In the 1980s, viewers of the FlowBee infomercial decided to abandon their barbers and hair stylists and turn their haircuts over to a whirling blade mechanism attached to a vacuum cleaner. And not just a few people either: the FlowBee haircutting system was one of the most successful infomercial products of the decade. Hard to believe that in the Supercuts era so many were willing to put their scalps in danger and risk ending up with the coiffure of a mental patient in order to save pocket change. Perhaps its popularity came about because the FlowBee was an ideal device for maintaining a mulletthe 80s hairstyle beloved of trailer trash and New Jersey mall rats alike. Or maybe people just thought it was safer than cutting their hair with a lawn mower.
The product’s inventor and host of the “FlowBee Home Haircutting Show” is a good ole boy with the unfortunate name of Rick Huntsnot to be confused with prolific forum poster and blog commenter Mike Hunt. (The theme of slightly off-color names continues when FlowBee International president Maxey Grossenbacher appears on the program.) Rick is the kind of guy who looks like he’s wearing a mullet even though he isn’t. “I’m a carpenter. I’m not a hairdresser,” reveals Rick, in one of the least surprising admissions in broadcast history. To kick off the infomercial, he demos the FlowBee by giving himself a haircut; Rick then assess his finished craftsmanship, “As you can see, it’s a pretty good haircut for one I did on myself”which is similar to what he said the first time he built a picnic table. Rick’s inspiration for this revolution in personal grooming came to him after a bout of woodworking:
One day I was in my garage and being a carpenter you get sawdust in your hair. And I was cleaning the sawdust out of my hair and needing a haircut desperatelyI’d go about three months back then without getting a haircutand I was going, ‘What if I could have blades up there and set the length?’ And that was about seven years ago, and since then we’ve sold hundreds of thousands of FlowBees.
Just be glad he wasn’t working with a buzz saw or a nail gun when his flash of creativity struck.
Learning of FlowBee’s origin in some carpenter’s garage would seem unlikely to allay fears about the device’s safety or ability to provide stylish hair. Much of the rest of the infomercial doesn’t seem reassuring either. For example, one testimonial tries to make viewers feel secure by insisting, “You can just leave a vacuum on and decide if you’re ready to do it. You can back out at the last minute.” Yes, a product that produces such anxiety that you need a guarantee that you can back out at any time, kind of like jumping out of an airplane. To ensure an elegant haircut, Rick instructs, “Keep bouncing it up and down, just like a basketball.” Rick also gives repeated warnings to keep the FlowBee spacer “perpendicular” and not to “roll it” along your head, although he never tells usor shows usthe consequence of making such a regrettable mistake.
One reason they were able to sell so many FlowBees was that many of the people buying them weren’t going to use the product on themselves at all. Instead they intended to use it on others, such as elderly parents and childrenlike the obnoxious brat who loudly declares, “I love my FlowBee!” throughout this infomercial. Of course some people really are cheap enough to entrust their personal grooming to an appliance designed to suck dust from carpets. For example, one gentleman tells us, “As a business man, I always have to be well groomed and have my hair looking good…I used to go to a hair salon and a stylist, and it cost us $30. I had to travel about a half hour on the freeway and often more as not he was booked.” So this guy went from going to chic $30 stylist ($50 if you adjust for inflation) to getting his hair cut by a gadget attached to the end of a vacuum hose? Maybe the limp wrists finally started making him uncomfortable.
Especially hard to believe is that any woman was ever willing to use this thing. (Except for those who don’t mind looking butch, such as the lady in this infomercial who seems to be going for the Grace Jones look.) Yet we see several women here using the FlowBee, including one who insists, “Take my husband. Take my kids. But don’t take my FlowBee!”
Aside from its appalling product, the most remarkable thing about the FlowBee infomercial is how totally 80s it is: crappy synthesizer music that sounds like it might have come from your first Ginger Lynn VHS tape; cheesy graphics and video effects, including a really annoying inset video that plays continually during the testimonials; even a unison chant very reminiscent of early Ronco infomercials when Rick asks “What do I do when I need a quick haircut?” and the assembled crowd shouts back, “Use the FlowBee!” To assure ladies that they can use the FlowBee for something other than a buzz cut, Rick demos the product on a blonde whose complex hair style (Rick the carpenter tells us it has a “weight line”) is so 80s that you expect the first words out her mouth to be “Totally rad” or “To the max!” (After seeing this 1980s tribute to workshop hairstyling, you might be the one who says, “Gag me with a spoon!”)
The Snuggie and ShamWow of its day, FlowBee made a big impact on popular culture in the 80s as a frequent punch line for comedians and late-night talk show hosts. The Wayne’s World movie parodied it as the “Suck Kut.”
Think such a product wouldn’t sell today? Behold the second coming of the FlowBee: A recent commercial for a home haircutting system called the Air Cutter has hit the airwaves. If this product catches on, community colleges everywhere can save money by combining cosmetology courses and shop class.