March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

GREAT IDEAS OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION: Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, penicillin, heavier-than-air flight.

Bad ideas of Western civilization: all-natural soft licorice with oat bran, chocolate-covered scallions, Nullo the deodorant pill—in other words, just the sort of products marketing consultant Robert McMath keeps a place for in his heart—and on his shelves.

McMath is president of the New Products Showcase and Learning Center in Ithaca, N.Y., a 6,500-square-foot warehouse filled to the roof with samples of close to 70,000 consumer goods, some hugely successful, some long forgotten even by the companies that made them. There are rare brands of beer—anyone remember 4077th M*A*S*H?—wine coolers by the dozen and enough liquid soap to disinfect a herd of elephants. And there’s his Favorite Failures area, where you’ll find, for example, Cough Whip, the ill-fated cough medicine with the look and texture of a dessert topping.

“I never throw anything away,” says McMath, 66, who started collecting in the 1960s. A native of Glen Ridge, N.J., McMath is also the author, with journalist Thom Forbes, of the just-published What Were They Thinking? which analyzes why 8 out of 10 new products fail. The main reason: manufacturers’ cloning of each other’s products. He opens the doors of his museum for $1,500 a day to companies researching the development of new products. “It’s one small part of your homework,” says Craig Wynette, director of new corporate ventures for Procter & Gamble. Doing the homework can save a company from touting something as “virucidal,” as Kleenex did with its Avert tissue. “Virucidal, homicidal,” says McMath. “These words kind of scare people.”

Although probably not as much as all-natural soft licorice with oat bran.

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