219. Wacky Packages.
Dec 13, 2008 at 12:17PM
jj

I lived with my grandparents for most of my childhood, and on our modest property sat a shed - that for some reason my grandfather called a ‘shanty’ - which I think is rural speak for a building that is a few steps below a shed on the building code chart. In and around this building was a collection of junk: everything from old encyclopedias and boxes of clothes, to sinks, old appliances and tools. This building represented everything that I hated at the time. Though wishing it would burn down, I was still drawn towards its contents. Once, while rummaging through this shed, I found a few stacks of cards that foreshadowed my career in design and advertising. I didn’t know it then, but I had found a small collection of Wacky Packages.

Wacky Packages are stickers that come in the form of cards – similar to baseball cards – that Topps released from 1967 through 1979, with periodic reruns through the 80’s and 2000’s. They were popular before I was born and when I found them, it seemed to me that they were from the 50’s or something. They felt old to a kid of ten years of age. Mainly, Wacky Paks parodied common household products; changing the logos, packaging and taglines to alter the meaning. Some were simply stupid. Some were gross. Some made political statements. And a few managed to be quite sophisticated in their messages. To a kid growing up in a fairly conservative (and somewhat isolated) environment, it felt like a gold-mine of alternative culture. I would study these cards and notice how the artists altered the names and logos - subtle tweaks in design – that became the framework for their communication. I believe I became interested in advertising at a young age, memorizing the jingles from many commercials (McDonald’s and Vick’s come to mind.) And I also believe I became interested in graphic design by discovering this wacky packaging.

I didn’t have a whole lot growing up, so I was pretty proud of my newfound collection of cards. I decided to take them to school to show them off. Everyone else at the time were collecting Garbage Pail Kids – which began as a single Wacky Pak idea – but I actually had something most of the kids had never seen before. Of course, you know what happened: one of my classmates stole the collection right out of my desk. I know who did it, remember his name and everything, though at the time I didn’t have the forensic evidence to prove it. Alas. (Nate Fails – if you are reading this and are innocent – I’m sorry.)

Fast forward 20+ years, and I finally discovered these cards on the internet by accident. I didn’t even know what they were called, but I remembered a few of them by sight and thought I would pass along this link – a gallery of Wacky Packages and pretty much THE source for any information regarding Wacky Paks. Now you can see where I first picked up on the power of design, packaging and advertising to communicate a brand message – a few decades before the word brand would become overused marketing jargon void of much meaning, and about a decade before I knew that I wanted to be an art director / designer.

What I find most interesting now, is that you can still usually tell which brands are being parodied without even reading the name. The color scheme and design still portrays the modern branding even though most products no longer look much like the original. It's interesting and underscores the point that sticking to a core design language can stand the test of time. They certainly were not taken seriously at the time. Here's an excerpt from the CNN article listed below, "Not that Topps, or more specifically illustrator Art Spiegelman and writer Jay Lynch -- goaded by Topps' Woody Gelman and Len Brown -- knew the import of the work. In the preface to the new book "Wacky Packages" (Abrams), a collection of the first seven series of the Topps cards, Spiegelman -- yes, the same Art Spiegelman who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Maus" -- remembers the creation of Wackies as being "a dream job," but something that would probably be forgotten. It was all done as Part of a Day's Work, much like the way early comic books were made: they certainly weren't made as art, they weren't sold as art, and they weren't thought of as art," he says in the book's introduction. "Wacky Packages just formed an island of subversive underground culture in the surrounding sea of junk."

Also of note, the 'shanty' that i spoke of? It eventually caught on fire and burned to the ground, well after I had left home for college in Virginia. A very late answer to prayer, though I can't help but wonder what other small treasures were caught up in the blaze.

Some background info:

Here’s a 1974 article from the NY Times.

And a 1973 article from The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

Here’s a 2004 ad for the rerun of the cards. (Which is fairly painful to watch.)

A CNN writer posted this article in August about the new coffee table book.

 

And a few of my favorites:

Here's one of the newer ones:

They've done a few ads too:

Now, Wacky Packages is also seling t-shirts here, which is a no-brainer given the retro potential.

 

Article originally appeared on Graphicology (http://www.graphicology.com/).
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