Walt Disney, early on his career, discovered the value of promotional tie-in merchandise. It was this steady stream of Disney merchandise, smarty and saavy cross promotion, and constant looking for new products that became a key source of income for the company. Those who know the company and the fans of the Disney creations understand that the promotions and tie-ins are now an important part of the overall experience.
When Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor debuted in 1961, as you might imagine there was a huge demand for some of the gravity-defying substance called “flubber”. (Seriously? Who wouldn’t want their own flubber?)
In the fall of 1962, and in anticipation of the film’s 1963 sequel Son of Flubber, toy shelves across the nation were stocked with Flubber made by Hassenfeld Bros., Inc. Flubber (the toy version) was a silvery, glittery substance packaged as a ball, but could be stretched or bounced. If you have ever played with Silly Putty, you get the basic idea of what Flubber was like. Officially it was made of butadiane, a synthetic rubber, and mineral oil. But for all official purposes…it was Flubber.
So, the movies were a hit and there was a product that was flying off the shelves. Just another happy story in movie merchandising…right? Well, not so fast.
In the February 28th, 1963 edition of the Los Angeles Times, it was said that health officials on both the local and state level were investigating an “outbreak” of rashes in school children. No one knew for certain the source of the rashes, however there was speculation that they could be due to contact dermatitis caused by Flubber or even a simple viral outbreak. Although it made the news, it didn’t seem too serious. Dr. George M. Uhl, Los Angeles city health officer, was quoted as describing the rash as “so faint it is hard to see.”
Hassenfeld Bros. responded quickly, saying the problem couldn’t be due to their product; Flubber had been tested before it was introduced and none of its customers had reported any rash. To be safe, they referred the claims to their testing laboratories which began research to see if the product could be responsible. On March 1st (that was quick wasn’t it?) the Los Angeles Times declared that Flubber had been cleared. The City Health Department’s director of communicable disease, Dr. Herbert Cowper, declared the children did not have dermatitis, but were the victim of a virus. This was also the conclusion of virologists from the USC School of Medicine; the USC team examined stricken students at a local school and discovered that not all of those affected had played with Flubber.
So Flubber was not responsible. End of story…
But wait, this is where the story takes a tricky bounce…(Flubber takes a tricky bounce, get it? Sorry..please, read on)
A couple of weeks later, the Washington Post reported that outbreaks reported in Los Angeles, Kansas City, St. Louis, New York City and Phoenix had led the Food and Drug Administration to open its own Flubber fact-finding study. “A number of cases of mouth rash have been reported by health authorities,” said an agency spokesman. “The reaction appears to be associated with a novelty toy called Flubber.”
The complaints against Flubber kept flying.
In April the Baltimore City Health Department issued a warning about Flubber, and encouraged stores to pull the product from their shelves. It also “strongly recommended” that any Flubber already purchased “be discarded in the trash.” The Baltimore Sun cited local dermatologist Dr. Harry M. Robinson, Jr., president of the Baltimore City Medical Society, as having referred several cases of Flubber-related contact dermatitis to local health officials. According to Robinson, the Flubber caused “considerable inconvenience and discomfort” to those affected. Health department investigations in local elementary schools revealed several outbreaks; in one class sixteen of twenty-seven students who had Flubber exposure developed “redness and eruptions” while seven out of sixteen students in another class were so afflicted.*
Things were not going well for Flubber. As May arrived, Hassenfeld Bros. pulled the product for good. The FDA, speaking to the Associated Press, said that a survey provided compelling data that Flubber had indeed caused the outbreak of rashes. There had been 1,600 reports of skin irritation related to Flubber. According to Hassenfeld Bros., over four million units of Flubber had been sold since September 1962; it’s unknown how many of the complains involved Flubber or were instead the result of the imitation products… “Robly Rubber,” manufactured by the Old Fox Toy Company, and “Plubber,” a product of Deca Plastics Material Co. Inc
Merrill Hassenfeld refuted this as he told the Associated Press that tests both preceding and following Flubber’s release all showed that “it was not the product that caused rashes.” According to Hassenfeld, the FDA had informed him that laboratory tests on animals found no causal relation between Flubber and skin rash.
But now the bigger question remained, what do you do with millions of balls of Flubber that you need to get rid of? This was prior to the days of government regulation so there were a variety of methods attempted.
Hassenfeld tried dumping the Flubber at a local landfill, but authorities weren’t having it.
Attempts to burn the Flubber created clouds of acrid black smoke that was frowned upon by locals. Eventually Hassenfeld found a lake and simply tried to dump the Flubber there; great plan right? Nope! Flubber floats and they had to hire boats and skim the water for several days to recover the bobbing blobs.
So what happened to this indestructible hunk of rubber?
According to reports, Hassenfeld dug a big hole near their offices, dumped the Flubber into it, ran it all over with a steamroller, and paved it over for a new parking lot. Flubber was finally finished.
It is a shame, hit movies, great cross promotional tie-in, and people racing to get the product at the stores. Then comes the bad press, the unexpected news, the response, and then the problem looked like it wasn’t a problem, the next wave hits.
Life gets that way sometimes doesn’t it?
Maybe your life doesn’t…but you know people that deal with this.
Life is rolling along, things seem good, then there is a surprise, a blip on the radar of life, and all of the sudden the unexpected has you reeling. It could be anything from bad news, job change, financial crisis, health issue, relationship issue, some unexpected disaster…you get the idea. You react and you think you have a handle on it…and then you discover, much to your dismay and distress…that you do not. Then the real wave, the real impact, the real problems start and you are left to deal with crisis in real time. It leaves you exhausted, empty, and wondering where it all went wrong.
Real life unfolds that way…and in those moments we all find out what we are really made of.
When crisis comes. When the unexpected arrives…how will you react?
Someone once told me, ‘you prepare for a crisis before it hits’
That doesn’t make the crisis any less hurtful or stressful but it does remind you that the way we face tough times are actually results of decisions we make in good times. So, the next time the unexpected comes “bouncing” your way…
1-Recognize it for what it is…be honest about what you are facing
2-After you know what you are dealing with take specific steps to keep moving forward
3-Surround yourself with support, those who will encourage and give you wise advice are very important
4- Unravel the mess one step, one moment, one event at a time as much as possible…you make progress this way
5- Remain healthy, take breaks, and give yourself a moment to catch your breath in the midst of crisis
All of those 5 suggestions are great advice…and the perhaps I would add one more, the one that eventually was the end of Flubber. That would be…navigate through the crisis, then put it away, close it up, and drive on…embrace each day you have been given as a gift and live each and every moment to the fullest.
*A couple of notes
The Hassenfeld Brothers, which as a company began in 1923 as a textile remnant company in New Jersey, eventually “bounced back from the Flubber incident” and found success in the toy industry under a shorter name in 1968 – Hasbro.
Much of the history of the Flubber toy came from Michael at Progresscityusa.com – This is a great website to visit, always great information, history, and details.