Stay Tuned/Polaroid Becomes Increasingly Disposable

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Polaroid Becomes Increasingly Disposable
31 August 1999

I have a confession to make. I have not adequately researched this column. I should have looked into the current fortunes of the Polaroid Corporation. After all, they make many things which have nothing to do with consumer photography, and for all I know they have long since written that branch of their operations off as a loss.

Polaroid has a large presence here in the Greater Boston area, especially in the part of Cambridge which includes MIT and the Kendall Square technology corner. That area has at least five Polaroid buildings and a street named after Edwin Land, Polaroid's founding father. (I love explaining to people that the Polaroid Land Camera's name has nothing to do with terra firma.)

On the other hand, I seem to recall that Polaroid isn't occupying one of its flagship buildings, the nice Art Deco one on Memorial Drive, any longer. I read an article about what they were going to do to it - residential space or office space, I can't remember which.

At any rate, the Polaroid name has a vaguely 1970's feel to me, as of a company that's past its prime. Consumer sales only reinforce that. Sure, you can still find the film - but when was the last time you saw a new Polaroid instant camera being offered for sale?

A few years ago, Polaroid ran an award-winning campaign with the tagline "See what develops." The magazine ads usually had a series of Polaroid shots with very little copy, leading the reader to draw conclusions. For example: A series of pictures of a toilet with the seat up, each with a time written on the bottom margin in felt-tip pen. The copy:
"No, I don't."
"Yes, you do."
"No, I don't."
"Want to bet?"

The most prominent TV ad from the same series had a dog contriving to use a Polaroid camera to document that it was actually the cat that kept getting into the garbage.

A great campaign, helped by the fact that the margins and shape of a Polaroid instant - the thin white strips at the sides and the wider area at the bottom - are easily recognized by just about anyone, even people who've never actually taken one. Some companies would kill for a symbol like that.

So why is it that some people's reaction to the campaign was, "Oh, are they still around?"

Think back to the last Polaroid ads you remember before that campaign. Chances are they involve James Garner and Mariette Hartley arguing over the virtues of the OneStep camera. Those ads are nearly twenty years old!

Polaroid's consumer products became popular on the basis of convenience, in a time before the advent of one-hour photo processing. Press a button and out it comes. No waiting a week to find out you've taken a lousy photo; you can find out it's lousy instantaneously.

Unfortunately there came a time where convenience became less of an issue than price. A pack of Polaroid film - ten shots - costs me about fourteen bucks. For the same price, in the same drugstore, I can get a pack with four rolls of 24-exposure 800-speed film. Admittedly, when I add on developing costs, it becomes less of a bargain. An average 24-exposure roll of film costs me about three and a half bucks, and it costs me about ten and a half to develop. That means I'm paying the same price to get 24 conventional prints vs. ten Polaroids ... and with the conventional film I have more printing options (blow-ups, negatives, storage as data, etc.)

What's really putting the last nail in Polaroid's consumer-sales coffin, though, is the huge popularity of disposable 35mm cameras. Now, I don't like these myself - they seem wasteful to me - but I've used one, because I don't take my Pentax on long trips; it cost me a lot of money and I don't want it to get lost or broken. The disposables seem to take fairly good photos, as long as you stick to vacation shots and don't try anything tricky. I can see why they're getting ubiquitous so quickly.

Polaroid is undoubtedly aware of the problem, seeing as how they recently came out with the PopShots camera. This is a disposable camera that takes instant photos - great idea! However, they get very few points for execution. This is not the idea that will bring Polaroid back into the minds of consumers.

You may not have seen these cameras. I went to several local drugstores, film labs, and other places that carry film and disposable 35mm cameras, and only one place had them. If that's a representative distribution, then expect them to be hard to find. They come in bulky plastic bags. Their suggested retail is $20. Consumer Reports wrote briefly about them in the September issue and somehow managed to pay $17 for theirs; I was not so lucky.

