It’s 1993. Tom Hays, a family friend, is holding a 6-inch length of white PVC pipe over my dining room table as we sit down for dinner. “I call it the ‘Bobbitt Guard!'” he says. Hays had purchased a truckload of pipe, printed out reams of gag labels, and was shopping the novelty around to local gas stations. The unfortunate John Bobbitt himself was only about 120 seconds into his 15 minutes of fame. I was convinced Hays would be rich.
While Tom Hays wasn’t the first man to ride the cresting wave of a pop culture trend, the Bobbitt Guard is representative of a colorful subset of trend marketing: parody products. From Garbage Pail Kids to Is Martha Stewart Living?, Clinton’s “La Monica” cigars to Bush playing cards, marketing by parody is a cash cow.
And no wonder. Lately, parody has gone into overdrive in American society. In the past five years, satiric media heavyweights like The Onion and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show have seen tremendous success (prompting one recent New York subway ad to ask, “When did the fake news become more important than the real news?”) Americans, seemingly more and more polarized by everything from each other’s politics to each other’s diets, are seeking comfort with the age-old balm of laughter. Today, as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ sweeps theaters across the country, the crew of Monty Python announced that it would be re-releasing The Life of Brian – their 1979 biblical satire – as “an antidote to all the hysteria about Mel’s movie.” Where there is controversy, there’s a buck to be made…
Monty Python are no strangers to parody, and they clearly understand the importance of timing; satire sells best when the target itself is hot. Simply put, the satir-ee does all the legwork. The Passion is a textbook case of smart piggyback buzz; Gibson spends $25 million promoting the film and making the public pay attention (complete with spin-off editions of the New Testament featuring images from the film), and Monty Python rides in on his coat tails.
Urban Outfitters is a brand that’s made a living off surfing controversy with parody products (and, sure, cheap clothes). Some gags have even gotten the company in trouble. The retailer dropped two of its more controversial products this year after being swept up in a media maelstrom. The first, a t-shirt proclaiming “Voting is for Old People,” was pulled after various political outfits, Harvard’s Institute of Politics among them, wagged their fingers at the company. While the t-shirt slogan was clearly a humorous nothing, aimed at youthful slackers disillusioned by the nation’s growing political fervor, its failure serves as something of a litmus test for today’s still-PC culture. On March 23, the company was apologizing again, canceling orders for Jesus Dress Up – a crucified Jesus figure packaged with an interchangeable magnetic ensemble – after a local television station in Pennsylvania began making noise about the product. The product’s creator still sells Jesus Dress Up through his web site.
Perhaps the point here is that parody products, though often of questionable taste, present an opportunity to the right entrepreneur. And nowadays, zeroing in on the right trend is easier than ever; one need look no further than the Internet for the Next Big Thing. Sites like Slashdot and Blogdex slice up our news, media, and culture into fascinating cross-sections, making it possible for the average surfer to track trends like a sociologist. Meanwhile, Google’s Zeitgeist lifts the novelty to a science, tracking dozens of metrics culled from its users’ searches. Heck, Zeitgeist’s charts and rankings practically serve up potential parody products for you. Look no further than February’s top news query, the thing Americans were Googling most (Janet Jackson) or last week’s second-fastest declining query (American Idol antistar William Hung). The possibilities are endless.