Octopus TV Failure Awards: CueCat by Andrew Eborn

In this award-winning weekly series, Andrew Eborn, President of Octopus TV, Knot The Truth and Founder of the Octopus TV Failure Awards, shines a light on the products and services, brand extensions and campaigns that failed to take off and have as a result earned entry into The Octopus TV Failure Awards.

As Andrew points out “we always celebrate success whilst hiding the failures that led to that success. The Octopus TV Failure Awards finally give failure the attention it deserves. If necessity is the mother of invention then failure is the father of success”

“From failed products and services to campaigns and ads we would rather forget, we want to encourage organisations and brands to be better at learning from failures not just ignoring them and pretending they never happened.”

Thank you for all of your nominations so far. Keep ‘em coming!  Send your nominations now together with full description and images to [email protected]

Pestilence, Prejudice & Parasite

As pestilence/ plague and prejudice persist in populating the press it is refreshing to see such positive praise for Parasite.

Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant South Korean satire made Oscar history by being the first film not in the English language to win best picture after taking best director, best international film and best original screenplay.

The Oscar ceremony itself was punctuated with references to the controversy around lack of diversity starting with Chris Rock pointing out what was missing from this year’s director nominees: “vaginas”.

Rebel – with some claws – Wilson pointed out at the BAFTAs, there was prejudice in all of this year’s Awards as “felines” failed to receive any nominations.

Rebel’s film was, however, nominated for an Octopus TV Failure Award …cue Cats

An elegant and effortless link to this week’s Octopus TV Failure Award nominee, :CueCat

Hello Kitty!

This week we received a letter from one of our readers, Derek Walker:

“ Andrew Eborn Please tell me that the “:CueCat” will make an appearance on this list. I had a front row seat for this train wreck! Oh the horror of this idea.”

Creative juices oozed from every orifice during the dot com interweb boom. The “new economy” hype gave rise to some glorious products and unprecedented failures.

Investors – not wanting to miss out on the next big thing – threw their hard earned cash in support of some of the most deliciously bizarre products.

:CueCat, – with the purrfectly pretentious colon at the start of its name – is a prime example. A poster pussy with peculiar punctuation.

:CueCat was invented by the wonderfully named Jeffry Jovan Philyaw aka J. Hutton Pulitzer “one of the most prolific independent Inventors of modern times.” 

Launched in 2000 by Digital Convergence Corporation :CueCat is a cat shaped bar code scanner which enabled users to scan a special bar code / “cue” which would then shepherd them effortlessly to the relevant webpage. This avoided all the hassle of having to type long web addresses. It was the bridge between the physical world of the printed page and the internet. The ambition was to make the :CueCat barcode the standard for advertising. A cat designed to work side by side with your mouse.


Money in the Kitty

Funding flooded in from several heavy hitters… Derek Walker told me “I was at RadioShack when they wrote a $30 million check for that thing. $30 million. I get sick thinking about that.”

Radio Shack were not alone in putting money in the kitty. Many fat cats were wooed and wowed by the sales skills of JJP.  Belo Corporation – the parent company of the Dallas Morning News and owner of a number of TV stations – shelled out US$37.5 million, Young & Rubicam $28 million and Coca-Cola $10 million.

In total $185 million was secured – Juicero would be proud!


:CueCat was made available free of charge including through Radio Shack and was also send unsolicited to various mailing lists such as subscribers to Wired and Forbes magazines.

:CueCat’s investors supported the roll out and so :CueCat bar codes started to appear in a number of publications such as The Dallas Morning News and other Belo owned publications as well as in product catalogues including for Radio Shack.

In addition audio tones in programmes and commercials could act as web address short cuts provided your TV was connected to a computer and both were switched on.

Bad Kitty

Derision flowed as freely as Trump’s tweets as critics got their claws into :CueCat.

Walt Mossberg, the principal tech columnist for The Wall Street Journal wrote “On the first standard, convenience, the CueCat fails miserably…In order to scan in codes from magazines and newspapers, you have to be reading them in front of your PC. That’s unnatural and ridiculous.”

Jeff Salkowski wrote in the Chicago Tribune “You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can”

Glittering prizes were showered upon :CueCat

;CueCat topped Gizmodo’s list of worst gadgets of the decade and PC World included it as one of the worst 25 products of all time


Pussy footing around privacy

There were also concerns around privacy.

