For the past four years an Ohio man has made it his mission to make a daily list of “Worst Things for Sale” on Amazon. He has plenty to choose from.
Our own Seattle megacorporation, Amazon, carries more than 12 million products — an astonishing figure that becomes even more astonishing when you include third-party market sellers. Then it jumps to 354 million.
Sure, you can buy printer supplies, and coffee makers, and laptops and the usual boring stuff on Amazon.
But this story isn’t about those things.
Since April 2012, every day, sometimes more than once a day, Drew Fairweather, a former chemical engineer who lives in Columbus, Ohio, has highlighted in his blog:
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“The Worst Things For Sale. The Internet’s most horrible items.” Almost all of them he finds on Amazon.
With little publicity, the blog has gained a following, with 250,000 unique visitors a month, says Fairweather.
Fairweather finds stuff on Amazon like:
Complete Real Human Finger (Natural Bone). $49. Skulls Unlimited, the seller, states, “Real human skulls and skeletons are only obtained from legal and ethical sources, however, these specimens are becoming more difficult to find.” The finger also “may have minor, natural imperfections as found in all living species.”
The Guardian Gear Lined Cat Muzzle. $8.37. Got a cat that freaks out when groomed? Put this Guantánamo-like muzzle over the cat’s head and eyes. That’ll quiet it down. The seller warns, “Do not leave cat muzzled for long periods of time. Prolonged use of a muzzle inhibits cat’s natural cooling system, which can result in a life-threatening situation for the animal.”
The Electro Deflecto Unisex “Tin” Foil Hat. Only $14.99 and free shipping. Note, the hat arrives flat and when you pull it open it turns into a cap with a pointy top.
Kind of expensive for a gag gift you could make at home with some aluminum wrap. Customers get the joke, though: “After I started wearing my Electro Deflecto I was pleasantly surprised to see a reduction in Government’s ability to control my thoughts.”
Back in 2001, Fairweather, 37, decided to chuck being a chemical engineer and start an online comic site called “Toothpaste for Dinner.”
He and his wife, Natalie Dee, are Amazon Prime members and order a lot.
“They set it up so it’s really easy to click through and look at a bunch of stuff. After a bunch of clicks you wind up finding really terrible stuff,” he says.
The nearly 57,000 followers on his comic’s Twitter account also help with suggestions, he says.
Fairweather says that the couple, who have an 8-year-old daughter, Nona, put together a “reasonable income” from their various projects. The Worst Things For Sale does brings in a small profit because, even though the site is about the worst you can buy on Amazon, it’s also with the company’s affiliate advertising program.
So if that tinfoil hat you read about on Fairweather’s site sounds intriguing enough, and you click and buy it, Fairweather gets a small percentage.
Dee also runs an online cosmetics company; they sell attitude-branded merchandise on the Sharing Machine site (cup with “This is not enough coffee”); and the comic asks for subscriptions.
He is in no danger of running out of horrible products to write about, says Fairweather.
‘Mac and Cheese at a gas station’
Fairweather says his blog is about “postindustrial excess.”
When he talks about excess, Fairweather brings up the Amazon Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dash Button (it’s not in stock, but there are $4.99 dash buttons for everything from Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers to Trojan condoms.)
The dash button is a Wi-Fi connected device that reorders a product with the press of a button.
“I mean, you can literally get Mac and Cheese at a gas station,” he says.
Fairweather does like to expound on our consumer society.
He says the $4.99 buttons cost a lot more than $4.99.
“Coal has to be mined and burned (producing particulate pollution and global warming) to get the energy to power the factory that makes the parts,” he writes. “Crude oil has to be pumped out and refined (using more energy) to get the precursors to make the plastic, which itself takes energy to create.
“The microprocessor and circuit board are etched using toxic chemicals which have to be disposed, and someone’s got to assemble and test every one of them. It’s got to be packaged, freighted to warehouses, stored, packed into boxes for shipping, and hand-delivered to your doorstep by someone.
“And the end result is that you’ve only got to click the button one time for water, or macaroni, or Dude Wipes (baby wipes but labeled “Dude” and sold for $7.59 for 30), instead of tapping three or four times on your phone or computer. It’s a bizarre and insane way to squander time and resources.”
Seller ‘pretty peeved’
Fairweather says that he’s gotten only a few complaints from people whose products he panned.
There was the guy selling a “PancakeBot” 3-D food printer (currently unavailable) with software that made a customized pancake from any image you traced.
“He was pretty peeved, sent me a tweet, ‘I created this to inspire my kids and others to create and make.’ To me, it’s like the perfect picture of postindustrial excess. I teach my daughter all the time how to make stuff. I can make a pancake for my daughter. Maybe it’s a not a perfect pancake, and we can laugh about it.”
And for some products, any publicity is good publicity, right?
The Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer at $5.90 is such a product. You peel a banana. You put it on a cutting board. You put the plastic slicer, which has evenly spaced ridges. You press down.
The slicer has gotten internet fame and spawned an enthusiastic group of reviewers — 5,622 at latest count — trying to outdo each other with their enthusiasm. They’ve given the slicer 4.3 out of 5 stars and posted videos extolling its plastic virtues.
One Amazon reviewer wrote, “What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone … this is one of the greatest inventions of all time.”
The company, which has been selling the slicer for a decade, doesn’t mind the reviews. Back in 2013 it tweeted, “Those hysterical reviews certainly are creating more sales. … We’re all crying with laughter!”
Sometimes the products that Fairweather finds are … how could anyone think up such a product and how could anyone buy it?
A product like:
The Backyard Brains RoboRoach. $119.99. Cockroach not included.
Fairweather explains: “A Wi-Fi-enabled circuit board you glue to a cockroach, inserting leads from the circuit board into the head of the insect, in order to let you control the movements of the cockroach with your phone. It’s great for kids, if you want to teach them that performing surgery on animals against their will, solely for your entertainment, is something you consider great.”
Says Fairweather about his long list of junk products, “This is going to improve your life?”