Why Marketing and Marketers Love Fads


Fads are fascinating. They pop-up, wildly peak, and rapidly become a memory. Fads are defined as, “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze.” Marketing has historically loved a craze because it enjoys significant awareness.

Social media has helped fuel fads and arguably shorten their shelf life. Fads are similar to habits or customs but less durable. They often result from an activity or behavior being perceived as emotionally popular or exciting within a peer group or being deemed “cool”.

Dance marathoners hoping for a sponsor's prize.

Dance marathoners hoping for a sponsor’s prize.

Nowadays they are promoted across social networks growing trial and converts to the fad. Think about the Ice Bucket Challenge and you will get the drift.

This ties to the bandwagon effect. This is a phenomenon where the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. Marketers love the notion of fads and bandwagons as they resemble interactive advertising campaigns. Marketers strive to create fresh fads and compel the bandwagon effect or they associate their brand with a fad currently underway to gain a halo effect.

Flagpole sitting brought to you by Heineken.

Millions and millions sold.

In the 1920’s, there was flagpole sitting and dance marathons. Companies sponsored these events because they received such amazing attention. Often they were covered live and for their entire duration over the radio. Believe it or not dance marathons still happen. College campuses stage them frequently. In 2011, nightclub manager Steve Stevens danced non-stop for 131 hours setting the new world record for the longest solo dance marathon (I wonder if the playlist included Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself?).

Flagpole sitting came from holy men and yogic practitioners who would mediate atop columns for years at a time. Then it became an endurance stunt and a contest. Pole-sitters would sit on a raised platform for extended periods of time to collect prizes. It is also hazardous work as Richard “Dixie” Blandy found out. From 1933 to 1963 Blandy claimed various records as champion at 77, 78 and 125 days until he died in 1974 when the pole on which he was sitting collapsed.

Getting to know your friends.

Sometimes products become wildly successful and are termed “fads”. The hula hoop took off in the late 1950s when it was successfully marketed by California’s Wham-O toy company. With giveaways and national marketing and retailing, 25 million plastic hoops were sold in less than four months, and in two years, sales reached more than 100 million units. Wham-O had similar but more gradual and sustained success with the Frisbee.

The 1950’s produced some strange fads. Two have faded away but for different reasons. The panty raid ran its course when 1960’s liberalism quashed the practice. Telephone booth stuffing is among the most bizarre. It was the simple practice of stuffing as many humans as possible into the small space. On March 20, 1959, students at the Durban, South Africa YMCA set the world record by somehow fitting in 25 people in a booth.

Fads come in all guises. Clothing, music, and dances can all be termed fads. Surf music peaked in the 1960’s, bellbottoms rocked the 70’s, and the Moonwalk dominated the 80’s. I owned both a Pet Rock and a mood ring in the 1970’s. The Pet Rock thing lasted just six months but sold 1.5 million of them at $4 a piece. I later found out that mood rings were targeted towards females but I could not resist.

How did this take off?

How did this take off?

The nexus of fad and product really took off in the 1980’s. Just consider this list: leg warmers, Air Jordan’s, Cabbage Patch Kids, Rubik’s Cube, Thighmasters, inline skates, Swatch watches, and the Walkman. The 1980’s also saw certain advertisements go meta thereby resembling a fad.

The California Raisins were originally created for a 1986 commercial on behalf of the California Raisin Advisory Board. They went onto star in an animated series and released four albums.

“Where’s the beef?” became a pop culture reference and was kept alive with a host of promotional items including bumper stickers, Frisbees (fad meets fad), clothing patches, and even a Milton Bradley game. It became so ubiquitous that the actual benefit to Wendy’s restaurants was questioned.

Answer: everywhere.

Answer: everywhere.

The 1990’s would not be outdone when it came to fads and profit. That decade introduced Beanie Babies, fanny packs, the George Foreman Grill, Pokemon, and Tickle Me Elmo. There are no notable activities that were deemed fads in this decade. It seems the 90’s were focused on commercialism.

The 2000’s saw a return to silly fads. Does anyone remember the cinnamon challenge? Swallowing a tablespoon of the stuff can be life threatening but that did not stop tens of thousands in trying it (and sharing the results on YouTube). Flashmobs were fun and brands soon took them over to promote their products. Free hugs sprung up. The painful practice of Sack Tapping became vogue and planking was a

Flash mobs became popular with brands.

Flash mobs became popular with brands.

huge hit. Undie runs did not go as far as 1970’s streaking but groups of people running in their underwear were popular. Speed dating too earned the “fad” description.

If you do not think fads and marketing are good pals then look to recent years. Cash Mobs are a fine example of a craze with commercial purpose. Chris Smith, a blogger and engineer, organized the first one at a wine shop in Buffalo, New York. He organized more than 100 people to purchase items from City Wine Merchant. Smith described the mobs as a “reverse Groupon” that are meant to make a “chance for business owners to begin building a longer-term relationship with customers”. Fine marketing indeed.


The dumb stuff continued with recent years producing Gallon Smashing that wasted a lot of milk when idiots would throw the jugs against the floor of a grocery store. Then there is Horsemaning, the act of posing for a photograph in such a way that the subject appears to have been beheaded (believe it or not but this was already a fad in the 1920’s). And how about “Beezin’”? This is the practice of applying Burt’s Bees brand lip balm, often menthol or peppermint flavored, to your eyelids. It causes stinging and claims to induce or heighten the sensation of being drunk or high. We humans are a curious and weird lot.

The Selfie Stick is one of the biggest selling accessories in history. While still popular, its sales have peaked and you see fewer people running about with these camera extensions. It seems to fit the description of a fad quite nicely.

Fads grab our attention, they invite us to give them a try, and then they rapidly wane. Instead of feeling empty as a result, we just move onto the next one. That is why fads and marketing are inextricably linked.


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