FADS : They’re Silly and Unpredictable, and Californians Just Can’t Seem to Get Enough of Them

Times Staff Writer

Fads were the subject: Will Batmania sweep Los Angeles this summer? What will be the Hula Hoop of the ‘90s, the Pet Rock of the now generation? Ken Hakuta, a.k.a. “Dr. Fad,” the man who sold 225 million Wacky Wallwalkers, pondered the question for the briefest moment. “In Los Angeles,” he said, “the word fad is kind of redundant.”

Hakuta, who lives in Washington--very comfortably, having made $20 million on his 1983 super-fad, an eight-legged rubber crawly that crept down the wall, is sure of one thing:

The Strangeness in Los Angeles

“People in Los Angeles are more used to acting silly than other people. In California, you want to have the strangest thing, be doing the strangest thing. People admire that.”

It’s not that most fads originate in California, he observed, but California is “the great incubator of fads. Fads get hot in California. A good idea can come from Des Moines, but it’s not going to be anything there. Then it’ll hit Venice Beach or Westwood and go all around the country, back to Des Moines.”


Hot weather is prime fad weather, Hakuta observed--”in warm weather, people are sillier”--and this summer’s hottest fad just could be . . .

The skateboard.

The skateboard? “I think it’s going to get really, really hot, it’s going to become a really major league sport, with major prize money. And Los Angeles is a mecca of skateboarding. It’s a life-style sport. In a way, it’s like a video game, back and forth, back and forth. . . .”

But on the whole, said the author of “How to Create Your Own Fad and Make a Million Dollars”: “I’ve been very bored with a lot of other things I see. To tell you the truth, we’ve gone through a big dry spell of fads.”

Grazing and channeling, baby-on-board and Garfield-in-the-window notwithstanding.

Right now, concluded Hakuta, who hopes to shift his Fad Fair from the East Coast to Los Angeles this December, “it’s really pretty dull.”

It’s not that the crazy, creative people aren’t out there. It’s just that their ideas aren’t exactly the pogo sticks of tomorrow. Consider these, recently brought to “Dr. Fad,” who dispenses free wisdom to would-be entrepreneurs of the ridiculous:

A plaster of Paris sculpture called “The Hail Mary Pass,” depicting the Virgin Mary throwing the last-ditch pass made famous by quarterback Doug Flutie. Celebrity dirt (spaded up from the yards of Hollywood’s rich and famous). Packaged L.A. smog. Marbles, as in, “all your marbles.” A glow-in-the-dark toilet seat. A stick in the mud. Diet shampoo, for people with big egos. And the “Dobermask,” a Styrofoam mask to prop against your window or put on your cat so would-be intruders will think there’s a Doberman on duty.

What is a fad, and how does it start?

Chaytor Mason, a psychologist who is associate professor of human factors at USC, said: “The fad begins when we discover that there’s a facet of our personality which has previously been unexpressed or unexpressable. The fad provides the means, or the excuse.” Perfect examples, he said, are the vanity license plate and the bumper sticker.

“Fads are all about fantasy. At propitious times in life, many of us feel the same way. Consequently, when somebody does something that fits our fantasies and needs, we suddenly find it very exciting.”

A classic, he observed, is blue jeans, which caught on in the ‘60s as a symbol of rebellion but proved to have a staying power rare to fads and, indeed, came to be a symbol of conformity.

Fads, he believes, happen “pretty much by chance.” Still, Mason sees one common denominator among super-fads: “Many have some sexual basis. Sex is very important.” And so is price. Cheap is best. (Hakuta’s Wallwalker was a $2.50 retail item.)

Sometimes, nostalgia fuels a fad. Mason mused about the current fad for leather bomber jackets and suggested that “there has not been a war for quite a spell . . . a war which was considered an acceptable adventure.” Perhaps this fashion expression is a wish “to be part of something great, something dangerous,” he said, to re-live the fervor of World War II, a real war.

Californians’ current preoccupation with health and fitness has resulted in a food fad, what Mason sees as a perverse preoccupation with food: If it tastes bad, or has virtually no taste at all, it must be good for you. He sees it as a reversion to the “puritanical idea that if it hurts, it must be godly. I think we’ve begun to feel guilty about enjoyable things.” He noted that today “if you put ‘light’ on anything, probably including even water, you can sell it.”

Trendy Words

There are fads in language--including the contemporary preoccupation with words such as prioritize and interface and network. And there are fads in names, in pets, in alcoholic beverages. (Whatever happened to that all-American drink, rye whiskey?)

Pigs had their day, a fad spurred possibly by the appeal of the Muppets’ Miss Piggy. Other fads we have known and loved include: happy faces, Volkswagen stuffing, panty raids, flagpole sitting, mood rings, Earth shoes, Nehru jackets, E.T., Cabbage Patch Kids, Trivial Pursuit, Rubik’s Cube and Silly Putty. The late ‘70s brought us the tanning salon.

Now, as we edge toward the ‘90s, Mason is predicting “a whiteness fad,” given impetus by the skin cancer scare. At the same time, he said, black and other dark colors of clothing will be in vogue, as they contrast well with a pale skin, as will beauty marks, real or bogus.

