Wacky Packages article: New Jersey Sunday Star Ledger This article appeared in the New Jersey Sunday Star Ledger, May 20, 2001

Isn't it ironic?

A sensation in the '70s, irreverent Wacky Package stickers are among today's hottest collectibles

By Carrie Stetler
- star ledger staff -

If you were a kid in the mid-1970s, you spent your summers snickering over Ajerx, Blunderbread, Hostage Cupcakes and Pepto Dismal.

Wacky Package stickers, a childhood fad that raged through America from 1973 until 1976 parodied brand names with sophomoric humor and gross-out art. Teachers confiscated them. Parents hated them. They were Mad magazine in trading card form, an early glimmer of Generation X's irony addiction.

"The only reason I stopped collecting them was because the little convenience store in my town shut down," recalls Ernie De la Fuente, 35, of Rockaway Township. "I wasn't resourceful enough as a kid to realize that I should just go to another store. You're a little limited at that point in your life, you go wherever the bike can take you."

Now that De la Fuente's grown, he can collect them again. And he does -- with a vengance. De la Fuente has more than 1,000 of the stickers and other Wacky Package items, such as posters, iron-on patches and wall plaques.

The stickers, originally manufactured by the Topps Company, are one of the hottest collectibles on eBay, according to eBay spokesman Jim Griffith. Recently, original artwork on which the stickers were based was priced at more than $5,000, while rare stickers have sold for $750. There are dozens of Internet sites (including one designed by De la Fuente) devoted to Wacy Packages, even a chat room that meets on Delphi).

"Among trading cards, I can't think of anything that equals Wacky Packages," Griffith says.

But what separates the stickers -- one of Topps' most popular trading cards, outside of sports figures and the "Star Wars" series -- from other trendy items of '70s kitsch, like Cher dolls and Charlie's Angels lunch boxes?

Their greatest appeal, aside from the eye-popping graphics, is their subversive humor, fans say. At the height of Watergate-inspired cynicism, they poked fun at American consumerism and Madison Avenue advertising techniques. They occasionally mocked conservatives ("Commie Cleanser. Gets Rid of Reds, Pinkos, Hippies, Yippies and Flippies"), although hippies were a more frequent target ("Hipton Teabags. Gives You the Energy to Loaf, Hitchhike and Avoid Work").

A 1973 New York magazine article on Wacky Package mania called the stickers "revolutionary."

"They are, at a time when public belief in institutions is at an all-time low, seeding skepticism in its purest form ... with their put-downs of products that kids have thrown at them daily by TV and Mom," wrote journalist Owen Edwards. "From air-ball breakfast cereals to dishwashing detergents that make ladies beautiful, familiarity seems finally to be breeding contempt -- and a generation of gripers."

Bob Thompson, a professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University, calls the stickers "media criticism in a package, with bubble gum for a bonus."

Now 41, he claims he owes his career, in a large part, to Wacky Packages, which helped "peel back the layers of pretension."

"If you were 8, or 9 or 10 back then, you still pretty much grew up in a culture where authority figures were reigning," Thompson says. "These things were really emblematic of their times. They represent the transition of what was still a lingering notion of holding on to the idea of American childhood, as mythically represented in `Father Knows Best' and `The Brady Bunch,' to (the cynical attitude of ) `Married ... With Children' and `The Simpsons.' This is the bridge between that."

Today, of course, advertisers make fun of themselves in much the same way Wacky Packages did, says Thompson. A few months ago, even Mad magazine, its circulation a fraction of what it was at its peak in the 1970s, began running advertisements. Wacky Packages won the battle, but lost the war.

"All of a sudden, everyone's a wiseguy," says Thompson. "I call it the Chandler (of `Friends') Bing-ing of America. The kids I teach at schol, their rooms are filled with stuff they know better than to like -- Michael Bolton posters and lava lamps. The whole irony thing has gone way too far, it's impossible to find what anyone thinks."

A Wacky history

Wacky Packages first appeared in 1967. Vividly illustrated by comic book artists, including Art Spiegelman and Norm Saunders, who did the "Mars Attacks" series of science fiction cards popular in the 1960s, the stickers were part of Topps' line of parody cards, including a 1959 series called "funny valentines." (These had put-downs like, "You look like a million bucks ... green and wrinkled."

