Police in Los Angeles had a problem. Over the span of five months in late 1987, more than 40 vehicles had seen their windows smashed in. When officers arrived on the scene to take reports, they were surprised to find stereos, purses, and other valuables had been left behind.
In most cases, the only thing missing was a plush Garfield that was last seen hanging from one of the car windows.
The cheap toy, which was about six-and-a-half inches tall and used suction cups on the paws to adhere to the glass, retailed for roughly $20. A new side window might set the owner back $140.
"They’d be better off," detective Ken DeBie told the Associated Press, "if they stuck the cat on the outside of the car."
Debuting in 1978, Garfield’s destiny as a merchandising phenomenon was no accident. Creator Jim Davis was a former advertising agency employee who had very specific notions about what kind of comic strip character would be appealing to the same licensees who had made Charles Schulz a very rich man by marketing his Peanuts cast at retail.
Davis knew items bearing the likeness of Charlie Brown were outsold by Snoopy, who made bestsellers out of everything from sno-cone machines to telephones: Garfield was a direct response to cat owners who might have felt slighted by the lack of a feline hero on the comics page.
By 1981, Garfield’s lasagna-smeared face was a big enough licensing success for Davis to start Paws, Inc., a business devoted exclusively to sifting through the merchandising opportunities available. Although the syndicate owned those rights, Davis profited handsomely from them—and eventually had the capital to buy them outright in 1994 for an estimated $15 to $20 million.
In between, Davis had been struck with an idea for a product that promised to be significantly different than the T-shirts, posters, and calendars that were in wide circulation: the artist told mental_floss in 2014 that he took a plush Garfield and attached Velcro to his paws with the expectation people would be amused enough to hang him on their curtains.
When he got the prototype back, the factory had made an error and placed suction cups on instead. Davis wasn't too bothered; since they adhered well to glass, he assumed people might want to apply it to residential windows.
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"It came back as a mistake with suction cups," Davis said. "They didn’t understand the directions. So I stuck it on a window and said, 'If it’s still there in two days, we’ll approve this.' Well, they were good suction cups and we released it like that. It never occurred to me that people would put them on cars."
Davis assigned the license to Dakin, a veteran manufacturer of plush toys that once employed future Beanie Baby ringleader Ty Warner. When the toy—which was marketed as Garfield Stuck on You—debuted in mid-1987, consumers were in the middle of a car decorating frenzy, having scooped up everything from Baby on Board signs to fuzzy dice to opinionated bumper stickers. It was a practice that had started with hanging fake beaver tails from Model Ts in the 1920s.
Garfield was already a proven commodity, and the marriage of cat to car decoration was a gold mine. Dakin sold two million in the first year alone, making it the biggest success in the company's 30-year history. In a rare move for the plush industry, the company even produced a television commercial. For a time, it seemed like every other car on the road bore the character’s smirking expression.
Acknowledging a phenomenon, the media tried to identify what made the toy so pervasive. Speaking with The Santa Fe New Mexican, pop culture analyst Michael Marsden said that cars had become a mobile living room, with drivers wanting to express their identities with stickers and window decals. With his caustic sense of humor, Garfield could broadcast his owner’s sense of irreverence.
Naturally, copycats followed. Pee-wee Herman, ALF, and other '80s pop culture icons had suction cups glued to their hands. In one instance, a company marketing a line called Krushed Kats that appeared to be felines abandoned and mangled in trunks came under fire from humane societies for making a joke of cruelty to animals.
Dakin itself wasn’t immune to the hysteria, selling smaller Garfields for $7.97, marketing Odie, and trying to create their own proprietary passenger with Goro the Gorilla. None sold as well as the orange pioneer.
It wouldn’t last. With $50 million in sales, Garfield Stuck on You squeezed in just as the plush industry was about to go into hibernation before the Beanie Baby revival of the mid-1990s. In 1988, the category was down 44 percent at the wholesale level.
Dakin eventually merged with onetime rival Applause in 1991 and began to look for a licensed hit that could recapture Garfield’s success, but it would prove to be a hard act to follow. In 2004, Davis’s Paws, Inc. reported over $750 million in annual revenue. No other cartoon cat was going to move product like his.
1988 also marked the end of the crime spree that had confounded Southern California law enforcement. Arrested on an unrelated charge, a burglary suspect told police that some of his adolescent friends had taken to stealing the plush toys from cars in order to give them to their girlfriends as gifts. Dakin promised to send replacements to anyone who mailed in their copy of the burglary report.
The thieves also took two Sylvester the Cats.