9 Dumbest Fads Ever to Make Money

Consumer fads have evolved significantly over the years, from low-tech doodads of plastic and stone to the latest in digital technology. They share one constant, however: their utter boneheadedness

Fads. These markers of popular culture all seemed like good ideas at the time. Heck, some of us even fell prey to the tawdry charms of acid wash jeans. Over the decades, the world’s consumer crazes have ranged from the forgivable to the fanatical, along the way becoming icons of their generation.

Dan Rodick, a director with the company that brought us the hula hoop, said, “No other product gives me as much fear and respect for the power of mass culture as the hula hoop.”

What he meant was, it made money. Gobs of it.

These nine blips on our cultural radar may seem ludicrous now, but the only ones really laughing are their creators – all the way to the bank.

9. My Pet Rock

In 1975 the perfect pet was...a rock.
Photo credit: 1.bp.blogspot.com

SAY WHAT? You guessed it. In 1975 the perfect pet was…a rock.

DID IT MAKE MONEY? My Pet Rock sold for $3.95, and creator Gary Dahl unloaded more than five million of the igneous invertebrates in six months. He walked away with a cool $15 million.

HOW DUMB WAS IT? That depends on your appetite for absurdity. Dahl imported the rocks from Mexico, packaged them in a cardboard box that mimicked a pet carrier – complete with air holes and a bed of straw – and included a 32-page pet training manual with tips and tricks on how to train your new pet to “sit,” “stay,” and “attack.”

THE AFTERMATH: Popularity for the rock petered out after the 1975 Christmas season. In 2009, Martin Abrams bought the rights to the Pet Rock, but it never regained its original notoriety. Like a rock in the grass, though, the idea was waiting quietly for the digital age. (For the story of My Pet Rock’s reincarnation, see “Tamagotchi.”)

8. Tickle Me Elmo

Elmo. Photo credit: ortso.com
Photo credit: ortso.com

SAY WHAT? There was no escaping Elmomania. A cuddly children’s toy that giggled when squeezed, the little red whatever-he-is had North America firmly in his grasp in the run-up to Christmas 1996.

DID IT MAKE MONEY? Where a child’s love is at stake, there’s money to be made. The original retailed for $28.99, but limited supply and pangs of parental inadequacy drove up the price. Classified ads popped up across North America, asking hundreds of dollars for the must-have toy.

HOW DUMB WAS IT? For something fuzzy and lovable with an infectious giggle, Elmo inspired an impressive blood lust. Just ask Robert Waller, the New Brunswick Walmart clerk who was trampled by a crowd of 300 shoppers after being spotted stocking a shelf with a fresh box of the toys.

THE AFTERMATH: Waller suffered a pulled hamstring, broken rib and concussion, and injuries to his back, jaw, and knee. Elmo fared better. Strong sales persisted, and in 2006 the crimson hyena got a facelift and some new moves. Now called Tickle Me Elmo Extreme, he rolls around on the floor, laughing and banging his fist. Perhaps he’s as astounded as we at his continued good fortune.

7. Bottled Water

Bottled water. Photo credit: adverbox.com
Photo credit: adverbox.com

SAY WHAT? This is about as simple – and silly – as it gets. You give me money. I give you plain water, in a bottle. As a fad it hit its peak in North America in the summer of 2007.  By then, the right-thinking among us knew that the brand you carried said everything. Nestle Pure Life? The H20 equivalent of a knockoff Louis Vuitton. Fiji Water exhaled yoga; Perrier said “classy” in clipped tones; and everyone and her dog was drinking Evian (which is, significantly, “naïve” spelled backwards). Needless to say, being seen in public carrying Mountain Dew instead of mineral water was like wearing a sign that said “Ozarks or bust.”

DID IT MAKE MONEY? Ungodly amounts. According to Beverage World, Americans alone guzzled over 8.8 billion gallons of bottled water in 2007. That’s just over $11.1 billion dollars in wholesale revenues. WHOLEsale. The bottom line: Bottled water costs more than gasoline. And gasoline is the world’s number one commodity. And gasoline doesn’t come out of your tap.

HOW DUMB IS IT? Unless your nearest water source is the Mekong River, chances are your tap water is not only palatable, it tastes good, too. And if your bottled water brand of choice is Dasani, what you’re drinking is tap water. Prior to launching the brand in the US, in 1999, Coca-Cola opened its first bottling plant in Calgary, where it purified tap water. The beverage giant’s second plant? Brampton, Ontario.

