7 Fads You Won't Forget

What stops a short-lived sensation from becoming a long-term trend?

ByABC News
May 11, 2009, 7:01 AM

May 11, 2009— -- In pop culture, as in nature, what goes up must inevitably come down.

But what determines how long something stays at the top of the charts or the tips of our tongues? What separates a short-lived fad from a long-term trend?

Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, has a theory. Berger and colleague Gael Le Mens studied baby names in the United States and France over a 100-year period to understand how cultural practices and tastes catch on and then die out.

In a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, they revealed their findings: The faster names gained popularity, the faster they lost popularity. They also found that the names that caught on most quickly ended up being the least successful overall.

"People often think that catching on quickly is a good thing and will lead to greater success because it increases word-of-mouth and raises awareness. Our results actually show the exact opposite," Berger said. "Things that catch on too quickly are actually adopted by fewer people over their lifespan."

Berger said they chose baby names because the amount of available data lent itself to statistical analysis. But all cultural items, like music albums, fashion styles and toys, have some rate of adoption, which means that their findings could be applied to other domains as well, he said.

"People care about popularity and the meaning of consumption across a whole host of domains, so there is no reason to expect that adoption speed should not show a similar pattern," he said.

And, marketers take note, Berger's findings could have implications for you.

"People who want to ensure persistence and success of their products, cultural movements or styles should manage the 'adoption' process," he said. "By shepherding a consistent flow of adopters, rather than a huge spike, they will be more likely to ensure success."

Professional trend-spotters said Berger's research is interesting but simplifies how cultural taste works in the real world.