Don't look now, but the pink peril is laying siege to the affluent society. Even as you read this, the all new Wacky Packages Series #3 is filtering from candy counters into wee wondering minds, and who knows when (and how) it will all end?
What are Wacky Packages?, you may well ask. Putting it simply - too simply in fact - they are a new twist on the classic bubble gum card, that hoary ruse created to sell the uneatable to the unbearable. They are also, in a time when polls show public belief in institutions at an all-time low, seedling skepticism in its purest form. If a stick-on bubble gum card can take an old faithful cereal like Cap'n Crunch, change it into Cap'n Crud, and become the Munchkin madness of the year, maybe somebody up there better take a long look at what's turning the kiddies on - and off.
In their minor art form, Wacky Packages are revolutionary. Gone are the jocks and rock stars, the traditional card ploys. Wacky Pack puns are the Mad magazine effect leaking sideways into the under-culture. Yet when they were tried out by the Topps Chewing Gum Company six years ago, under the guidance of former manager of product development Stan Hart (a regular contributor to Mad), they went nowhere. Now the times are obviously right. Watergatian Weltschmerz is nibbling the collective unconscious, and Wacky Packages are selling rampant with their put-downs of products that kids have had thrown at them and into them daily by TV and Mom. From air-ball breakfast cereals to dishwashing detergents that make ladies beautiful, familiarity seems finally to be breeding contempt - and a generation of gripers.
No one over fifteen who is not hopelessly odd, of course, can really figure what's going to make kids laugh, or why. To some grownups Wacky Packages are about as funny as molting budgies, residing on the humor map in a murky limbo between banana peels and knock-knock jokes. Even taking into account normal pre-teen vapidity and the unknowable tides of any fad, it's hard to believe that such criminally inane clinkers as "Kooloff's ALL-BRAIN - the Cereal That Goes to Your Head" and "Botch Tape - Stickiest in Town" could blow any micro-bopper's mind.
Yet Wacky Packages may be the biggest marketing coup of all for the slightly warped visionaries at Topps who are, they say, charged with "actively creating and introducing innovative new products designed to entertain children" - i.e., getting the little freaks to buy the stuff. Even Norman Liss, P.R. counsel for Topps and a veteran of some of history's hottest card campaigns, is moved to call Wacky Packages "the greatest of all great." P.R. directors are not stingy with hyperbole, but bear in mind that Liss is not talking about operatic sopranos.
Summer Sales (Series #2) were nothing short of explosive. At candy stores all over town and beyond I had but to mention the magic words and hide-bound kid haters would smile. One happy vendor told me that had averaged 100 nickel bags (one petrified fillet of gum, one to four Wacky Packages, and one series check list) every day of the summer. That's $5 a day on one brand of one kind of gum. He was waiting for Series #3 with an unseemly desire that gave him wrinkles and tics. Even in somnolent upstate Rhinebeck, where the kids are mostly middle-aged conservatives, a local candyman told me that for three terrible weeks he couldn't get deliveries and had to hide behind the dirty magazines whenever a kid came in.
Canny packaging must have a lot to do with what makes Wacky Packages go. Each of the three series so far has had only 33 cards, so that the little fidgeters can see the light at the end of the tunnel from the beginning. Or at least the illusion of light. Certain brands, like Brittle Pads, are rare (although Topps assured me they print the same number of every card), spurring frenzied trades and desperate overbuying. Even today there are major collectors who will trade you ten Hurts Pasty Tomatoes and a Blunder Bread for one Mutt's Juice.
On the flip side of the series check list is part of a poster-size picture of one Wacky, so the lists themselves form a separate collection.
But the ultimate coup de théâtre for Wacky Packages is that they peel off and stick to things like notebooks and lockers and refigerators. (Six years ago they were tried out on standard non-stick cardboard with no particular success.) They are the middle-class little kid's answer to subway graffiti. In an age of conspicuous ego-tripping a collector can put his achievements on public view, which beats the more bookish nature of jock and rock cards (where information on the opposite side must be kept available). Although several veteran traders I talked to indicated the trend now is away from ostentatious sticking and back to the older values of having valuable, complete collections safely tucked away, all of them admitted that in the old days the stick-on feature was a big draw. A fifth-grade teacher said with a wince that when school ended last spring it took half a day to get Series #1 off the desks.
The one thing no kid seems to buy Wacky Packages for is the gum - this may be the only product in the loony history of American capitalism that gets thrown away before the wrapper. Bubble gum is the marketing conundrum of the century, a baffling conceptual failure of monumental proportions. It is a theoretical miracle that somehow just can't put its manna where your mouth is. Imagine arriving from another planet and being told of a sweet, chewy substance that not only tranquilizes feverish young libidi but also can be blown into decorative bubbles of a delicate flamingo hue. You might expect that the inventor of such a wonder would be sainted by a grateful public.
