Ore-Oh No: Popular Products With Surprisingly Strange Histories

There’s something comforting and familiar about a well-known brand.

Think about the first time you tried an Oreo cookie or the fantastic scenarios you acted out while playing with your Star Wars toys. Picture the cold blue hues of the Pepsi logo contrasted with the warm, comforting red of a plastic plate at a family barbecue. Feeling nostalgic yet?

We’ve got a bit of bad news. While there’s nothing wrong with these brands, per se, they’ve got some dark secrets, and once you hear about them, you can’t really see them the same way.

For instance…

Oreo ripped off their product from Hydrox, then they claimed “originality.”

Quick: What are those little chocolate sandwich cookies called? The ones with the creme-filled center that taste better when you dip them in milk?

If you said “Oreo,” congratulations. You’ve been brainwashed by an international snacking conspiracy.


Maybe we’re being dramatic, but the fact is that Hydrox was the first creme-filled chocolate sandwich cookie. Introduced in 1908, the Hydrox cookie was named after hydrogen and oxygen, the elements that make up water. Marketers hoped that consumers would see it as a clean, elegant cookie, but “Hydrox” sounded more like a cleaning product, and the snacks weren’t exactly huge.

Two years later, the National Biscuit Company (which later became Nabisco) introduced the Oreo, named after a street near the company’s Manhattan factory. The National Biscuit Company had more money, a more experienced marketing team, and a better-named product. Today, the Oreo is the most popular cookie in the United States, and Nabisco even promotes the cookie with the tagline “the original” in some countries.


Meanwhile, Hydrox cookies eventually left the market after a series of bad marketing decisions. Today, Leaf Brands, which specializes in nostalgia food products, has reintroduced the brand.

“We tend to be the go-to company, now, for questions about nostalgia products,” Ellia Kassoff, CEO of Leaf Brands, tells Urbo. “We know our customer well. When we bring back a product, we bring it back exactly as the customer remembers it.”

Kassoff insists that Oreo cookies are less satisfying than Hydrox, and he says a variety of factors led to Oreo’s eventual dominance. Notably, Keebler tried to change the Hydrox name, which may have backfired with the snack’s core audience.

“When you change the name on the product, the consumer’s saying, ‘Well, what else did you change?'” Kassoff says. “Sometimes, you’ve just got to use the name you’ve got. They kind of butchered it, they didn’t look at it for what it was.”

Hydrox did, in fact, have a strong fan base, as Oreo cookies weren’t an option for kosher and vegetarian customers for quite some time.

“Oreo had lard in it until the mid-1990s,” Kassoff says. “Hydrox was always a better cookie than Oreo—darker chocolate, a crispier cookie.”

So, why do customers assume that Hydrox is an Oreo rip-off?

“I think Oreo and Nabisco have done a great job of—well, I’ll say it—brainwashing the customer,” Kassoff says with a laugh.

Hey, we knew we weren’t being dramatic.

Kleenex designed their product as a disposable gas mask.

You might not spend much time thinking about Kleenex, but the brand is incredibly powerful. The last time you had a cold, you probably didn’t ask your friends for facial tissue—you asked for a Kleenex. That’s because Kleenex has effectively become genericized (the brand name is synonymous with the product itself).


That wasn’t always the case. Kleenex was developed by Kimberly-Clark, a paper company, initially as a filter for gas masks during World War I. According to Kleenex, two executives “discovered creped cellulose wadding while touring pulp and paper mills in Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia.”

They knew the new “crepe paper” was valuable, but it wasn’t especially successful as a gas mask filter. To broaden their audience, Kimberly-Clark sold the product to the American public as a cold cream remover.

Their slogan:

“The new secret of keeping a pretty skin, as used by famous movie stars whose complexions are always under close inspection, whose faces are exposed to glaring lights and to heavy makeup constantly.”


It doesn’t exactly roll off of the tongue. Nevertheless, Kleenex began selling, and soon, the “handkerchief you can throw away” was attracting a huge audience. The major innovation came in 1949, when Kimberly-Clark introduced the “quadrant design” of the modern package.