"A lot of things were coming together then," said Bill O'Conner, Topps vice-president of administration. "TV had been around for a few years, the whole rise of things visual. They were irreverent. The '60s were an irreverent time. It was natural."

The first Wackys were perforated, cut-out cards, like stamps, that could be moistened and would adhere to surfaces. But it wasn't until 1973, when Topps made them as peel-off stickers, that they became the Pokemons of their day.

Most companies parodied by Wacky had a good sense of humor, according to O'Conner. But not all of them were amused.

Paul Argyropoulos, a Clifton native and editor of "The Wacky Packages Gallery," a 128-page book on the stickers, says that while researching his book, he found evidence of several lawsuits.

"They had to go to court over Petley Fleabags (Tetley Teabags) when Topps re-issued them in 1982. Topps won," said Argyropolous, who now lives in Los Angeles and edits shows for the E network.

General Mills pressured Topps to pull "Toadal Cereal," Nestle objected to "Nastee's Crunch."

By the 1980s, though, companies didn't have to worry. The popularity of Wackys dwindled in the late 1970s, despite re-issues in 1979, and other original series in 1985 and 1991. The company hasn't made any since.

De la Fuente can see why. "By the 1980s, it was like, `So what? People ar emaking fun of Ajax.'"

"Kids have more choices in visual images today," O'Conner says. "The stuff that we do seems tame."

1970s redux

That hasn't interfered with Wacky's popularity as a collectible.

David Gross is an avid Wacky fan from New Brunswick, whose most prized possession is the original artwork for the Chef-Girl-Ar-Dee Feminist Spaghetti sticker. Despite an offer of $10,000, he refused to sell it. He has spent thousands on Wacky items, from key chains to T-shirts.

Gross, a graphic artist and owner of a company called Dave's Toys, which buys and sells used toys on eBay, has seen a surge of popularity in childhood artifacts from the 1970s.

According to Griffith, of eBay, a set of Hasbro Abba dolls is going for $800 these days, while a "Little House on the Prairie" lunch box can be had for $78. A mint-condition Kiss lunch box can fetch $153. (eBay, in fact, owes much of its popularity to a mid-1990s Pez dispenser frenzy, says Griffith.)

This kind of nostalgia is nothing new among adults, but the Internet makes it far easier to indulge, creating a rush for things like Wacky Packages, mirroring the fad's original boom. Most Wacky Packages fans, who obsessively search the Web for Wacky memorabilia, are in their 30s.

"When you're in your 30s, you've settled into your house and you start reflecting again. You have money to burn a little bit and now, with things like eBay, anything you had as a kid, you can have it again." Gross says.

Obscure items that have been out of circulation awhile are perfect fodder for this kind of nostalgia market, Thompson says.

"They are images that are not totally corrupted yet," Thompson says. "When I hear a song like `Yesterday,' because you hear it so much, I'm not transported back the 1960s, I'm transported back to my dental appointment. These are things that don't absolutely permeate the culture. It was what was on TV that didn't get syndicated, what was on the mid-level of the Billboard charts."

When such long-forgotten artifacts are unearthed from a parent's attics or an old childhood bed-room, they can produce a flood of strong memories, says Thompson.

"There's that physical mental feeling where memory clicks with the present image," he says. "That period of recognition ... is really transportional."

What makes them more valuable is that, unlike collectibles such as Beanie Babies, Wacky Packages were disposable. "They weren't meant to last, but they were a part of the fabric of your childhood says eBay's Griffith. "Kids weren't buying them to collect as valuable items. They bought them because they were funny."

"The only kids that filed them away were the meticulous types. The rest of us stuck them in our bicycle spokes."

De la Fuente envisions a time when the children of today grow up and suddenly get a hankering for a Pakachu toy. At collectible card trading shows, he's seen elderly card collectors still pursuing their childhood hobbies.

"There were these things called airplane stickers that appeal to men in teir 60s or 70s," De la Fuente says. "I look at them and think, is that going to be me, 30 years from now, still chasing down Wacky Packs?"

Wacky on the Web

Here are some of the many Wacky Package sticker sites now proliferating the Internet. Most are named for their creators. Be prepared for arcane references to "ludlows" (sticker variations) and "the Geurnsy pieces" (original art work auctioned off by Topps in 1989). Many have links to other sites, including those that encourage visitors to design their own, updated Wacky Packages.