To Have and to Have Snot: A History of Madballs

Steven Leung via Flickr
Steven Leung via Flickr

When art school dropout Ralph Shaffer was hired by American Greetings to illustrate greeting cards in 1964, the 23-year-old was tasked with depicting delicate flower petals and hopping bunny rabbits. Every now and then, presumably to break the monotony of sentimentality, Shaffer would draw the rabbits being hung by a noose.

These morbid doodles didn’t make it to store shelves. Rather than offer him psychological counseling, the company decided to redirect his energies toward an eccentric squad of talent dubbed Those Characters From Cleveland. The company subdivision was responsible for creating intellectual property like the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake. In the 1980s, it was also charged with designing a line of toys that parents would find appalling and boys would find irresistible: Madballs. By the end of 1986, more than 10 million of the decapitated grotesqueries would be sold.

Those numbers weren't surprising to anyone who had done a little market research. One of the few guarantees in the volatile toy industry is that boys love to be repulsed. Beginning with Slime in the 1970s—a gooey green gel that resembled infected snot—kids could always be relied upon to embrace things that would make most adults heave.

In 1985, Topps released the Garbage Pail Kids series of trading cards, a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids featuring revolting characters. Their immediate success was noticed by American Greetings, which had cornered the cute market with Care Bears but had never tried to appeal to booger-loving boys on the other side of the toy aisle. Sensing an opportunity, Shaffer, artist James Groman, and the rest of the think tank conceived of a line of squishy rubber balls with ghastly faces and names like Slobulus, Deathbreath, and Swine Sucker. Instead of a two-dimensional illustration on a playing card, kids would have a tangible object to torment their parents with.

Madballs debuted in February 1986 with a retail price of $3.99 apiece. The balls flew off shelves, emptying displays at Toys"R"Us and capturing newspaper headlines that attempted to rationalize such purchases by asking psychologists why protruding eyeballs were a selling point.

“Children find gross toys fun because that’s sort of where they are developmentally,” Brenda Baker, a psychologist based in Michigan, told The Morning Call in 1987. “These toys aren’t gross to them. They’re fun and funny.”

Because of their irregular shape, Madballs didn’t offer much in the way of actual bouncing. Instead, they were collected and displayed like morbid little trophies or used to antagonize siblings and adults. One boy, 7-year-old Chris Herter of Detroit, told The Morning Call he enjoyed rolling them down the laundry chute of his house. His mother, Libby, referred to the spheres as “gawd-awful.”

Although the toys were popular, they weren’t always welcome. Several schools prohibited them from being taken into classrooms because they were a distraction. One Madball, dubbed “Crack Head” for having a fractured skull, was renamed “Bash Brain” due to concerns people might think the company was poking fun at the drug epidemic burdening communities.

By September 1986, AmToy—the division of American Greetings that made these playthings—had successfully expanded Madballs into licensing, including Trapper Keeper folders. Bright Ideas, Inc. said Madballs outsold their Miami Vice products when it came to educational supplies. Direct-to-video cartoons, comics, and other ancillary merchandising followed. AmToy even released a line of action figures: When squeezed, their heads would spring into the air. AmToy also conceived a line of Blurp Balls that would spew a projectile when triggered. Among the characters: Up-Chuck Yeager.

An assortment of Madballs, still in the package
freeshippingtack, eBay

Madballs remained a popular seller through 1988, at which point children began to tire of sculpted vomit and decaying plastic heads. The line fizzled out, and remained largely dormant until a 2006 revival by Art Asylum, a licensee heavily into pop culture nostalgia. Dubbed Sickballs, the revitalized line attempted to compound the ick factor by having bodily fluids ooze out of orifices when the balls were squeezed.

Since then, Madballs have undergone a series of relaunches. Just Play releases grab bags of the characters at regular intervals, and KidRobot recently issued a line of Madballs designed after horror movie icons like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. Gross-out nostalgia is alive, well, and still drooling.

Slap Happy: The Slap Bracelet Phenomenon of 1990

Slap Wraps bracelets swept the nation in the fall of 1990.
Slap Wraps bracelets swept the nation in the fall of 1990.
Yvonne Hemsey, Getty Images

In the fall of 1990, as elementary schools around the country were still reeling from the great Bart Simpson T-shirt ban of the previous academic year, teachers and administrators were confronted with another distracting fad. As instructors wrote on blackboards and admonished students to open books, they were frustrated by a steady percussion of steel slapping against skin. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

The noise echoed throughout homerooms and school cafeterias, playgrounds and bus trips. Millions of kids had discovered Slap Wraps, the brand name for a 9-inch piece of stainless steel covered in decorative fabric that enveloped the user's wrist with one quick motion. Part toy and part fashion statement, kids found them irresistible. Educators, meanwhile, found them intolerable. Some schools banned them, but not solely due to distraction—knock-offs bracelets had sharp edges and cheap fabric that left some students in literal stitches.

