Every few years a new toy inspires a childhood craze, and the speed that it spreads around the world is staggering. It takes just a few weeks to jump country to country, taking the entire world by storm. But why does a craze take hold, and how can it spread so quickly?
Toy crazes are no new thing. Back in the late 1950s children picked up the modern Hula Hoop (inspired by traditional Hula Hoops that have been around for hundreds of years) and have rarely stopped shaking their hips since. A simple re-design and an innovative marketing campaign pushed Yo-Yos into the spotlight during the 1960s, with their popularity coming back in playground-conquering waves ever since. And everyone had to have in a Rubik’s cube the 1980s, though it drove people nuts when they couldn’t solve the challenge.
It’s not easy to find reliable data about how quickly toys 30, 40, 50 years ago made their way across the globe. However, nowadays there is a reliable way of finding out when and where toys or anything else was most popular - looking at Google searches in Google Trends and Google Adwords.
Having observed the fascinating speed of Fidget Spinners taking the UK and Europe by storm, we researched on Google Trends and Google Adwords the dates when the most searches on Google were conducted country-by-country across Europe. We compared the Fidget Spinner data with the data of the similarly-hyped Rainbow Loom Bands back in 2014 to see if there was any pattern about the speed or direction of the craze.
Even though Rainbow Loom Bands and Fidget Spinners appear to be very different toys, they have a few things in common. Our research findings are based on Google Trends data as well as our online survey about toys crazes, conducted in July 2017.
If you’ve not had the pleasure of giving a Fidget Spinner a whirl (or the horror of having your child tug at your coat, on the verge of tears, begging to have one), here’s a quick recap: Fidget Spinners look like small, hand-held propellers. Each one has a certain number of paddles/blades, with three being the most popular number, and a ball-bearing in its centre With a gentle push - either pinching the middle hub or resting it on something - the fidget spinner begins to spin. It’s simple, uncomplicated design allows all manner of tricks. Originally claimed as a device to help children concentrate, they’ve quickly spread across the world as a must-have, filling playgrounds, homes and teachers’ drawers of confiscated items. If you Google the word spinner there’s even an interactive one you can click on to spin.
Their marketing as an aid for many issues, ranging from stress and ADHD to anxiety and autism, has resulted in only one study supporting the hypothesis that using a similar gadget helps some people to focus or de-stress. The study suggests that using stress balls helped pupils to increase their attention spans compared to other learners during direct instruction and independent practice. Their writing also showed some improvement. Fidget items do seem to fulfil a valuable purpose. Therapists recommend tactile only fidget gadgets for children like stress-balls which are less distracting and therefore more classroom-friendly.
Fidget Spinners, however, do require hand-eye-coordination which is often causing distraction as people have to take the eyes off what they have been doing before.
If you ask teachers, this is the main problem: playing with Fidget Spinners is distracting to lessons because pupils play with it and the ones who are not playing want to play with it. Most teachers do therefore welcome the ban from the classrooms in most schools.
In the work environment you might spot Fidget Spinners rotating on desks, or on the noses of grown adults (believe me, I’ve seen it). High-powered executives spend thousands on Fidget Spinners and use them deliberately for a certain amount of time to de-stress or wake-up. Famous brands have jumped onto the hype and offer exclusive and very expensive ‘high-speed’ Fidget Spinners like the ones Ronaldinho inexplicably sells on his website.
Fidget Spinners were originally invented in the USA by Catherine Hettinger, an American who coincidentally developed the first prototype with her daughter in the early 1990s. “It wasn’t really even prototyping, it was some semblance of something, she’d start playing with it in a different way, I’d repurpose it. We kind of co-invented it – she could spin it and I could spin it, and that’s how it was designed,” she told the Guardian in an interview. Hettinger held the patent for 8 years but couldn’t afford the $400 fee in 2005 to renew the patent of her ‘Spinning Toy’, as she called it. Even though she sold her invention and nearly broke even she has never been able to achieve commercial success, and doesn’t get anything from the millions of dollars now generated from selling Fidget Spinners globally.
Although Fidget Spinners have been marketed for years, it was only a couple of months ago that the popularity of Fidget Spinners increased dramatically. One factor which let to this is likely attributable to Social Media channels like YouTube where you can watch stunning tricks performed with Fidget Spinners. Searching ‘Fidget Spinners’ on YouTube gives you over 11 million results, plenty with millions and millions of views.
It’s no surprise that Fidget Spinners spread globally; they’re fun, addictive and quite affordable toys, with an incredible amount of shops and markets able to stock them. More surprising is the speed of growth, which we show on our interactive map. According to Google Trend, searches for Fidget Spinners spiked in most European Countries within 5 weeks. Only Belarus and Monaco were falling a bit behind.
There is no particular direction of travel observable on Google searches - the spread was just too quick. The peak search weeks seem to be randomly scattered across Europe. This fact prompted us to look for a second toy craze to compare our findings.
We investigated other historical toy crazes with Google Trends and found that Rainbow Loom Bands triggered a similar craze: within a few months Google searches for Rainbow Loom Bands spiked in most of the countries globally. This development was not a matter of weeks like with Fidget Spinners, but it took 10 months to spread across Europe.
Although Rainbow Loom Bands and Fidget Spinners took different times to spread globally, there are some similarities:
We conducted an online survey and received answers from 70 parents and non-parents across 10 European countries about their opinion on toy crazes like we have seen in the last couple of years. 56% of the answers came from parents while 44% were not parents.
The parents were more surprised about the craze around Fidget Spinners compared to Rainbow Loom Bands. Also more parents expected their children to ask for Fidget Spinners than that they ask for Rainbow Loom Bands.
Regarding whether parents felt like they were pressured into buying Fidget Spinners for their children, the majority gave similar responses:
“It's mostly down to peer pressure.”
“They sold spinners at school!”
“Yes, they even cried for it in the shop.”
“Not so much for the Loom Bands, but definitely for the Fidget spinners. We went to several places to find them.”
“Yes, they're desperate to join the craze!”
There have been some parents answered that they didn’t feel under pressure but their children were mostly either too young or in an age where they decide themselves how to spend their pocket money.
Asked for reasons why these toys spread so quickly the answers contain very similar opinions:
If we look at the answers from the non-parents only, it’s obvious that nearly everyone knows what Fidget Spinners are, while it is different for Rainbow Loom Bands.
The non-parents suggested similar reasons as to why the Fidget Spinners craze is so big at the moment:
“From my experience with similar toys when I was a child in the 90's, and my experience as a nanny, kids like small simple novelty ‘new’ toys that they can show to their friends and fiddle with when they are bored. I think they are popular because they aren't a task or a complicated game - they are mindless entertainment - it's easy.”
Toy crazes are no new phenomena. However, their global speed of dissemination has increased significantly in the recent past. This could be due to Social Media, especially YouTube, and an increasing globalisation and more rapid information sharing through the internet.
Toys where kids can invent creative styles and show it to peers to earn acknowledgement are sought after. Also, being fun to play with and challenging are other important factors. Ultimately, peer pressure and the desire to own these toys likely pose important factors for toy crazes as well.
From our data there aren’t differences between European countries visible. More responses would need to be analysed to differentiate better between the perception of toy crazes in different countries from Europe.
For our study we have gathered data from Google Trends and Google Adwords. For the Fidget Spinner data we have selected a weekly basis and selected the week with a Google Trend value of 100 in our infographic. Given the time span where Google searches for “Rainbow Looms/ Loom Bands” spiked in European countries was much longer, we selected the month with the Google Trend value of 100 in our infographic.
The online survey is based on a questionnaire addressed to parents and non-parents. The original questionnaire can be found here.
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