wall out of anger over Wii bowling, just remember that you’re celebrating perseverance!
The future of failure
While there are plenty of unique failures from all over the world on display at the “Museum of Failures,” Dr. West believes the biggest failures in innovation are still to come.
“The pandemic slowed down innovation because companies just wanted to survive,” he says. “Now that everything is starting to come back, people are going to be trying to find new things to match the changes in society, which will probably mean they’ll fuck things up even worse than they did before.”