That time cryptocurrency proved people will buy anything

In his regular column, veteran journalist A. Craig Copetas asks if Bitcoin, Ethereum and Dogecoin are the modern-day equivalents of sneezing powder and whoopee cushions.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Samuel Soren Adams reckoned it was time to stop hustling in a New Jersey pool hall. So he put down his billiard cue and in 1905 took a job selling coal-tar soap.

“Dad noticed distilled coal tar possessed a tremendously high sneeze potential,” his son Bud recounted thirty years before the iPhone “Sneeze App” arrived on the scene. “So for fun, dad squirted the powder through hotel-room keyholes and inside cafes.”

The elder Adams bottled and marketed his carcinogenic concoction under the name, Cachoo. Within three months of its introduction, a Philadelphia retailer had bought 70,000 bottles. That triumph was followed by the Snake Jam Jar, which, when opened, let loose a metre-long imitation serpent. Then came the Dribble Glass, and then, of course, the Whoopee Cushion. Exploding matches made another big boom.

Bud Adams said his family’s leap from gags to riches proved the public will buy anything, regardless of how dodgy, ridiculous or hazardous the gimmick. And all these years later, it remains hard to dismiss the marketing wisdom of a practical joke mogul whose records indicated he annually sold 10,000 Super Joy Handshake Buzzers in Kuwait and kept the locals coming back for more.

The Adams family’s gizmos spearheaded the way for all sorts of the silly stuff currently available through a smartphone, such as Ajit Khubani’s Massaging Slippers ($27.99); Witty Yetis’ Dehydrated Water ($13.30), and Arnie McPhee’s Yodeling Pickle ($12.99). A tin of “slightly radioactive” uranium ore on Amazon costs $39.95 and a fee of $5-a-month lets anyone play Wall Street tycoon on the Robinhood Gold stock trading app.

“The trick,” Bud Adams precisely instructed, “is to come up with a product that captures what the public is wishing for and can bring that dream to life, however briefly.”

As everyone wants to be a millionaire, how about a $32,000 Satoshi Nakamoto Bitcoin. Vitalik Buterin’s Ethereum are priced to move into your digital wallet at $3,073 an Ether. Too steep for your pocket? Dogecoin is a deal at 17 cents a Doge, particularly as software engineers Billy Markus and Jackson Palmer say they created the gimcrack – which today has a market capitalisation of more than $32.65bn – in 2013 as a joke to make fun of cryptocurrencies.

Although the Wizard of Oz advises to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb nonetheless says the cryptocurrency pranksters are hawking a “gimmick” and a “Ponzi scheme”. Taleb should know. The economist’s bestselling 2007 book, The Black Swan, spelled out highly improbable events and their potential to trigger severe cascade effects.

Indeed, the feted multibillionaire investor Warren Buffet described Bitcoin as “probably rat poison squared,” pooh-poohing cryptocurrency as a non-productive asset. “All you’re counting on is whether the next person is going to pay you more because they’re even more excited about another next person coming along,” was the Oracle of Omaha’s verdict.

The Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argues that cryptocurrencies play almost no role in normal economic activity. “Almost the only time we hear about them being used as a means of payment, as opposed to speculative trading, is in association with illegal activity.”

Adds digital godfather and Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates, “Bitcoin uses more electricity per transaction than any other method known to mankind.”

It is likely no surprise that all the Baby Boomer grumpiness over cryptocurrency echoes the establishment’s initial reaction to Adam’s sneeze concentrate. “Cachoo has divided the country like nothing since the Civil War,” read an account in a New Jersey newspaper. “Town fathers pass ordinances, school principals preach sermons, editorial writers inveigh against Cachoo. But a laugh-hungry population demands more. The eagle screams as this fair land reverberates ‘neath the thunder of nasal broadsides.”

Yet whatever your wager on cryptocurrency, I would heavily bet Adam’s product catalogue 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 rubbed between thumb and forefinger.

Bud Adams described his business as “hand jive.” He passed away a millionaire in 2001.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Source: Al Jazeera