Puka shells. Mood rings. Pet rocks. If you're of a certain age, you'll remember these fads that came and went faster than a streaker at the Oscars. But Wacky Packages were not like other crazes. They were smart, fresh, and funny. And personally gave me the first whiffs of my interest in marketing and advertising. Most importantly, though, we can look back at this moment in pop culture and marvel at its relevance today. Same products. Different century. Just as spot-on and silly.
Modeled on baseball trading cards (which they outsold in 1974), Wacky Packages satirized popular consumer products with edgy and raunchy humor. Each package served up several cards, a puzzle piece with a series checklist on the back, along with a hard, sugary wafer of bubble gum that surely went in the trash bin.
Between 1967 and 1977, they were a hot commodity, with reprints and several new series released up to the present day, along with plenty of side merchandise, like minis, coffee table books, and much more. (Fun fact: Few people know that the first Garbage Pail Kid was a Wacky Package that was not published but modestly spawned an empire.)
Wacky Packages went way beyond the surface of baseball card designs. They were directed by some of the biggest names in underground graphic and comic design, including Jay Lynch ("Mad" and "Cracked"), the wonder team of Norm Saunders and Art Spiegelman (creators of "Maus"), and Bill Griffith ("Zippy the Pinhead," credited with the phrase, "Are we having fun yet?"). This was a truly creative venture taken seriously, for a seriously warped sense of humor.
Mini-masterpieces included classics like Plastered Peanuts with drunk-looking nuts. Kook-aid that "will drive you kooky" Minute Pre-Cooked Lice. You get the idea. Immature humor? You bet. Still comical? Yeah, that too.
Oh, and the lawsuits and ignored cease and desist—for Bran Chex, Chuck Wagon, and Pepsi. There was even a list of taboo products at a high probability of a lawsuit, but just as many were rammed through to publication with the high risk. On the other hand, there were many companies that wanted to be in the series and parodied, inquiring with Topps why they were excluded. Bottom-line: you haven't made it unless you've been made fun of in Wacky Packages.
"What made them great was the shock of true artistry of it," says Greg Grant, who runs WackyPackages.org, the most comprehensive collectors' resource you'll find anywhere. "It was almost not a choice, they were cool. They also have this ability to be a time machine."
"I have a collector's mentality, I collected comic books and sold them in 1980, before they went through the roof, and figured here's my chance to redeem myself," he says.
"In the 1990s, this hobby wasn't even on the radar, it was about as fringe as trading cards could be, but I had a feeling it was going somewhere big, it just needed more scholarship."
That's an understatement. The site spillith over with sub-pages galore on designs, collections, auctions (a recent sale of a 1973 complete collection went for almost $50K), extensive debates, comparisons of U.K. and U.S. designs, animation, scholarship awards, an extensive bibliography, even a phylogeny (yes I had to look that up). With no shortage of rivalry. The list goes on and on. What it lacks in highbrow design, it makes up for in the sheer volume (plus Wacky Packages would never go fancy, it goes against their whole ethos).
Looking through the site, I went back in time to age 12 when I took all 60something stickers from my series and plastered them on my bedroom door late one night. I ran excitedly to my parents' bedroom and flung open the door to tell them what I'd done. They weren't quite as thrilled as me. But I still proudly displayed them for several years for myself—smiling on my way in and out of my room—a reminder of my goofy sense of humor and who "got me."
What also resonates for me, in addition the laughs my friends and I got tearing open Wacky Packages, was that I was fascinated by the products: why they were chosen, if I liked what they did with the jokes and the design. Wacky Packages even influenced my writing, both as editor of my college feature magazine, writing an article about ridiculous claims of advertisers, and my blog, where I love to pile on or poke fun of advertisers and marketers. Of course, they're an easy mark.
Grant says that sadly, he used to think that even though the site has a large following of people in the Wacky Package universe,"the hobby was going to die with us." But then Topps revived Wacky Packages in 2004 and has been printing them ever since, creating new generations of fans who will grow up and seek out the originals.
For me, I will still hold the torch for those 1970s funnies--Crust toothpaste, Foolgers Coffee, Tushie Roll, with fond childhood memories and an inside smirk. But in case the end ever comes for the Wacky Packages fascination they'll still get the last laugh.