NEW YORK -- Kids have long known that a socially significant act is to kick a beer can down a street; that scientific research is throwing a pebble in a lake and watching the ripples; that great poetry is "Eeny, meeny, mo ..." Life is simple when you're little.
So it's no surprise that youngsters ranging from 6 to 14 years of age are deciding in droves that stupid little stickers called Wacky Packages fit into their wacky little worlds just fine. And big people are discovering the stupid little stickers fit into their wacky big worlds just fine -- because there's money in it.
A Wacky Pack is nothing if it's not cheap. Almost everywhere they sell for about a nickel. The pack includes a skinny slab of bubble gum and a piece of an ongoing puzzle. But most important, it contains two Wacky stickers (200 different creations so far) that are put-downs of commercial products designed to make kids chortle.
Samples: "Old Spit (for Old Spice) Cologne." Subline: "Ain't Worth A Scent." Or: "Dampers (for Pampers, the disposable diapers). Keeps baby wet and uncomfortable. Sure to rust your hampers." Or: "Head & Boulders (for Shoulders)." Subline: "For people with rocks in their heads." Hysterical, aren't they?
They are if you're one of the millions of little ones harassing store clerks from coast to coast. Since their introduction last March, they have popped up in town after city in an avalanche of small-fry adulation.
Predictably, no one knows why. Least of all the Topps Chewing Gum Inc., people who crank out assorted gumcard-candy items by the zillion (their famed baseball cards open their 23d season soon) to separate kids from nearly $40 million this year. "They're entertaining fun, humorous, satirical," bubbles Joel J. Shorin, Topps president. "They're great for sticking on blackboards and books and bikes. They're consumable and tradeable."
What he doesn't point to are probably the three main reasons for sales being blown all out of proportion to common sense: Wacky Packs don't mean anything, they aren't worth anything, and they're silly and foolish. In other words they're perfect for every child.
Ah, maybe their redeeming quality is that they are educational? "Heavens, no," says Shorin, who has been in this family business for years and likely cut his first cavities on Topps' Bazooka bubble gum. "If I say it's educational, parents buy it but the kids will have nothing to do with it. They you've got troubles."
A competitor says fads like this normally can be expected to last "six to eight weeks." So it is the marvel of the industry that Wacky Packs are about to celebrate their first anniversary -- with the release of the sixth series of 33 more Wacky Pack stickers. Sales are well, who knows? When the numbers and money come up, Shorn gets the stricken look of a man who has just seen his largest bubble pricked with a pin: "I'd just rather not talk about money. I don't want to give any aid and comfort to our already confused competitors." Whatever, sales are way up in the millions.
Distributors confirm confidentially that Topps peddles a box of Wacky Packs (48 individual packages) to them for $1.56, they in turn sell them to retailers for about $1.75, and retailers hit up the terribly eager kids for at least $2.40. Steve Kango, a candy buyer for Garber Brothers distributors in Randolph, Mass., estimates that his company has sold more than 1.1 million Wacky Packs in less than a year. This represents a retail take of some $55,000.
John Harper, 11, and a sixth-grader at Woodley Gardens School in Rockville, MD., explains: "Don't you see? They're funny." Like, one supposes, the Smith Sisters (instead of Brothers) cough drops, with the overline "Weird Chicks" and at the bottom of the package, "Feminine Cough Drops."
An East Coast drugstore reports it receives many calls from parents reserving entire boxes of Wacky Packs. In Nashville, a growing problem involves kids swiping the two stickers from a package -- and leaving the eventual purchaser with only the gum. That's a dreadful trick, for as even Shorin admits: "They're not buying the gum, they're buying the stickers." Stores across the country routinely put up signs saying "No Wacky Packs" to ward off the hordes of potential buyers.
Anne C. Worrall, a second-grade teacher at Nashville's Cockrill School, uses the Wacky Packs for reading instruction. "They are silly," she says, "but the kids love them, and it makes reading fun. And when reading becomes fun, that's the main thing." Other educators use the stickers to teach a serious bit of learning: Always read the labels. Still other teachers spend frustrating hours insisting the stickers be kept out of sight.
A Topps competitor, the Fleer Corp, of Philadelphia, recently plunged into the fickle jungle of youngster wants with its "Crazy Magazine Covers," very much a mimic of Wacky Packs. But Shorin goes chomping along, conscious of what he calls "good taste." It is rumored that he once refused to allow a play-off on Alpo Dog Food that would have had the catch line: "Made from less fortunate slower dogs."