Gradually, other changes perfected the product: Fun, comforting designs, lotion-infused tissues, and antibacterial additives turned Kleenex into a worldwide success. Plus, your grade school teacher made your parents buy three boxes for the rest of the class, and that definitely helped sales.


That’s all well and good, but never forget that Kleenex’s first job was to keep your grandfather from inhaling mustard gas.

Pepsi gained popularity by doubling the size of the American soda and breaking the color barrier.

How do you compete with an established brand like Coca-Cola? You offer a better product—and if that’s not possible, you offer a better value. In 1934, PepsiCo introduced the 12-ounce cola, proudly marketing their product as offering “twice as much for a nickel” than its competitor.

They even had a jingle:

“Pepsi-Cola hits the spot / Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot.

Twice as much for a nickel, too / Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you.

Nickel, nickel, nickel, nickel / Trickle, trickle, trickle, trickle…”

Alright, the lyrics aren’t exactly on par with “Tangled Up in Blue,” but the slogan worked. Pepsi became a real competitor to Coca-Cola, but in the process, the sugary drink compelled competitors to sell larger drinks, contributing significantly to the obesity crisis.

There was, however, a bright side: In order to build its audience in the 1940s, Pepsi also became one of the first major American companies to market its product directly to African Americans. Pepsi sales executive Edward F. Boyd hired an all-black sales team and used imagery of high-achieving black students in his advertising campaigns, along with endorsements from dozens of respected celebrities and athletes.

“Long before most companies came to see the potential of the black consumer, Ed put doors where previously only walls had existed,” former PepsiCo CEO Donald M. Kendall said in a statement after Boyd passed away in 2007.

North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

That was an admirable move, but at the time, it also made great business sense. Boyd invented niche marketing—selling a product to a specific group of people rather than the public at large—and helped to normalize the idea of middle-class black America in the process.

Star Wars action figures made toys much more gimmicky.

Okay, settle down, Star Wars fans. We know, we know—Star Wars made toys collectible, creating an entire new industry. Kenner, the Cincinnati-based company that manufactured toys for the franchise, sold more than 40 million Star Wars action figures by the end of 1978, earning more than $100 million. By any measure, they were enormously successful.


We’re not disputing that. However, we are saying that Kenner’s original Star Wars toys were incredibly cheap by design, and their unprecedented success opened the door for a massive wave of shoddy, gimmick-driven toys.

Kenner, by the way, won the Star Wars contract as the movie was in the final stages of production, and they had no clue that the film would start one of the most successful franchises of all time. The toy company wasn’t able to produce enough action figures for the lucrative Christmas season in 1977. Their solution: Sell an empty box.

No, really. Kenner sold a cardboard box, the “Early Bird Certificate Package,” guaranteeing Star Wars fans their toys—after those toys were actually manufactured, of course.


“It usually takes a year of production time for toy figures like this,” Kenner’s John Beck said, “and even though we hired extra people and cut the production time to seven months, we still couldn’t make it by Christmas.”

When the toys actually arrived, they were underwhelming (not that most Star Wars fans really cared). At 3.75 inches, they were some of the smallest action figures available, and Kenner cut costs by using a maximum of two colored plastics per figure. That meant that some of the figures looked completely different than their on-screen counterparts. Some were even repurposed from Kenner’s existing toy lines. Take the X-Wing Aces target game, which bore a striking similarity to the Aerial Aces target game.

That wouldn’t be the only cost-saving measure that Kenner made with the Star Wars franchise. Desperate to capitalize on his franchise’s merchandising potential, Star Wars creator George Lucas gave Kenner an amazing deal in 1977: The toy company would have the exclusive rights to produce Star Wars toys forever, as long as they sent Lucas a check for $100,000 per year. That was nothing compared to the toys’ profitability.

However, in 1991, Hasbro Toys purchased Kenner, and as Star Wars began dwindling in popularity, some accountant made a costly decision: Lucas didn’t receive his annual check. Suddenly, Lucas had his toy merchandising rights, and he negotiated a much better deal for himself.

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