How the Soloflex Changed America
The story of a pilot, a shirtless spokesmodel, and a transformational home-fitness device.
See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.
The ad, produced by Wieden+Kennedy, looks nothing like the infomercials we know today—no rictus grins, no flashy wipes, no incredulous shouting. It opens on a Bill Gates-looking adolescent, flexing anemically in his bedroom mirror and struggling to perform seven push-ups.
"There's a promise we all made to ourselves a long time ago. But not many of us kept it," the announcer intones, as the scene shifts to a shirtless man approaching a Soloflex machine. "Actually, it's not such a hard promise to keep. Not anymore. All you need are three things: knowledge, desire, and the right equipment. … This is Soloflex. A revolutionary machine you can use at home."
The ad made home fitness seem easy, and it made Soloflex a hit. Wilson writes that the company went from losing money in 1986 to clearing $54 million in pre-tax profits in 1988; since then, he told me, the company has spent $175 million on cable television buys and sold about $1 billion worth of equipment. Of course, most of those machines ended up as expensive towel racks: "The vast majority of people who bought them didn't continue to use them," Wilson told me. Even so, people kept ordering the machines, fueled by late-night dreams that they could have a body like the company's shirtless, chest-hairless spokesmodel Scott Madsen. (Madsen, a gymnast who was called "genetically perfect" in the Washington Post, eventually released a book of action photographs called the Scott Madsen Poster Book. "After nearly 20 years the Scott Madsen Poster Book is still the best erotic photgraohy (sic) book every (sic) published," writes the lone Amazon reviewer. "This book deserves 6 out of 5 stars.")
More iterations of Soloflex followed, as did more infomercials, and Wilson became a rich man. A host of imitators soon appeared, parroting Soloflex's marketing and iconography. "It is a bit grating when people say to me, 'Hey, you're the Bowflex guy, aren't you?' " he writes. Wilson made a pastime of suing these companies, and the lawsuits made him still richer. (Bowflex settled with Wilson for $8 million; NordicTrack settled for $18.5 million and soon thereafter filed for bankruptcy.) By the mid-1990s, Soloflex was regularly running Super Bowl ads, exhorting viewers to pick up the phone and dial the company's toll-free number, 1-800-MUSCLES.
Wilson used his Soloflex fortune to dabble in other pursuits. In 1992, he financed a ballot initiative to shutter a nuclear power plant near Portland, Ore. Last year, he launched a third-party gubernatorial bid in the state. On his campaign Web site, viva-la-revolucion.org, Wilson pushed to establish a state bank, reform campaign finance laws, and legalize the manufacture and sale of hemp. "What about the feds?" he asked. "Well, they can kiss our bootlegging ass. The right to plant is primordial, pre-constitutional, and inviolate." As a write-in candidate, he received fewer than 3,300 votes.
Although it no longer runs print ads or televised infomercials—Madsen, the original spokesmodel, was recently sentenced to two years in federal prison for embezzling almost $248,000 from a financial services firm—the company continues to produce Soloflex machines, as well as other fitness products. These workout gizmos include the Whole Body Vibration Platform, a vibrating bench intended for use by exercise novices and the extremely sedentary. A couple of years ago, the company reintroduced Wilson's first Soloflex design, dubbing it the Retro Soloflex Muscle Machine; it now retails for $1,250. "I spent 20 years trying to improve on the first Soloflex, and I spent 20 years trying to improve on the first infomercial," the 67-year-old Wilson told me. "But I never did better than my first ones."
In recent years, Soloflex has been eclipsed in popularity by other, more au courant devices that loudly tout their new fitness innovations and bargain-basement prices. (The Ab Flyer, for instance, promises that its patented "Reverse Arc Motion" technology will "give you incredible abs faster than you ever thought possible"—for only $14.95 up front.) These products use the basic Soloflex ad template—product demonstrations by toned athletes, with the implicit promise that their sculpted bodies might one day be yours—but they have little else in common with Wilson's brainchild.
Two years ago, in the comments section of a blog called Male Pattern Fitness, Wilson wrote that he could've moved production of the Soloflex to China, allowing him to build a cheaper exercise machine to compete with his lower-cost rivals. The Soloflex inventor explained, however, that he would "rather quit business than ship jobs offshore." The result, he wrote: "Soloflex is still here, albeit much smaller. Fine with me."
Also in Slate's Fitness Issue: Elizabeth Weingarten flexes her cheeks and winks creepily to see if face exercises really work, Torie Bosch searches for a fat-girl-friendly exercise DVD, our handy flowchart helps you navigate awkward, naked gym situations, and Annie Lowrey investigates P90X, CrossFit, and the rise of "extreme" exercise programs.
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Justin Peters is Slate’s crime correspondent.
Photograph of Jerry Wilson courtesy Jerry Wilson for Oregon Gov.