Trends and fads are different concepts

This article on trends and fads first appeared on the old in June, 2016.

Last week I talked about how Pokémon is not a fad, sticking it to 1990s adults and settling once and for all a debate no one has had for 20 years. I’m not content to leave it at that, though. I love righteously correcting errors, especially when the stakes are so low. Does it really matter whether we wield terms like “fad” and “trend” with precision? What is a fad? What is a trend? Well …

What is a trend?

Though similar and often conflated, fads and trends are mutually exclusive categories. It’s not a tricky distinction either, really. Fads are cultural phenomena with relatively little cultural impact beyond themselves (i.e. they are not influencers). Trends have more of a long-term effect on whatever field they’re a part of, consequences even.

The tricky part is determining how much cultural impact something has had – most of the time that’s not something you can tangibly quantify. Let’s look at Pokémon (again) as an example of something that is veritably not a fad. You could try to draw a link between its prominence and the emergence of similar franchises like Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh afterward, but there’s a list of problems associated with doing something like that. Namely,

  • it sort of assumes that Pokémon was created in a void, which it wasn’t;
  • its argument is based on Western notions of when these franchises “appeared on the scene” so-to-speak, which is very different from when they were actually created over in Japan, the country all three franchises originate from (very close together, by the way);
  • it doesn’t take into account what actually inspired those franchises (Tamagotchi for Digimon, and games for Yu-Gi-Oh, decidedly not Pokémon, which was itself inspired by insect collecting);
  • it doesn’t account for the vast differences between the three series;
  • as a corollary, it doesn’t explain how different a franchise can be and still count;
  • it ignores many franchises that are infinitely more similar to Pokémon such as Dragon Quest or Shin Megami Tensei, both of which predate it.

Here’s a more likely explanation. Inspired by the popularity of Pokémon, television executives, toy manufacturers and game publishers searched for other series that also revolved around monsters so they could cash in on the trend. Digimon and Yu-gi-oh were perfect candidates because of how different they are from Pokémon. Much better than blatant rip-offs like Robopon.

What we have here is a trend. Pokémon isn’t one, rather the concept of monster collecting is (especially monster-related anime). But if you look at the factors that influenced Pokémon and events that happened after it became a phenomenon, you can see the general form of a trend.

Essentially, a concept forms and slowly gains more appeal until it’s more or less ubiquitous. Its ubiquity is often realized in one particularly prominent instance of the trend. It declines over time, but its impact continues to be felt for a great deal of time afterward. Sometimes, though not always, the idea re-emerges in different ways years later. A lot of times the trend becomes a sort of genre. Monster collecting games are essentially a genre now.

Let’s compare that with a fad

The Pet Rock burst into public consciousness out of nowhere. It was wildly successful for a while, but it fizzled out when people got bored of looking at rocks in a box. People remember it as a funny novelty item with a certain sense of nostalgia, but it didn’t inspire any sort of imitators or similar products, and certainly not a whole genre of toys.

With such well defined differences between trends and fads, how could they ever be conflated? Well, like I mentioned, assessing something’s cultural influence is not easy, and it usually has to be done well after. How could people in 1999 tell that Pokémon wouldn’t end up a fad? In fairness, that’s a call they shouldn’t have been making at the time. It was popular to do so back then, though. It was almost a fad in its own right.

“Fad” is also a somewhat pejorative term. A lot of things get labelled fads because they’re divisive and people who dislike them want to put them down. For instance, wearing your pants low is often called a fad, and when people call it that they tend to do so with derision on their sleeve. In reality, few things could be more cleanly classified as a trend. Go into any trendy clothing store marketing to any gender and ask for low-cut jeans. The clerks will laugh as they tell you they’re all low-cut. People wear their pants low these days – it’s a trend.

[Editor’s note from the future: Well, they were all low cut in 2016. I’m pleased to announce that in the intervening four years clothing manufacturers have rediscovered the waist. A new trend has emerged.]

Take another look at my description of a trend. Usually it’s one instance of a trend that makes it big. Back to Pokémon: Most people in North America have probably not played a game from either the Dragon Quest or Shin Megami Tensei franchises. They wouldn’t really have a frame of reference for games like Pokémon. It erupted into the public consciousness in a similar way to most fads as far as most people in the United States or Canada were concerned. Unlike the Pet Rock, though, Pokémon evidently catered to a niche that hadn’t been catered to in the past. It continues to evolve (little Poké-pun for you there) as the niche does, and new franchises that cater to the same niche continue to emerge to this day (like Yo-kai Watch, a new favourite of mine [Editors note from the future: Its popularity has since waned significantly in North America.]). 

And finally, things are mislabelled as fads, not trends, because of linguistic reasons. Quite simply, the definition of a fad that I use isn’t the definition other folks use. Often the term is used to mean “something that was popular for a while, which suddenly became not popular.” Sure, that covers just about every fad I can think of, but it also comes to include trends.

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