An interesting exploration into the study of fads and fashions came to us in “Notes on a Natural History of Fads,” from a 1957 issue of American Journal of Sociology, by Rolf Meyersohn and Elihu Katz. In their analysis of fads, they point to the birth of such elements in subcultures or minority groups. Once adopted by members of the majority, a fad begins a flow through the majority and remains a fad until the next fad comes along. It is impossible to boil down an entire article into two sentences, but that was my feeble attempt. The remainder of this post is my own response and examination.
I want to turn gears momentarily to marketing and offer up some definitions used today, more than 50 years after this article was first published. A fad is “unpredictable, short-lived, and without social, economic and political significance.” I will argue that the authors would agree with this modern definition. Where I believe the authors to be false, is the interchanging of the words fads and fashion. Fads are a type of fashion, those particularly “that come quickly into public view, are adopted with great zeal, peak early, and decline very fast.” Thus the authors’ use of pop music is a great example of fads, while the use of furniture in comparison is not. I dare say a majority of the article related to trends and not that of only fads.
Why fads are important to discuss in the realm of Mass Communication, specifically our course of Mass Media and Culture, is clear—fads come into popularity by a network or subculture. Audiences not intended initially for this ‘product’ are exposed to it, adopt it and through communication, grow the ‘product,’ or rather shape its popularity via mass communication. From word of mouth, to news stories, to advertisements and beyond, a fad peaks fast and dies just as quickly. The Firby might be a great example of this, or in the music industry, as the textbook suggests, the countless “one-hit-wonders” that appear and disappear in music today. An artist reaches the masses with a great song—the majority adopts it, and after they are done with it, if the other songs don’t reach or connect to them in the same way, the artist is “done.”
In marketing, we obviously prefer trends and not fads. The greatest example of this is Apple. We all know what MP3 players are, but the masses have adopted iPods. Thus, we are more apt to use “iPod” in language then we are to use the original product type vocabulary, “MP3 player.”
An interesting phrase used by the authors is, “virtually every other artifact is the professional job of all the media of communication.” Referring to everything from advice on clothing and furniture to tips on the stock market and “better living,” fads are likely to spread through being publicized from one group to the next. And the authors believe strongly that “group,” more often than not, refers to class. They think the rich get it first, news spreads to the lower class, and this lower class finds ways to have these products themselves—i.e. variations of the original or by “doing it themselves.”
While the ideas in this article have changed or morphed through time, the underlying principles and ideas remain the same; Fads begin in the subculture, grow with tastemakers and exporters, reach popularity through the flow, and begin to die or die out completely during feedback.
Here today, gone tomorrow.