In his regular column, veteran journalist A. Craig Copetas asks if Bitcoin, Ethereum and Dogecoin are the modern equivalents of sneeze powder and whoopee pads.
Samuel Soren Adams thought it was time to stop hustling in a New Jersey billiard room. So he put down his pool cue and took a job selling coal tar soap in 1905.
“Dad noticed that distilled coal tar had a really high sneeze potential,” his son Bud told me thirty years before the iPhone “Sneeze App” hit the scene. “So just for fun, Dad sprayed the powder through the keyholes of the hotel rooms and into cafes.”
The elder Adams bottled and marketed his cancer-causing concoction under the name Cachoo. Within three months of its introduction, a Philadelphia retailer had purchased 70,000 bottles. That triumph was followed by the Snake Jam Jar, which released a meter-long imitation snake when opened. Then came the Dribble Glass and then of course the Whoopee Cushion. Exploding matches sparked another big boom.
Bud Adams said his family’s jump from pranks to riches proved that the public will buy anything, no matter how dodgy, ridiculous, or dangerous the gimmick. And all these years later, it remains hard to ignore the marketing savvy of a prankster whose records indicated he sold 10,000 Super Joy Handshake Buzzers in Kuwait every year and kept the locals coming back for more.
The Adams family’s gadgets paved the way for all sorts of wacky things currently available through a smartphone, like Ajit Khubani’s Massaging Slippers ($27.99); Witty Yetis’ Dehydrated Water ($13.30), and Arnie McPhee’s Yodeling Pickle ($12.99). A can of “slightly radioactive” uranium ore on Amazon costs $39.95, and with a $5 per month fee, anyone can play Wall Street tycoon on the Robinhood Gold stock trading app.
“The trick,” Bud Adams said precisely, “is to come up with a product that captures what the audience wants and can bring that dream to life, however brief.”
Since everyone wants to become a millionaire, how about a $32,000 Satoshi Nakamoto Bitcoin. Vitalik Buterin’s Ethereum is priced to go into your digital wallet at $3,073 per Ether. Too steep for your wallet? Dogecoin is a deal for 17 cents per Doge, mainly because software engineers Billy Markus and Jackson Palmer say they created the gimcrack — which today has a market cap of more than $32.65 billion — in 2013 as a joke to ridicule to float with cryptocurrencies.
While the Wizard of Oz advises to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb nevertheless says the cryptocurrency pranksters are playing a “gimmick” and a “Ponzi scheme.” Taleb should know. The economist’s best-selling book of 2007, The Black Swan, describes highly improbable events and their potential to cause serious cascade effects.
Indeed, celebrated multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffet described Bitcoin as “probably rat poison squared”, pooh-pooping cryptocurrency as an unproductive asset. “All you’re counting on is if the next person is going to pay you more because they’re even more excited about the next person to come along,” was the judgment of the Oracle of Omaha.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argues that cryptocurrencies play almost no role in normal economic activity. “Almost the only time we hear of them being used as a means of payment, as opposed to speculative trading, is in connection with illegal activity.”
Bill Gates adds digital godfather and Microsoft Corp founder, “Bitcoin uses more electricity per transaction than any other method known to man.”
It’s probably no surprise that all the grumpy cryptocurrency baby boomers reflect the establishment’s initial reaction to Adam’s sneeze concentrate. “Cachoo has divided the country like nothing since the Civil War,” read a report in a New Jersey newspaper. “City fathers issue ordinances, school principals preach sermons, editorial writers protest Cachoo. But a laughing-hungry population demands more. The eagle screams as this beautiful land echoes ‘under the thunder of nostrils’.
But whatever your cryptocurrency bet is, I bet Adam’s product catalog would have branded the stuff Digital Dough and displayed the product alongside Suckers Soap, Squirting Flowers and Mystic Smoke From Fingertips, a goo that went poof when he got his thumbs up. and index finger rubbed.
Bud Adams described his business as ‘hand jive’. He died in 2001 as a millionaire.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.