The oxide coating on video tape is like fine-grade sandpaper. It continually polishes the recording heads which rapidly scan the tape as it moves at snails pace through the machine. The makers of VCRs complained about the sale of “head cleaner cassettes” which contained even more abrasive tape to polish the heads even more.
Sony’s Betamax VCRs were able to start recording or playing back a split-second after pushing the control, because the tape remained laced round the drum all the time the cassette was in the machine, even during fast winding. People worried that this would polish the heads so vigorously that they wore out.
When Sony introduced ‘cue and review’, or fast search with pictures as the heads read fast-winding tape, the company warned about the risk of head wear from using the feature for too long at a time. Fear of headwear created a market for ‘tape winders’, simple motorised devices that fast-spooled tape safely away from the VCR heads.
Beta died, leaving only VHS which works on a different principle. The tape only laces round the head drum when the play or record button is pressed. This is why VHS recorders were much slower to start. The tape unlaces into the cassette for normal fast forward or rewind, so there is no risk of head wear.
VHS could only match Sony’s fast search feature by obliging the user to press play and then keep the search button pressed without stopping the tape. There remained no risk of head wear from wind or rewind.
None of this deterred the makers of winders. In 1993 the Advertising Standards Authority told one firm to stop scaring people with tales of head wear which could only be avoided by buying a VHS winder. But still there were adverts for a £25 winder that “keeps recording heads in optimum condition” and “ensures a longer life for your VCR”.
The adverts only stopped when DVD killed off the VCR.