Right away there's a problem, because I can get a pack of three generic 35mm disposable cameras for that same $20. The price competition is already lost. Polaroid wants you to recycle the camera; they provide you with a prepaid mailer and will send you a $2 coupon for the next one. Even if we count that $2 as real money, and even if we throw in the introductory $4 rebate (the camera had to have been purchased by today to qualify) for a total of $6 back, the disposable 35mms are still the winner on cost.

The camera feels shoddy. The faceplate fits loosely on the body and has some wiggle, the indoor-outdoor switch which turns on the flash is small and flimsy, the ring to pull out the photo flaps around distractingly on the side of the camera, and the shutter button is actually two buttons - the smaller inner button is hard to press firmly, and if you don't press it firmly, the flash won't go off.

The camera is enormous when compared to a 35mm disposable. On the other hand, its shape - a rectangle held narrow-side rather than broad-side forward - is easier to hold than the usual 35mm disposable ... or at least I thought so. I couldn't get any of the other Stay Tuned denizens to try taking a picture with it.

When you take a picture, you press the shutter, then you pull the ring. The ring is attached to a long arm with teeth on the bottom. As you pull this arm out of the camera, it pulls the picture out with it - developing-side down, where your fingers can too easily get in the wet part as you grab it. You have to push the arm back in by hand after you grab the picture, being careful not to bend it as you do.

The prints are tiny - Polaroid says 4.4" x 2.5" on the bag, but they're including the white "margins" on the sides of the active image, which is cheating. The actual image is closer to 3" x 2". The two scans below should be very near actual size on a 72-dpi monitor.

The pictures themselves are better than I expected. Polaroid film has always done well at short-range photographs, and if anything these have better color depth than the last time I took photos with my old Polaroid instant camera. They're just smaller. The flash seemed to illuminate indoors well enough, and the one outdoor photo I took was simply lovely.

Unfortunately scans are not the best way to represent photos, but here are two examples anyway. These have slightly less intense dark colors than the originals, may be a bit blurrier, and may have JPEG artifacts; more tellingly, if you're not on a Mac they will probably look a great deal darker than the actual photos. The first was taken outdoors, the second indoors with the flash. I have trimmed away the white margins.



It's a novel idea. It was fun to play with and the pictures were decent. But I don't see myself buying another one, and I don't imagine too many other people will do repeat business either. Why bother? If you're really attached to instant pictures, you probably have an older Polaroid camera already - the film for that is still a better bargain than the disposable model.

I think Polaroid may realize this. If the final day to qualify for the rebate was today, it may mean that they figured their initial marketing push for the camera would be ending now. Some push - if I hadn't happened on the display a few weeks ago in that same drugstore, I wouldn't have known about it at all (at least not until I got my Consumer Reports).

So maybe Polaroid has already decided to softpedal this camera and let it die gracefully. Or maybe they have not yet begun to fight. It's hard to say. Their web site doesn't seem to be shouting about it loudly, for what that's worth - instead, when I checked, it was touting their PhotoMAX PDC 700 ... a digital camera.

Maybe Polaroid has a better vision of their future than I give them credit for.


In 2001, Polaroid notoriously went bankrupt. It wasn't notorious because it was much of a surprise. As you can see above, the stench of decay was already pretty powerful in 1999, and digital cameras (which Polaroid discovered too late) were the final nail in the coffin. No, what is notorious is the way the bankruptcy was handled. The "old" Polaroid became Primary PDC, a legal entity with no employees or assets, and the bankers who received custody of the Polaroid brand promptly created the "new" Polaroid, which now licenses the Polaroid brand name heavily.

OK, fine ... but when the dust cleared, it developed a funny thing had happened. Executives got bonuses; shareholders got nothing; employees got nearly nothing. Suddenly the pension plan, employees were told, was bust or nearly so; and the company, being bankrupt, had no obligation to pay. Polaroid stock instantly became waste paper. Meanwhile, professional observers were muttering that the way the bankruptcy and subsequent sale had been arranged was dubious in many other respects. (I don't pretend to follow it very well. Try here for more.)

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