But then, a fad is, by definition, a passing fancy, usually non-utilitarian, a marketplace meteor that soon fizzles. As Hakuta puts it, “If you come up with something that’s useless and promote it the right way, everybody will have to have it yesterday, even though they get up the next morning and wonder why they bought it.”

Mason goes so far as to place in the fad category several items that are neither jokes nor useless. “Fax machines,” he says, “I think that’s a fad. And car telephones.” Of the latter he says, “It’s a prestige thing, the fantasy that I can contact the world, I am universal, I can contact George Bush and tell him how to run the country. I look important if I’m sitting in traffic telephoning somebody.”

‘Die of Own Weight’

Have these items peaked? “I’d say probably a few more months and they will,” he says. “They’ll die of their own weight. People won’t reorder, or they’ll be lying around gathering dust.”

He’s hedging his bets, though, on Batmania, even with all the hype for “Batman,” which opened late last week in Los Angeles. “I think the fad might not go too far . . . totally masculine, isolated things have a limited fad life.”

Most would-be fads die quietly. The common wisdom, says Melanie Wallendorf, associate professor of marketing at University of Arizona and co-author of “Consumer Behavior,” is that 80% of new products fail. That figure is debatable, she says--it could be high or low--but it’s safe to say that a huge number flop, “which means that even the most sophisticated people don’t know what people will be fascinated with until it’s in front of them.

“Part of this is socially constructed. Children share with each other. ‘Ah, Jimmy has a new Batman yo-yo,’ then Sally wants one. . . .”

Sometimes, with a new product, timing is all-important. Wallendorf observes that when Procter and Gamble first introduced paper diapers, “they were a flop. What sort of mother would put a paper diaper on her child, especially those mothers in the 1950s?”

In the ‘60s, the disposable diaper was reintroduced, this time to a group of young mothers starting to flex feminist muscle. To them, Wallendorf observes, “using cloth diapers meant you were more home-centered.” That wasn’t for them. The disposable took off.

Economic times are not a predictable barometer of whether a fad will take hold. Said Wallendorf: “We could say, ‘Well, it’s only in good times people have money to spend on stuff like this.’ Maybe it’s in bad times people need a fantasy figure”--like Batman.

Valerie Folkes, a USC associate marketing professor, said: “If I could predict a fad, I wouldn’t need this job. It’s very hard to know what is going to capture the public’s imagination.”

What is known, she says, is that word of mouth is the most effective marketing tool, together with media exposure. A fad, she said, “almost feeds on itself, like the Cabbage Patch doll fad. When people saw people standing in line, grabbing (dolls), this reinforced their idea that it was a good product.”

Call Product ‘New’

One fair predictor of success for any new product is for it to have the word new attached to it. “A very powerful word,” Folkes observes. “Americans value things that are new.”

The staying power of a fad often is related to the age group of its target market. Take adolescents, she said--”ads blow through that group very quickly and die very quickly, sometimes greatly to the distress of the manufacturer.” She mentioned the once-ubiquitous Frye boot. “The company geared up, made a lot of the product and suddenly adolescents decided they weren’t interested in those boots anymore. . . . Sometimes companies don’t like that their products are fads” as demand can disappear overnight.

A lot of stores “really took a beating” on the Jennifer Beals “Flash Dance” look, ripped T-shirt and all, she said. “By the time they were able to stock that item, it was over with.”

Today’s tie-dye could be tomorrow’s puka shell necklace.

“Fads are born to die,” observes Hakuta. “In fad standard time, a day is a month, and a fad that lasts two months is a classic.”

But for those hoping to find the next Pet Rock, Tony Husch and Linda Foust, authors of “That’s a Great Idea!,” offer a few suggestions:

--Think of a new automobile gadget.

--Invent something specifically for commuters, to make those freeway hours more fun.

--Think of a sensational name.

--Forget about logic. They observe that, while most people like cola drinks and gelatin desserts, a cola-flavored gelatin didn’t gel with consumers.

“Consumers are unpredictable,” they say. “What conventional market research principles could have predicted that millions of people would buy plastic tubes to swing around their hips or little stickers to paste on everything?”

Sometimes the creator of a new fad gets left at the starting gate. Remember those Baby on Board signs, the brainchild of a Bostonian? “The guy who made all the money was the guy who made all those Mother-in-Law in Trunk, Ex-husband on Roof Rack signs,” Hakuta said. “That was done in California.”

For some fadsters, it’s just a matter of too little, too late. Hakuta is still scratching his head over the fellow from Detroit who called his fad hotline (1-800-USA-FADS) with a terrific idea: blinking turn signals for cars.

Hakuta himself is still searching for another Wacky Wallwalker. But he’s philosophical, as well as rich. He said, “Most people who have had big fads have turned out to be just like their products, one-shot deals.”

For those thinking ahead--way ahead--USC’s Mason is predicting: “If the Martians ever arrive on Earth, and if they are green, the first thing that’s going to happen is women will have green makeup. Women are good identifiers. They identify with the new, the exciting, the adventurous. Eventually, the men would get around to it.”