 

Slap Wraps were the invention of Stuart Anders, a Fort Prairie, Wisconsin, native who graduated from college with a degree in education in 1983. Teaching jobs were hard to come by at the time, so Anders took on substitute positions and coached sports.

Sitting down at his mother’s sewing table one day, Anders pulled out a self-rolling tape measure, which curled up with the flick of his wrist, and began fidgeting with it. He thought it would make a cool bracelet, provided someone covered the steel in fabric.

He called the company who made the tape measure, but they were no longer manufacturing it. Anders didn’t know what else to do. While he thought the idea of a snap bracelet could be successful, he didn’t have the money or other resources to commit to producing them himself. But he kept the prototype on his steering wheel.

Later, he wound up enlisting in the National Guard, where he learned to fly helicopters. After that he moved to Florida and began working for a local apparel company. The bracelet had never left his truck.

One day, Anders ran into a man named Philip Bart, who just happened to be an agent for toy designers. Anders, who couldn’t quite believe his luck, ran outside to fetch the bracelet. He clamped it around Bart’s wrist. Thwack.

Bart was sold. Now he just needed to sell someone else.

Bart approached all the big toy companies with the slap bracelet idea, but they rebuffed him. The reason? They weren't interested in investing time and money in a product that amounted to little more than a trinket that would have a low retail price. But Bart found a receptive audience in Eugene Murtha, who had just opened Main Street Toy Company in Simsbury, Connecticut, in 1988. Murtha, a former vice president of Coleco during that company’s Cabbage Patch Kid craze, immediately saw the potential in Anders's invention. He agreed to distribute Slap Wraps, paying Bart and Anders royalties.

Bart and Anders rushed to make prototype bracelets in time for 1990's American International Toy Fair in New York City. The bracelets were the talk of the trade show, and Murtha secured a 250,000-unit order from KB Toys. But there were issues: Murtha appeared ill-equipped to handle the manufacturing end, leaving Bart to start up Main Street Industries and produce the bracelets, which he would then turn around and sell to Main Street Toy Company. It was not a smooth process, as the thickness and quality of the rounded-edge steel had to be adjusted from 0.004 inches to 0.006 inches to ensure the steel wouldn’t protrude from the double-knit fabric, which meant that producing the bracelets took longer than expected. Murtha anticipated a shipment that April, but the Slap Wraps weren’t ready until the summer of 1990.

In the interim, Bart was annoyed that Murtha had permitted some of the prototypes to escape his grasp at Toy Fair, allowing for a rash of knock-offs to appear on store shelves before the Slap Wraps were even released. These versions typically used carbon steel, which rusted easily, and lower-quality fabric, which allowed the steel to become exposed and created opportunity for injury.

Those dangers weren’t understood until Slap Wraps and their Taiwan-produced counterparts began taking off in the fall. Popularized by word-of-mouth, kids scooped up the bracelets and proceeded to turn them into a school fad, slapping the neon-colored accessories against themselves all day long. The New York Times described them as “a Venetian blind with an attitude.”

The disruptiveness of the bracelets (both the noise and the fact that kids were playing while they were supposed to be listening) and the reports of injury—4-year-old Nicole Tomaso of Wallingford, Connecticut, cut her finger on one—led some schools to take action. The bracelets were banned at Colonial School and Siwanoy School in New York after a child was cut at West Orchard Elementary School in Chappaqua, New York. Lehigh Township Elementary School in Pennsylvania banned them on the grounds they were distracting. Steckel Elementary School in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, instituted a no-bracelet-slapping rule. Others asked teachers to inspect the bracelets for frayed edges. A recall of the foreign versions was implemented in Connecticut by the state’s Department of Consumer Protection. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission advised parents to inspect the bracelets for frayed edges.

The controversy bothered Murtha, who repeatedly told press that the injuries were the result of the cheap imports, not the brand-name Slap Wraps. Although Main Street Toy Company had moved 1 million of the bracelets for $2.50 each in just three months and had orders for 5 million more, it was estimated that 10 to 15 million counterfeit versions had been sold, some for as little as $.70 each.

 

As the fad began to flame out toward the end of 1990, Bart and Murtha started finger-pointing. Bart criticized Murtha for allowing the bracelets to be taken at Toy Fair, which led to the rash of knock-off products. Bart believed that had Murtha not been so careless, they could have made $25 million in sales instead of $4 million. He also claimed Murtha had gone to another manufacturer, leaving him with unsold inventory. Murtha countered that Bart had taken too long with production, missing spring delivery goals, and kept raising the price of the bracelets. Plans for slap ponytail bracelets and slap anklets fell by the wayside.