But no. For once the old kill-joys were right to condemn mortal pleasure. In real life bubble gum is a disgusting pink blah that smells like lavatory deodorant, excavates fillings, and semipermanently seals your nostrils with its infamous backlash. In all but the feeblest of minds it produces instant boredom, and would have long ago gone to hula hoop heaven except for two things: the promise of nirvana with which it seduces each succeeding generation, and the brilliant concept that just because there is no desire or admiration for your product doesn't mean you can't get people to buy it.
No one has pushed this oral Edsel better than Topps. The Brooklyn-based company was founded in 1938 by four New York brothers named Shorin. From the first they were in the gum trade, sliding into the national mouth with a penny stick of straight gum and into the national psyche with a slogan pasted up in wartime factories: "Don't talk chum - chew Topps gum." Bubble gum bloomed with Bazooka, which has styed on to be the company's perennial best seller. One thousand full-time elves at Topps's Duryea, Pennsylvania factory grind out one-and-a-half-billion one-cent pieces of Bazooka every year, and they all get bought. The company, still managed by the sons of the founders, went public in 1972. Net income for fiscal '72-'73 was $1,731,000, up 46 per cent. You've come a long way, bubble.
Topps may have no equal this side of parking meters and the Processeans for devising ways to cadge small change. There was a series of Davy Crockett cards that rode the coonskin craze to glory, and a hot-selling Beatles collection. Topps's recent success with a Partridge Family prompted those maddening Osmonds to offer their bodies to competing bubblegummers with a fabulously redundant 66-card set. Hero athlete editions continue to exert such a steady, if seasonal, pull, that the Topps annual report proudly calls them "part of the American heritage."
But Wacky Packages are the Eldorado of card schemes. As feeble as many of them are, there seems to be more going down than meets the eye. Maybe their nutball put-downs can be read as the handwriting on the wall for hyper-consumerism. But maybe, as the mother of one heavy buyer suggested, they reflect a debunking attitude kids have picked up from the Watergate action. Joel Shorin, president of Topps, ascribes no such socio-cynical wisdom to the company or the kids. "This is pure fun," he insists, "a good, clean takeoff."
To get an idea how things may go from here on, I talked to Daniel Pinchbeck, a prominent seven-year-old collector who was in on the early days of the Wacky Packages movement in the city. Before we started he pumped me compulsively for two of the cards he needed to complete his second series. It so happened that I was short the same two and several others, a serious loss of face that put me at a disadvantage and tempted me to arm wrestle the kid.
I asked him what it was about Wackies that turned him on.
"They're funny and they're cheap," he said, and then added, "I think they're bringing out the truth about foods."
Hmmm. But doesn't it get expensive putting together each series? Isn't searching for the rare birds of the third set going to make it hard to afford his habit? Daniel laid down a long, world weary pause.
"I have $7," he said at last. "I don't think that will be a problem."
He mentioned someone he knows who sent in 45 original package ideas, but he doesn't think the Topps people want or need any help from kids. (If Wacky Packages go the 5,000 series, though, there's one poor sap who will have to buy them all just to make sure they don't rip off one of his ideas.)
Another collector named Jeff talked smugly about having "all the rare ones in the first two series," including triples of Brittle Pads (possibly security reasons kept him from giving his last name). But Jeff thinks the great days are over.
"I just don't like them that much any more. This year there aren't that many people collecting, so..." He shrugs.
I tell him that people had begun predicting the death of rock 'n' roll when Elvis went on the Ed Sullivan Show. He doesn't seem particularly struck by the analogy. Anyway, Jeff turns out to be nine - plainly a jaded age for city kids.
So now we've got Series #3 in its distinctive yellow wrapper. Thirty-three bad to mediocre new puns to send ripples through the wet cement of children's humor. It remains to be seen if the original devotees will keep shelling out or drop back and let a bunch of ambitious young punks take over the territory. Maybe it will even be Donny Osmond and the Partridges again.
A quick look at the new check list shows a trend toward slightly tougher stuff (Rice A Phony, Hawaiian Punks Juice, Snatch-A-Pack), a timid touch of politics (1-A Sauce), and inevitably, the snake taking a nibble at its own tail with a telling item called Foolball Bubble Gum.
Does this mean that the next series - now going to press - will go the route and give kids the big one, the ultimate Alfred E. Neuman hara-kiri number called Sappy Packages? Or are the wizards of Topps just cop-out artists like all the other grownups? The word out of Brooklyn is wait for #4... if you can.