What is a fad?

A Fad is any form of collective behavior that develops within a culture, a generation or social group in which a group of people enthusiastically follow on impulse for a finite period — Wikipedia

Fads are collective behaviors that represent change that has a less consequential impact than other social change. Fads do not usually fundamentally transform society (Goode 1992) but are “an amusing mass involvement defined as of little or no consequence and in which involvement is brief” (Lofland 1985: 68).

Fads may be products (scooters, hula hoops, yo-yos), activities (streaking, raves), words or phrases (yo!, whatever, cool), or popular heroes (Harry Potter, Barbie).

Interestingly, fads provide a sense of unity among their participants and a sense of differentiation between participants and non participants. They usually represent a departure from the mainstream. Streaking on college campuses, for instance, was novel in its time.

Sometimes there is a negative judgment applied to fads. For example, piercing the face or other parts of the body is seen by some as morally reprehensible. More often, however, fad behavior is seen by all as harmless fun (see crazy fads of the 1950s Opens in new window).

Despite their seemingly idiosyncratic nature, even fads follow certain social norms. Streaking (to continue the example), was defined in the student subculture and by most school authorities as harmless fun, but its acceptability was confined to certain attitudes and certain locations on campus; for example, the nudity of streaking was considered nonsexual, and it was taboo to streak in classes when tests were being given (Aguiree et al. 1988).

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Fads are initially created within a small group that defines a particular product, phrase, or activity as meaningful and desirable to possess or to say. A latent period is followed by the breakout period, during which the product, phrase, or activity spreads to other groups via friendship or social networks and mass media. In this period, small groups take up the product, phrase, or activity and affirm it as something meaningful to take on (Goode 1992:356).

Commonly, commercial interests latch on to fads (or even create them) by mass-marketing the item and manipulating public demand. In the peaking period, the use of the new item is defined as a fad, and people enthusiastically adopt it.

The spread of a fad may depend on the success of commercial marketing (such as marketing popular film characters or baseball heroes through fast-food chains) or the spread may unintentionally result from the attempts of social control agents such as police or officials to regulate the activity. For example, on some campuses, school administrators saw streaking as intolerably deviant. Stiff sanctions sometimes led to confrontations, even riots (Aguirre et al. 1988).

Ironically, such penalties only seem to make the activity more appealing. In the decline period, the fad quickly fades (Miller 1985), no longer defined as meaningful or desirable. Participants looking back at their participation in a fad may be bewildered that they ever found it meaningful.

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