Each :CueCat had a unique serial number and users had to register their ZIP code, gender, and email address. As a result personal profiles could be formed and content could be tailored accordingly. The Denver-based Privacy Foundation expressed concern that a user’s reading and television habits could be tracked with precision, stored in a central data bank and resold.

Paranoia over privacy was accentuated by the fact that Digital Convergence registered the domain “digitaldemographics.com”

Clearly Digital Convergence’s business plan was founded on profiting from its marketing data base.  

Michael Garin, the company’s president, insisted, however, ”We cannot, we do not, and we will not track individual information.”

Hacked Off

Reports of hacks and cyber-attacks are now almost daily. Way before NHS http://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2017/05/31/the-nhs-hack-ba-s-it-meltdown-history-will-keep-repeating-itself-until-brands , WPP, Yahoo and others came to our attention, Digital Convergence was a high profile victim.

To add to its woes, the feline company suffered a security leak when a tech employee left with a development computer and connected to an unsecured net connection and surprise, surprise was hacked.  About 140,000 :CueCat users had their personal data stolen including their name, email address, age range, gender and zip code. What was the price of privacy? Digital Convergence offered each victim a $10 gift certificate to Radio Shack ..Hmmm…

De-clawing the :CueCat

The :CueCat was easy to reverse-engineer. A number of sites provided details as to how to neuter the cat http://www.cexx.org/cuecat.htm

Curiosity killed the Cat

As a result, several hackers modified the :CueCat for their own purposes such as cataloguing book or CD collections. The problem for Digital Convergence was that the re-engineering could bypass the company’s marketing database – the company’s lifeblood.

Digital Convergence got tough and threatened legal action asserting that users did not own the devices and had no right to reverse engineer them. Digital Convergence also tried to change the terms of its licence to prevent reverse engineering.

The hackers were hacked off.

Cat Fight

Interesting questions for us lawyers arose about whether people could take apart freely distributed hardware and write separate software applications.  The right to “reverse engineer” hardware for certain purposes has been well-protected in a number of jurisdictions.

There were also questions raised about “enforceability” where a company attempts to assert that a licence is triggered simply by using its hardware.

The old sales strategy of giving away razors to sell razor blades may not always work in the tech space where you give away hardware and try to make money via the software. With software you can make your own blades….

Cue the end

In the end :CueCat was a miserable feline failure and investors lost their US$185million. The database servers which provided the code to Internet URL linking ceased operation in January 2002 and the desktop client is no longer supported.

Interestingly :CueCat is worth more dead than alive. Originally given away for free, you can still buy :CueCat via your favourite online shopping site – some for in excess of $19.99!

Unleashing the Cat

Making it easier for consumers to buy whilst building a valuable database makes sound commercial sense. Today we take for granted the ubiquitous QR codes that can be read easily with smart phones.

Smart phones do not need to be plugged into a PC and they can obviously do far more than just scan QR codes.

Just like the other Octopus TV Failure Nominee Twitter Peek no need to pony up for one trick tech ponies.

A Catalogue of Failures

:CueCat had everything:

  • pretentious branding –  :CueCat with a colon
  • large-scale attempt at aggregating user data to build profiles and then profit by selling that data to advertisers
  • major security vulnerability leading to the risk of exposure of the data harvested
  • threatening customers who dared to use the :CueCat  for anything other than its originally intended purpose with the power of copyright law

As one critic put it “CueCat appears to us as a mirage, a failure, a loser, but unlike all the other crap gadgets, the future it dreamed of came into being. From within that abyss—every sleazily obvious effort to hide consumption in convenience, every privacy failure, every data breach, and every DMCA takedown—CueCat is smirking back at us.”

:CueCat was a commercial failure. It was difficult to use relying on being tethered to your computer and there were concerns regarding privacy. Talk of a wireless version was too late.

For all these reasons :CueCat is this week’s nomination for The Octopus TV Failure Awards.


See you next week for more fantastically fabulous failures ….

[email protected]

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewEborn and @OctopusTV

Send your nominations now

From failed products and services to campaigns and ads we would rather forget, we want to encourage organisations and brands to be better at learning from failures not just ignoring them and pretending they never happened.

Send your nominations with full description and images to [email protected]

In addition to international recognition and glittering prizes the winners will receive the much valued TOFA.

pic credit : Corrado Amitrano

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