THE AFTERMATH: Amid environmental concerns and a decline in consumer spending, demand for bottled water has backed off its all-time high. It’s not going away anytime soon, though. You could say the same about that gigantic patch of plastic garbage, twice the size of Texas, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

6. Jersey Shore

Jersey Shore TV show. Photo credit: movieline.com
Photo credit: movieline.com

SAY WHAT? Unless you’ve been off studying glacier-melt at the South Pole, you’re like us: caught in the cultural high beams of the MTV reality series Jersey Shore. The show, which premiered in December 2009, follows a scrum of Gotti-esque Italian-American kids (guidos and guidettes, in their proud lexicon) showing off, tanning, working out, and hooking up – with lots of punching and getting punched.

DID IT MAKE MONEY? Astoundingly, yes. Not only was Jersey Shore’s Season 3 premiere the most watched telecast in MTV history, the network is now swinging for the merchandising fence. Coming soon to a puffed-out and barbed-wire-tattooed (mental) adolescent near you: the official Jersey Shore soundtrack, quote book, T-shirt, bobble head, sports bottle…need I go on? The show’s “stars” command appearance fees, and Mike Sorrentino – the one who named his abs “the Situation” – reportedly made $6 million in 2010. Barack Obama made $400,000.

HOW DUMB IS IT? I’m confident it will soon be scientifically possible to measure how much dumber you get watching it. The show’s genius is its stupidity, however. Why? Because your jaw isn’t dropping at the gang’s yahoo antics. (The hooliganism is generic, after all.) Your jaw is dropping at yourself – for watching. Congratulations to MTV for creating the world’s first thoroughly postmodern cultural product. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s DJ Pauly D: “Being a guido’s a way of life. I don’t represent all Italians, I represent myself. I started this whole GTL (Gym, Tan, Laundry) sh*t. You have to stay fresh to dance.”

THE AFTERMATH: The third season of Jersey Shore premiered on January 6, 2011. Batten down the hatches; this weather system is getting bigger. For now, our only prayer is that the Shore-ites do something so outrageous that the FCC pulls the plug. Or perhaps a meteorite….

5. The Hula Hoop

Hula hoop. Photo credit: nerdcore.de
Photo credit: nerdcore.de

SAY WHAT? Sigh, the hula hoop. The perfect harmony of Hawaiian dance and…circles. Childhood buddies Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin got the idea of marketing the plastic “exercise hoops” in 1957.

DID IT MAKE MONEY? Oh, golly, yes. Wham-O, the California toy company, sold the plastic hoops for a whopping $1.98. In less than four months, they’d moved 25 million units. Two years later? More than 100 million units.

HOW DUMB WAS IT? Think for a moment about using a hula hoop. A not-at-all-pervy form of play that involves shaking your tender bits back and forth as quickly as possible.

THE AFTERMATH: In 2008, the hula hoop made an unexpected comeback, thanks to the Hollywood film The Wrestler. Marisa Tomei’s turn as a sexy exotic dancer got her – and her svelte physique – a lot of attention. Her exercise secret? Oh, some “hooping” now and then. Although Tomei now has her own line of instructional fitness videos (like Jane Fonda), we’re confident the hula hoop’s peak will stay back in the late 1950s (like Jane Fonda).

4. The Tamagotchi

The Tamagotchi. Photo credit: freewebs.com
Photo credit: freewebs.com

SAY WHAT? Who sneezed? Bless you. The Tamagotchi – first sold by the Japanese toymaker Bandai in 1996 – was an egg-shaped, handheld virtual pet that owners “fed” (by pushing buttons), “played with” (same), praised, punished, cared for, lost in couches, and crushed by accidental trampling. The Tamagotchi’s great innovation over the toys of its day? It had the good sense to die.

DID IT MAKE MONEY? Hai. The digital doodads retailed for about $20. Bandai sold over 70 million, and the toy sparked a craze that was anything but virtual. Countless versions of the creatures were released, along with video games, films, and an animated series.

HOW DUMB WAS IT? Perhaps foreshadowing the iPhone, Tamagotchi owners were happiest when they were at the beck and call of an annoying – and expensive – electronic pet. A Tamagotchi couldn’t piss on your carpet, but if you failed to treat it properly, it got angry. People held Tamagotchi funerals and created Internet cemeteries. The toys were banned from schools, and parents worried that children were too focused on their pet’s needs, distracting them from…from…well, for God’s sake, anything else at all.

THE AFTERMATH: Interest in Tamagotchis cratered around 1998, and people moved on to the next closest thing to real pets – chihuahuas.