It got uglier. Bart and Anders had not received royalty payments from sales of the Slap Wraps, with both sides contending different interpretations of contracts that had been signed in 1990. Bart and Anders moved to terminate the licensing agreement. Murtha sued, and the legal dispute went to arbitration in 1991. While the arbitrator found fault with both parties, the net sum of money owed fell at the feet of Murtha, who was wrist-slapped for $751,309. Main Street Toy Company was all but insolvent, however, and no payment would be forthcoming. Bart contended he had lost $1 million in manufacturing costs and had 2.5 million Slap Wraps in a warehouse that would never sell, as kids had already moved on to the next thing.

Murtha went on to positions at Mattel and Gund and later reconciled with Anders, who had more success with inventing a tool socket holder he sold to Sears.

Different manufacturers have tackled the slap bracelet phenomenon over the years, but nagging safety problems still remain. In 2017, bracelets adorned with Troll dolls and packaged with a storybook were recalled due to a risk of laceration from exposed edges. So were bracelets made by Yumark Industries and sold at Target in 2018. For better or worse, Anders’s invention continues to leave a mark on pop culture.

Remembering Fingos, the Hybrid Cereal-Snack Disappointment of the '90s

General Mills was confident Fingos would be a cereal smash.
General Mills was confident Fingos would be a cereal smash.
Retro Stuff, YouTube

For practically as long as dry, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals have existed, people have been eating them out of the box or using them in alternative recipes like Rice Krispies Treats.

The problem was that not enough people were reaching for cereal at other hours of the day. According to research conducted by General Mills in the early 1990s, only 7 percent of those who purchased cereal ate it outside of the breakfast window. The company believed that if more consumers could be persuaded to snack on cereal throughout the day, then maybe General Mills could finally outpace the Kellogg Company as the most dominant cereal manufacturer on the market.

After years of research and development, General Mills introduced their secret weapon in 1993. It was called Fingos, a hexagon-shaped cereal that consumers were encouraged to eat with their hands.

The snack vs. cereal conundrum

Superficially, there was little about Fingos that made it any more of a snack than a cereal. The irregularly-shaped pieces—available in either a toasted honey nut or cinnamon flavor—had roughly the same nutritional and ingredient profile of typical lightly-sweetened cereals. Slightly larger than a corn flake but smaller than a potato chip, Fingos could wind up in milk just as easily as any other kind of cereal. The difference was that General Mills wanted buyers to eat it dry.

It was a “cereal made to eat with your fingers,” according to ad copy, part of a campaign that cost General Mills $34 million—making it one of the largest promotions ever for a cereal launch.

“We’re breaking the traditional bounds of advertising cereal because we’re trying to break the bounds of how people use cereal,” Barry Davis, then the marketing manager for General Mills’ Big G cereals, told The New York Times.

In pushing Fingos as a dry snack, the hope was that it could surmount a market trend of consumers skipping breakfast or opting for healthier foods like yogurt. General Mills felt that giving consumers permission to dive into the box the other 23-odd hours of the day would help offset early-morning avoidance of cereals.

invading the snack market

While breakfast may have been a problematic market, it was still a lucrative one. At the time, the dry cereal industry was worth $8 billion annually, with more than 210 cereals on shelves vying for the attention of 97 out of 100 households who purchased boxes for their pantries. If a new product could capture just 1 percent of that market share, it would still be an $80 million success story and likely enough to vault General Mills and its 29.5 market share over Kellogg, which owned 37 percent.

To increase the chances of Fingos taking off, General Mills designed a package that was wider on top to accommodate hands reaching inside. They also sold Fingos in single-serving packs in vending machines, a snack space typically reserved for potato chips and the like. The box itself featured a wide and smiling face that was animated for commercials, with voice actor Steve Mackall channeling Robin Williams as the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin.

“How wholesome am I?” the Fingos “spokes-box” asked. “Read my hips,” it said, aggressively shoving its nutritional information out at the viewer.

While Fingos was a modest 110 calories and 3 grams of fat per 1-ounce serving, General Mills opted not to market it as a healthy snack, as the market was already glutted with them. Instead, they felt the snack-cereal hybrid approach made Fingos stand out. In focus group testing, it seemed to work, too. Just 1 percent of respondents decided to pair it with milk.

Got milk?

But focus testing is one thing. The real world is another. When Fingos rolled out nationally beginning in the spring of 1993, consumers didn’t know what to make of it. If it was a snack, shouldn’t it have been located in the snack aisle? If it was a cereal, why try to compare it to chips?

Perhaps the most problematic component of Fingos was that consumers didn’t need permission to eat cereal dry and directly out of the box. That urge existed for practically every kind of cereal. Downplaying the appeal of Fingos in milk didn’t make it any more attractive as a snack.

Fingos bombed, eating its $34 million marketing budget whole and leaving only crumbs for General Mills, which had more or less abandoned the product by 1994. Fortunately, they had something else in the pipeline: Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs, a hit that still sells to this day under the shortened name of Reese's Puffs.

Fingos, incidentally, had an unfortunate translation when uttered in Hungarian. Fing means fart, lending the snack the label of farto should it ever be sold in that country.

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