An elastic obsession
by Aly Wisler, guest writer, and Kathleen Hallgren, editor; images courtesy of Chelsea Davenport
Livestrong wristbands at least give the illusion of helping Lance fight cancer. Watches tell the time. Bracelets, whether jeweled or woven, tend to hold some aesthetic value. But SillyBandz—the silicone rubber bands that hold the shape of an animal or object when not wrapped around a wrist—defy any simple explanation of function. “They are silly bands of rubber silliness that have no purpose in life except to make people of our age connect with our childhood,” says sophomore Noelani Kawashima.
These simple rubber bands have become the latest fad to sweep the nation. Made out of silicone, a mechanical press “die-molds” the bands into an expansive variety of shapes that retain their original form no matter how vigorously they are loved. But despite their simplicity, the story behind SillyBandz is a complicated one.
Enter Robert J. Croak, the forty-seven-year-old founder of the Toledo, Ohio based company responsible for the SillyBandz craze: Brainchild Products (BCP).
Croak, a Toledo native with a degree in marketing from Owens Community College, was the proprietor of Frankie’s Inner City Lounge, a Main Street rock club and bar. After Lance Armstrong popularized the silicone “Livestrong” bracelet, Croak seized the opportunity to make a buck and began selling custom “Frankie’s” silicone bracelets, as well as t-shirts, dog tags, and mugs. Despite the success of his “Frankie’s” merchandise, Croak’s professional history is by no means smooth or spotless. In 2002, the state of Ohio placed Croak on probation for signing the check of a business associate. In 2004, the government ordered him to pay back-taxes and penalties of about $45,000. Croak trivialized the forgery as a “technical violation of the law.” After serving his probation sentence, Croak found the control of his bar revoked. “As a result of this,” he says, “I chose to pursue bigger and better things.”
In 2007, Croak and the manager of the factory that produced his “Frankie’s” bracelets visited a trade show in China. While there, the manager spotted special “environmentally-friendly” rubber bands shaped as stretchy animals that were being sold in Japan as sustainable alternatives to regular rubber bands. “I liked the way they looked, and I thought if they were done correctly—[made] larger and thicker—they would make a great fashion accessory,” says Croak. “It’s like any entrepreneur: If you see something you like and have the capability to develop it differently, then the sky’s the limit. You know the Dyson vacuum guy who says in his commercial that he had 180 prototypes before he got it right? With SillyBandz, we got it right the first time.” Well done, Mr. Croak.
Because Brainchild Products is a private company, its sales figures are not available to the public. In a recent BusinessWeek magazine article, however, Sean McGowan—a toy industry analyst at Needham & Co.—estimated that a package of twenty-four bands, selling for between $4.95 and $6.95 in the U.S., would cost only a few nickels to produce at BCP’s factory in China. These figures put BCP’s profit margin at close to 75 percent. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Croak has stated that he would prefer to keep his marketing strategy a secret. “I’ll save that for a book deal, okay?” he says.
With children and teens everywhere gobbling up his product, SillyBandz have become one of the most popular kids’ fashion accessories. When the fad was growing, BCP shipped out twenty boxes a day; now that number is up to 1,500. According to Croak, 18,000 stores in twenty-five states now carry his wrist accessories. You can get a wide variety of designs, from soccer balls to giraffes to Justin Bieber. There are countless shapes to choose from, and many packs revolve around a theme. Never mind that their shapes are often indistinguishable. My sister gave me a “hot dog” this summer which I would have otherwise confused with Saturn, and sophomore Phoebe Parker-Shames swears that she saw a Female Power symbol, only to discover it was a duck foot.
“It’s just a trend, but I love [SillyBandz] because I worked at a summer camp and they bring kids together . . . except for the greedy ones,” says sophomore Carmen Rodi. Junior Becca Spiegel (who wears five SillyBandz animals on her wrist: a giraffe, a flamingo, a rhinoceros, an elephant, and a dove) had a similar experience. Spiegel’s parents sent her boxes of SillyBandz in care packages while she was a counselor at a summer camp. “They knew the kids loved them, and my parents thought it would be a good bonding thing,” she says. “Everyone enjoyed trading them, collecting all the different shapes. It was great at first but I eventually had to ban them from trading.” As is often the case with fads that inspire youth to try their hand in the market (think Pokémon on the playground, Pogs, or Beanie Babies) what started as fun and games ended in tears and trade embargoes.
Spiegel explained that there are certain desirable qualities that everyone looks for in a trade. “Color isn’t all that important, but no one wants a repeat of shapes they already have. There are some ‘rare’ ones—sparkly, tie-dyed or scented—that the kids really seek out.” Spiegel managed to discover a solution to the problem of repeating bands. “I have a friend who will make earrings out of them, and if you’re wearing them as earrings you want the shapes to be the same.”
SillyBandz are a must-have, especially for younger kids who still have the “all my friends at school are doing it” mentality. For college kids, the appeal is multifaceted; you can simultaneously relive the childish nature of these trends, appease a group of children, and adorn yourself with the gifts of younger siblings and campers.
Yet you have to wonder why exactly everyone chose this fad.
“SillyBandz are like yo-yos,” says sophomore Maia Wynn. “They were super cool in third grade and now you look back and you don’t know why.”
While the fad attracts millions, it confuses millions more. Why would anyone want to spend money on cheap rubber bands for their wrists? It’s just rubber. Nothing special.
Silly Bandz are not only baffling, but often times prove dangerous! This summer, CBS reported that children were losing circulation because of constricting silicone bands creeping further and further up their pudgy little arms. “My friend lost her circulation,” said a little girl named Claire. “She lost her circulation and her wrist was hanging.” It’s not unusual to see a tyke trotting about sporting so many Bandz he or she can no longer bend an elbow. Lessons learned, boys and girls: Beauty is pain, and popularity on the playground comes at a price.
As void of purpose or function as they may be, for now Silly Bandz have a tight grip around our wrists, our hearts, and—for better or for worse—our wallets.