In 1983 Switzerland’s two biggest watchmakers were on the verge of bankruptcy because of competition from cheap Japanese watches. The companies decided to merge, and they needed to come up with a big new idea…quick. Their idea: the Swatch (short for “second watch”)—a brightly colored, casual watch available in a variety of patterns to match the wearer’s outfits. Swatches weren’t cheap: They cost over $30, a lot for a plastic watch that you’ll have to throw away eventually (one of the “features” was that there were no serviceable parts). Still, they were a hit. Teenagers, many of whom wore two or more Swatches at once, bought over 3 million in the first two years and over 100 million by the end of the 1980s.
George Carter got the inspiration while watching Star Wars in 1977. It took him years to work out the technology, but in 1984, he opened Photon, a laser tag arcade in Dallas, Texas. Played in a futuristic, cavernous arena, Photon let players shoot light beams at each other while climbing on catwalks surrounded by smoke, lights, and sound effects. Receptors on the players’ chests recorded “hits”; three hits eliminated a player from the half-hour match. Laser tag became a local phenomenon, and soon Photon arenas sprang up all over the United States. They were riding high when a home version of their game hit stores in 1985. Then came the competition. Worlds of Wonder—the company responsible for the Teddy Ruxpin doll—released Lazer Tag, a rip-off of the Photon set that sold better than Photon. Nearly 20 other competitors followed… and they all flopped, except for Lazer Tag, which became the hot toy for Christmas 1986. Only problem: Worlds of Wonder couldn’t make Lazer Tag sets fast enough to keep up with demand.
By the time the company ramped up production, kids had moved on to the next thing. The fad was over, and Worlds of Wonder went bankrupt in 1988. The Photon chain closed in 1989.
GARBAGE PAIL KIDS
In the 1970s, the Topps Company made Wacky Packages, trading cards featuring takeoffs on well-known consumer products (example: “Boo-Hoo” and “Cap’n Crud” instead of Yoo-Hoo and Cap’n Crunch). In 1985 they hired comic-book artist Art Spiegel man to revive the series, and he came up with “Garbage Pail Kids,” a parody of the massively popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. Each card depicted a character doing something disgusting (Heavin’ Steven was a vomiting baby; Fryin’ Brian was a boy getting shocked in an electric chair). Topps liked the cards so much that they made it a separate line. They were gross, revolting…and a smash hit. Topps sold more than 200 million packs. But parents objected to the dark subject matter, and, because of the complaints, a planned cartoon series never aired and a 1987 movie bombed. When Coleco, makers of the Cabbage Patch Kids, sued Topps for copyright infringement in 1988, that slammed the lid on the garbage pail. By the time the two companies settled the suit later that year, sales had dwindled so low that the cards went out of print. (Fun fact: Art Spiegelman also wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel Maus.)
Based on a clip-on utility pouch worn by soldiers, fanny packs were first sold to the general public at camping-supply stores in the 1960s. By the early 1980s, they had caught on with Norwegian tourists, who wore them in the United States to keep their valuables safe (they thought America was full of pickpockets). The packs’ popularity grew until they were the fad of 1988—Adweek called the fanny pack “the hottest product of the year”—and the pouches were suddenly everywhere. There were $2 nylon packs with pictures of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on them for kids, Day-Glo packs for teenagers, and even $200-plus leather models. By the early 1990s, fanny packs, along with most other 1980s fashions, were passé. (But they remain popular with tourists.)
OTHER 1980s FADS:
Rubik’s Cube, the Walkman, Miami Vice, Chia Pets, Trivial Pursuit, leg warmers, Monchichis, calculator watches, acid-wash jeans, Max Headroom, the California Raisins, Pogo Balls, the Noid, Hulkamania, aviator shades, break dancing, He-Man, hair crimping, bare midriffs for men, Trapper Keepers, Lee Press-On Nails, jelly shoes, and Big League Chew.