Saturday, June 5, 2010

Silly Bandz: The Latest in a List of Mysterious Fads


Selling at $3 per a small pack, Silly Bandz are the newest rage among young collectors. These "recession proof" bands are so simple yet so coveted. It seems doubtless, however, that they're a pretty poor investment.

Anyway, this fad brings back memories of past ones.

Possibly the first fad of the '90s was pogs. Many people in their 20's probably remember owning a tube or two of them. But pogs were more of a mild, drawn-out fad...

I don't remember pogs as having the sort of obsession-giving power necessary to start up an acute buying hysteria. Such a distinction would have to go to Beanie Babies.

Some time in the mist of the late '90s, during the height of the Beanie Baby craze, Hershey Park had Beanie Babies in its gift shoppe; and amid the rides, arcades, zoo animals, etc., those Beanies were assuredly the highlight of many-a-visitor's day.

In the late '90s, every hobby shoppe had Beanie Babies. I suppose people bought them partly because they thought they'd go up in value. Moreover, the assumption was always that "you'd better buy them now before they're gone." Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation of why they became so popular.

Ultimately what drove Beanie Babies, I believe, was raw consumer demand. The '90's had been kind to people's wallets, and many people wanted something on which to splurge. Beanie Babies became that something, and people began to go to great lengths to buy them. To satisfy excess consumer demand, one merchant told me that he used to scour flea markets to get them from Chinese factory workers who had smuggled them out of the factory in China and into the US. As trite as it may seem, what made Beanie Babies so enticing was their red ty tags. Many sellers tried to make knock-off brands of bean-bag stuffed animals, even placing a tag with the knockoff brand's logo on it; but their beanies never had that ty tag of legitimacy--the "real McCoy" ty insignia. Most hilariously, because some Beanie Babies were counterfeited, the rare, most expensive ones today need to be "authenticated." In all fairness though, Beanie Babies were thoughtfully designed, with lamb beanies having a woolly texture, and lions and horses having manes.

Beanie Babies were quite a fad, but not nearly as hard-hitting or as multifaceted as Pokémon.

"I've never seen anything like Pokémon" says one hobby shop owner.

Pokémon originated in Japan and then spread to America, becoming popular in 98/99.

The Cards. I remember that during the cards' high point, the much-coveted holographic Charizard sold for almost $100 bucks. Those silly cards kept many a fledgling hobby store alive through the end of the millennium. Moreover, stores that were once obscure to the adolescent mind, such as a floral shop, could instantly become important if its owner had Pokemon cards for sale.

"I had nightmares from opening all those packages", says one dealer. "I went up to a wholesale show, gave $5,000 to each of my associates, and told them to spend it all. Afterward we drove straight to the shop, non-stop across the highways; we had thousands of dollars of merchandise in the car during a huge buying craze" said he. That merchandise was precious back then.

If a collector had a bountiful collection of Pokémon cards, he could impress his friends, but more importantly, he could impress himself. Maybe the cards' main appeal was that somebody really could "catch 'em all" (if his parents were willing to fork over the cash).

Perhaps the young collector enjoyed the thrill of possibly drawing a good card from a pack, or perhaps he hoped that one day, after his collection was complete, he could dominate in a Pokémon tournament (if he could ever find a local one).

Today, a holographic Charizard card is worth beans--about $7 to be exact. However, as some slightly hideous youtube videos* reveal, Pokemon cards are alive and well among small pockets of individuals. There have been introduced countless new series of Pocket Monsters and their respective card decks since Pokémon's overall decline, and I believe there are still even some tournaments held in obscure locations in the US.

Before there were Pokémon cards, the Burger King kids' meals, various figurines, and multitudes of other merchandise, Pokémon was a Gameboy video game, and probably one of the most addictive ever made. Red version, Blue version, yellow, etc; like any game in which the player has both freedom of choice and a sense of progression through the game, Pokémon on Gameboy became an adolescent boy's crack cocaine, and his escape from a mundane reality of school, etc.

In the modern world of 98/99, which often entailed boring, difficult, and sometimes effeminate schoolwork, Pokémon was a simple and instantly gratifying way to achieve a sense of accomplishment. But Poké video games got old fast, and although new versions of them still straggle on today, the great flame of their popularity has died down to a small ember. As fast as Poké fever spread, it fizzled out. By the debut of the Pokémon movie in the end of '99, it had already become old.

So, how long will Silly Bands last? They've got an unspeakably wide appeal: everyone from little tykes to high school students crave them. As unlikely as it may seem, silly bands will one day go the way of their predecessor fads, and perhaps end up as a point of reminiscence on some obscure blog as well...

All the aforementioned products are different, yet all have that something which catapulted them to the uppermost recesses of consumers' desires. Although in retrospect one might explain rather simply how they got to be so popular by, for instance, describing their marketing techniques and specific qualities, these fads were mystically alluring in their day; and they created whole new worlds for people to live in.

What really makes them mysterious is this: What if you asked someone before pogs hit if he could ever imagine the cardboard things in bottle caps becoming a marketing sensation? What about stuffed animals each having a red heart-shaped tag and selling for up to $50 and over? Or imaginary creatures that could be stored in palmable red and white balls called pocket monsters? How about rubber bands that come in the shape of a dinosaurs and just about anything else that sell for $3 a small pack? If you brought up any of these things to someone before they hit, he'd say you were crazy.

That's what makes the fads mysterious.

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