3. The Atkins Diet

The low-carb, high-protein Atkins diet. Image: thestreet.com
Photo credit: thestreet.com

SAY WHAT? Created by Robert Atkins, this low-carb, high-protein weight loss regime took diet-obsessed America by storm. Although Atkins’s first book was published in 1972, the craze reached its heyday in 2003, when one in 11 Americans was reportedly “on Atkins.”

DID IT MAKE MONEY? More like spawned its own economy. In 1998, American consumption of bacon and eggs (Atkins staples) reached a 10-year high, and pork rinds tripled their market share – to $496 million per year. Atkins Nutritionals Inc. sold $100 million worth of “low-carb” products in one year.

HOW DUMB WAS IT? Exactly as dumb as a desperate, overweight population looking for a quick, super-delicious fix to a lifetime of overeating. Even if you accept the central premise – that a carb-poor, protein-rich diet will help you lose weight – the diet had serious flaws. Weight losses came primarily from water weight, said critics, and dieters were burning through body and heart muscle.

THE AFTERMATH: Dr. Atkins passed away in 2003 after an accidental fall on an icy sidewalk left him comatose. Rumours that the fall itself was caused by heart attack – Atkins had been hospitalized after a cardiac arrest in 2002 – plagued the empire his philosophy had built. Atkins Nutritionals filed for bankruptcy in August 2005.

2. The Snuggie

The snuggie. Photo credit: pretty.wordpress.com
Photo credit: pretty.wordpress.com

SAY WHAT? The Snuggie, which roared into our minds and hearts in 2008, is a body-length blanket with sleeves. Can’t get your head around the idea? Picture a group of smiling white people, sitting around a campfire, all with feathered bangs, all wearing bathrobes backwards. Do they belong to a cult, Mommy? Possibly, Virginia. The Snuggie spawned a host of imitators. My favourite? The Slanket, which makes a delightfully hurtful nickname for any ex dumb enough to give you a polyester blanket.

DID IT MAKE MONEY? Indeed it has. Publicity-wise, the high-profile mockings from Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jon Stewart can’t have hurt. To date, 20 million Snuggies have been sold. At $15 a pop. Are people buying it earnestly or ironically? To the Snuggie company – which appears to have banked on its own sucking as a viral marketing strategy – it’s a distinction without a difference.

HOW DUMB IS IT? Okay, just spitballing here… Hear me out – this could be my million dollar idea. What if we – you and I – made blankets out of the cheapest fabric known to man and then sold them at a gigantic markup? Who would buy it? Everyone. Why? One word: armholes.

THE AFTERMATH: Now available: Snuggie for Two, Snuggie for Dogs, Snuggie Outdoor, Snuggie Sherpa Style…. Once “the ultimate kitsch gift,” the Snuggie is now a living-room staple. And the first horseman of the apocalypse mounts up.

1. The iPhone

The iPhone. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

SAY WHAT? The iPhone is a line of Internet and multimedia-enabled smartphones designed and marketed by Cupertino’s Apple Inc. It launched in June of 2007.

DID IT MAKE MONEY? Oh, just a bit. Although Apple’s Mac computers and iPads have been selling respectably, the iPhone is the company’s workhorse. The device propelled Apple to its highest ever profits in Q4 2010: $6 billion, on $26.7 billion revenue.

Apple has sold more than 50 million iPhones. Now, four years on, the entry-level device retails for around $550. Do the math. Tack on sales of cases, bumpers, ear buds, and apps, and the iPhone is the goose that laid the golden egg.

HOW DUMB IS IT? Despite the problems that plagued the iPhone 4 – the “death grip” debacle, the dropped calls, the fact its battery can’t be replaced, the lack of support for Flash, the shatter-prone screen, the poor excuse for multitasking, the lack of storage, and the prohibitive price tag…sorry, what was the question?

Seriously, Steve Jobs’s sleight of hand with the iPhone may go down as the world’s all-time greatest con. To softheaded consumers he’s delivered a telephone that’s both massively bigger and more expensive than the generation it replaced. And what do you get for the expense and inconvenience? Angry Birds. And the light-saber app. Ooh, and the one that can tell you what song is playing on an IHOP intercom. Ooh, ooh, and the one that makes you sound like T-Pain. In other words, kiddie novelties that you use five or ten times, show everyone you know, then promptly forget. And the thing is again a mediocre phone that costs the earth.

Ask yourself: If the clerks in Apple stores are called geniuses, what are the customers?

THE AFTERMATH: Despite numerous complaints about performance of iPhone 4 on its release, the mooing herd descended on Apple stores across the U.S. In just three days, the device sold 1.7 million units. My advice: Get your ear tag and line up now for the iPhone 5.



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