Reviews > Culture

Planned obsolescence

Culture | Beanie Babies, Campbell Soup cans, and computers pass away as the grass

Issue: "The fall(en) TV season," Sept. 18, 1999

Beanie futures
Bye bye, Beanie Babies? Ty Inc. abruptly announced last week that "all Beanies will be retired" by the year 2000, leaving kids and collectors wondering about the future of the toys. The little toys sell for $4 or $5 but can sell for massive markups once they are "retired" and sought after by collectors. A single Beanie of a rare variety could move for $1,000. The market research firm NPD Group estimated that the Oak Brook, Ill., toymaker's revenue shot up from just $1.7 million in 1995 to $674 million by last year. So why kill off the cash cow? Perhaps Ty wants to quit while it's ahead. Interest in Beanie Babies has peaked and is starting to drop. So rather than slink into obscurity with the Ninja Turtles, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Rubik's Cubes, Beanies can get one last strong Christmas shopping season. With the toys' decline, the hot market stayed with the collectible Beanies, while the new, plentiful ones were losing ground to Pokémon and Star Wars. Retiring every toy makes the whole line valuable. It also allows Ty to start anew with a clean slate. Company president Ty Warner can launch a new generation of Beanies or make completely new toys with the familiar red tag. The end of the fad means the end of the strange stories about crazed people trying to build up their collections. A former Wisconsin bank president and his wife who allegedly embezzled millions of dollars apparently used a good chunk of the loot to buy Beanies. A California woman admitted using stolen credit card numbers to feed her habit. The strangest was the "Guns for Beanies" campaign sponsored last year by the Kankakee, Ill., police department. The toys themselves are innocuous and child-proof. As investments, who knows what will happen? But even if the Beanies are gone for good, they remain a major cultural signpost: The stock-market investment frenzy of the '90s invaded the playground. The thinking-things reformation
Who needs a PC when tiny computers can be stuffed inside your eyeglasses, your shoes, or even your tennis balls? That's what's coming down the road, according to When Things Start to Think by Neil Gershenfeld, who co-directs an MIT research group aptly named Things That Think. Mr. Gershenfeld likens this down-the-road era of pervasive computing-with low-cost computers bringing whatever people want whenever people want it while still protecting their privacy-to the Protestant Reformation. "Oppressive machines are as bad as oppressive churches," he writes. "Freedom of technological expression is as important as freedom of religious expression." Mr. Gershenfeld even envisions that one day people will hack the human genetic code to add features just as programmers upgrade software. For now we must deal with experiments like electronic ink, cups that tell coffee makers to hold the sugar, and VCRs that set their own clocks. But more is coming. Researchers know that the masses hate feeling enslaved to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, so new tricks will come to put the complicated parts in the background. So instead of one big PC with Intel on the inside and Microsoft on the outside, a home will have countless devices that do their jobs without disturbing anybody. For all this to work, computers must become cheap. Really cheap. Those cheap digital watches are barely the beginning. So are those cheap white rectangular sensors that protect clothes and CDs at the mall. If the electronic price tag on a bag of potato chips jacks up the product's price more than a few cents, the innovation isn't worth the lost sales. These revolutionary devices don't exist yet, but many assume they will as the Internet matures. In fact, much of the book is like an infomercial for MIT's research department. Nevertheless, the world Mr. Gershenfeld foresees will be the inverse of the Jetsons; computers will still be everywhere, but subtly kept in the background like clocks, plumbing, and air conditioning. Tossing out old cans
A great cultural icon that everyone grew up with is about to die: Say goodbye to the old-fashioned Campbell's Soup can. A new "contemporized" look is on its way to store shelves, changing the famous face on Chicken Noodle, Tomato, and Cream of Mushroom. The redesign features banners that split up the over 70 varieties into categories like "Fun Favorites," "Great For Cooking," and "98% Fat Free." That gold medallion originally won at the Paris Exposition in 1900 is headed north to the top of the can, just above the Campbell's logo. Added to the front will be something unavailable back when the first label was designed in 1898: photos of soup. And the red-and-white color scheme-inspired by the Cornell University football team-will still be around, only brighter. These changes first popped up in 1994, but now the last cans with the "classic look" start vanishing this month. Company brass held a ceremony in Pittsburgh, where a ceremonial last can was donated to the Andy Warhol Museum, dedicated to the hypemeister artist infamous for painting soup cans. Warhol supposedly ate Campbell's every day for 20 years and made more than 100 portraits and paintings of the now dying label. This was a postmodern blurring of high and low culture, saying that a familiar sight in the grocery story is just as much art as the Mona Lisa. Donating the last can to the museum is an ironic twist. But now, Warhol's art has become just as dated as the Mona Lisa. The difference is that his art, like his subject, is disposable. Why is the company, having achieved the merchandising dream of creating a universally recognized design, messing with its success? After all, the Tomato Soup label has been unaltered since 1942. The Campbell Soup Company says the new look makes the product a bit easier to find. Supermarkets expand to massive proportions, even in small towns, and endless soup selections beckon customers. Ergo, something more striking than nostalgia is needed to keep you buying the "M'm M'm Good" stuff.

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