FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Secret Lives of Fads

All trends are not created equal. In examining the recent Atkins diet phenomenon, Knowledge@Wharton dissects the nature of fads... and finds that there's much more to the latest craze than meets the eye.

Market researcher Ira Meyer has identified four distinct types of fads:

  • The "typical" fad, which is insanely popular but disappears completely within 18 months (the macarena, pet rocks, Live Strong rubber bracelets)

  • The "cyclical" fad that reappears in smaller form every few years

  • The "generational" fad that reappears every 15 years, appealing to a new audience (fashion trends, nostalgia movements)

  • The "fad-to-franchise," in which an initial craze becomes commercialized and, while not as popular as before, is permanently embedded in popular culture (entertainment icons such as Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and Star Wars)

To this list I'd propose a fifth: the "false" fad that's merely media and marketing hype.

Other variables in creating a fad are media interest, competition from cheaper knock-offs (Atkins controlled its name, but not low-carb foods in general), and even geography (fads starting on the US coasts spread much more quickly than those starting in the heartland).

A common characteristic of all fads is that there does not seem to be a logical driver behind them; they appear and disappear for no apparent reason. Meyer uses Atkins as an example of the fad-to-franchise, which is the most lucrative type of fad over the long term. The Atkins movement was supported by books, branded foods and other products, but it went belly-up nonetheless.

People abandon diet crazes when they don't deliver expected results, even if those expectations are unrealistic. But the Atkins emphasis on low-carb eating may have permanently altered the American diet by at least getting people to think about food in a different way. In other words, the business of making low-carb (and not always great-tasting) foods was weaker than the concept that watching what we eat is key to a healthier lifestyle.

Naturally, futurists strive to focus on long-term trends while disregarding fads. But because fads behave in unpredictable ways, understanding their nature (inasmuch as they can be understood) is a useful skill. Making fads even trickier to understand is how they are often misinterpreted and how they evolve/devolve over time. A celebrity who initially seems like the proverbial flash in the pan can become iconic (who in 1984 thought that Madonna would be part of music's old-school establishment in 2005?), while someone or something that seems like a harbinger of things to come vanishes almost overnight. In short, we don't understand fads because we're just beginning to understand group and swarm intelligence -- the true drivers of fads and social trends.