Consumer Craziness

When it comes to consumer fads, the late 1990s have nothing on the 17th century.


Consumer fads have a long and not always glorious history. In the archetypal episode, the 17th century Dutch grew increasingly obsessed with a certain Eurasian bulb. “Tulipomania” was the ruin of many an esteemed Dutch family—a single bulb could fetch today’s equivalent of $25,000 to $50,000. Is it any wonder that people today will claw, cheat, and steal to own Beanie Baby dolls—$2.5 billion worth in 1997 alone—or go buck-wild for Sing & Snore Ernie? Some highlights from the consumer crazes of yore:


Must-have-or-else item The price we pay Consuming gets ugly
“Safety” bicycle, 1890s
(The prototype for today’s bicycle; replaced “velocipedes,” those bikes with huge front wheels and riders sporting bowler hats and muttonchops)
Bikes sold like hotcakes for $50-$150 (that’s $750-$2,250 in 1989 dollars). By 1895, 10 million Americans owned the newfangled bicycles. From a 1896 Scientific American: “Watchmakers and jewelers say they are nearly ruined…and the bookseller says people who are rushing about on wheels no longer buy anything…his business has become practically worthless.”
Hula Hoop, 1958
(Big round hollow tube of plastic)
At about $2 each ($15 in today’s dollars), hooping became the fad by which all other fads are now measured. It now sells for $4. Even the Indonesians went gaga over the Hula Hoop, but their government feared hoop-induced booty-shaking “might stimulate passion.” The solution? Indonesia banned the devilish device completely.
Star Wars Action Figures, 1978-1984
(Three-inch replicas of Princess Leia and Co.; made G.I. Joe and Barbie seem like dorks)
More than 100 million of the $3-$5 figures were sold between 1978-1984. Unable to satisfy the overwhelming demand for little Luke Skywalkers and Chewbaccas during the 1978 Christmas season, toymaker Kenner issued IOUs in place of actual toys. Millions of desperate parents eagerly bought up the paper promises.
Cabbage Patch Kids, 1983-present
(Dolls with faces reminiscent of a head of bok choy)
$25 stitched nylon dolls sold with “adoption” agreements. Doll hospitals became hip; sales peaked in 1985 at $600 million. A pregnant woman and a 75-year-old man were trampled in separate incidents by desperate shoppers frantically trying to get their hands on the dwindling supply of dolls.
Mazda Miata, 1989
(Launched as the toy of cars; reminiscent of a 1960s MG)
With a $13,800 base price, first-year sales equaled 20,000 cars in the U.S. Yoshi Taura, president of Mazda Motors told the Chicago Tribune in 1989: “Of our 844 dealers, most are conducting business honestly but a limited few are gouging by $5,000, $8,000, and even $10,000.”
Tickle Me Elmo, 1996
(“Sesame Street”-inspired plush toy; laughs like Chuckie from Child’s Play)
At $28 a doll, sales were projected at 400,000 units for the 1996 holiday season; Elmo eclipsed 1 million, giggling all the way. In New Brunswick, Canada, a Wal-Mart employee was run over by throng of 300 people who had assembled in the early morning hours to snatch one of the store’s 49 Elmos. The employee had been trying to place one of the dolls on a shelf.
Sing & Snore Ernie, 1997
(Mass-marketed Muppet whose stomach rises and falls as he snores)
Frantic shoppers snap up Tyco’s 1.2 million Ernies by early December at $28 a pop. Internet and classified bidding wars erupt, fetching $50 to $500 for this “black market Muppet.” Last week a morning radio DJ auctioned off an Ernie for $2,000—to support the San Francicso Firefighters Toy Program.