Tuesday, June 29, 2004


I have always been fascinated by fads. Indeed, to me they seem to defy explanation, even though sociologists have developed various theories regarding collective behaviour over the past century. Gustav Le Bon put forth what is known as the contagion theory around the turn of the twentieth century to explain the behaviour of crowds.. Le Bon theorised that the anonymity of being in a crowd gave individuals a sense of power. He also theorised that ideas or concepts can spread through a group of people, from one individual to another, like a contagious virus. Finally, he thought that individuals become more susceptible in crowds, so that they are more likely to accept the suggestions of a speaker or leader. It seems to me that contagion theory is inadequate to explain fads. First, Le Bon's theory applies to crowds, large groups of people, while fads are spread amongst individuals. Second, most viruses begin with one person who has contracted a virus--Patient Zero. While I have little doubt that many fads begin this way, others do not. Millions of people watched the Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland in the Fifties and the TV series Batman in the Sixties. In both cases, millions of people took to both of these fads at once. There was no Patient Zero.

Another theory of collective behaviour is convergence theory, set forth by psychologist Gordon Allport. Allport theorised that being in a crowd alone does not create strange behaviour, but rather certain sorts of crowds attracts certain sorts of people, resulting in the behaviour to which such individuals are inclined. The problem with Allport's theory is that it while it might explain the behaviour of people at a pro-life rally or a rock concert, it does not explain why diverse individuals might take up the same fad.

Yet another theory of collective behaviour is Ralph Turner's emergent-norm theory. According to the emergent-norm theory, norms of behaviour (the expectations of how one should behave) emerge within a group and become accepted as the foundations for the behaviour of the crowd. Again, while the emergent-norm theory might explain the behaviour of a crowd at a county fair or a political rally, it does not explain the behaviour of individuals caught up in a fad. Again, how did the Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland or Batman emerge as norms? For that matter, if they had emerged as norms, why did both crazes eventually fade away?

I'm not sure that any single theory can explain why fads happen. I am not even sure that there is a rational explanation as to why fads happen. Regardless, they do interest me a good deal. I suppose the classic example of a fad occurred even before I was born. In 1958, not long after Wham-O had introduced the product, the Hula-Hoop had become a veritable craze. One hundred million were sold. Amazingly, the fad lasted less than a year and faded nearly as swiftly as it had began. I remember the Hula-Hoop my sister owned quite well. My brother and I "inherited" it. It was a yellow colour, although it had faded with age. Still, it was rather fun.

The earliest fad I can remember centred on another Wham-O product, the Super Ball. The Super Ball was a ball created by placing synthetic rubber under thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch. The result was an extremely resilient ball that could be bounced over rooftops. Introduced in the summer of 1965, seven million Super Balls had been sold by Christmas. The Super Ball fad lasted longer than the Hula-Hoop fad. It did not end until late in 1966. It was at that point that I can remember seeing the Super Ball advertised on TV. Of course, I wanted one. And eventually I got one, as did my brother. The extremely resilient Super Ball was fun.

From roughly the same era, I can also remember when Batmania swept the nation. The TV series Batman was a smash hit and soon Batman products were everywhere. I remember looking through the Sears catalogue at several pages of nothing but Bat-merchandise. Unfortunately, the TV show's success did not last. Debuting in January 1966, it was gone by March 1968.

A fad I remember from 1970 were Clackers. This was a toy consisting of two balls connected by a string, which was in turn connected to a ring. By placing one's finger in the ring and moving it up and down, one could get the balls to clacking. I remember that in second grade Clackers were extremely popular. They were also swiftly banned from school. I cannot recall what the Clacker balls were made of, but it seems to me that it was probably hard plastic (I am tempted to say glass, but somehow that doesn't sound right). Whatever they were made of, the balls would sometimes shatter. This sometimes resulted in eye injuries. As a result, in 1971 Clackers were yanked from store shelves. Naturally, this ended the fad.

Another fad I remember well are the smiley face buttons that took the nation by storm in 1971. The origins of the smiley face are obscure, but most accounts I have read credit it to a man named Harvey Ball. Harvey Ball was a graphic artist for State Mutual Insurance Company. In 1963 he was assigned the task of creating a smile button to boost company morale. For his work, Ball was only paid $45. Years later, in 1970, N. G. Slater Corporation started making buttons with the smiley image that Ball had created. By 1971 the smiley buttons had become an outright craze. At the height of their popularity in 1971, 50 million were sold. Of course, unlike other fads, the smiley face has persisted throughout the years.

Two of the strangest fads I have ever seen came about when I was 13. One was the mood ring. The mood ring was a ring which could supposed reflect one's mood through changes in the colour of its stone. The mood ring's stone was actually heat-sensitive liquid crystal; hence, the ring's stone changed with one's body temperature. Mood rings were hot items for much of 1975, but faded from view by 1977. An even stranger fad, perhaps the strangest fad of all time (discounting flag pole sitting), was the pet rock. The pet rock was a rock sold in a package, complete with an owner's manual. Pet rocks were introduced in August. In October Newsweek did a story on the pet rock, after which the fad picked up even more steam After Christmas, however, the popularity of the pet rock fell like, well, a rock. One of the most bizarre fads was over in under six months.

Of course, there have been many more fads throughout the years. Since I was born, slot cars, black lights, puka shells, CB radios, Hackey Sack, Koosh balls, and Pokemon have all come and gone in popularity. And I can't say I haven't been caught up in any fads myself. I owned a Super Ball as a child. Batmania caused me to become a lifelong Batman fan. I even owned a smiley button (7 year olds have little in the way of tastes). On the other hand, there are fads which I have passed up. Even as 13 year old I could not understand the appeal of Pet Rocks.

As I said earlier, I am not sure any one theory can explain each and every fad. In some cases, I think fads may be an effort to escape the stresses of the time--the TV show Batman became popular at a time of extreme social unrest. In other cases, I think it may just be a case of seeing another boy with a cool toy and wanting that toy for oneself--Johnny has a Super Ball, so I must have one too. In yet other cases, I think the best explanation may be mass insanity--Pet Rocks are a good argument for that. Regardless, I think fads will always overtake society at times.


richardsonlawyer said...

Hi- I had to respond to your description of clackers. My daughter was "clacking" with her ponytail holder with the little acrylic balls at each end, and it reminded me of my clackers that I had in the second grade. I remember how they smelled and what color they were. Definitely some kind of very hard cast acrylic. If you hit them really hard they would do a double clack, one below and one above, and sometimes your finger would get smashed. I didn't know anyone that had one shatter, but we were all disappointed when our mothers took them away. I went on Ebay to see if there was even a picture of one to show my daughter, but no such luck. Interesting research on fads. I have a background in art history and have studied art as fetish and commodification of the art object, there are some similarities, fad objects are the popular fetishes while art objects are obtainable by fewer people but equally prized.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I couldn't find any pictures of clackers when I did research for the article. Funny, because I remember them pretty well. I think they were some kind of hard acrylic from what I recall. I don't remember any shattering at our school, although I heard the rumours about it, of course.