Ben King – BBC News Business Reporter
posted on 09/13/2021 11:28 AM
New toy in fashion for children (and adults), the pop-it is a piece of silicone covered with small bumps that can be pushed from side to side, making an oddly satisfying noise. It is a kind of “fidget toy” (toy for restlessness, in literal translation), in other words, an anti-stress toy to keep moving when your hands are restless.
Pop-its appeared seemingly out of nowhere last year in stores and on the internet, and this year they have become an international craze.
But what appears to be a fashion that emerged overnight is actually a forty-year-old toy. He owes his recent success to the influence of a North Carolina capuchin monkey, who has a large following on social media.
The original pop-it was the brainchild of two game designers: Theo and Ora Coster. They invented over 190 games, including Face to Face – a deduction game that has been translated into many languages around the world.
Theo was born in Amsterdam in 1928 and was a classmate of Anne Frank, author of the diary that has become one of the best-known accounts of the Nazi holocaust.
Theo survived the war living with a non-Jewish family and abandoning his Christian name, Morris Simon.
In 1955, he went to Israel on a motorcycle and ended up moving there, where he met his wife, Ora, who was an art teacher. Together they created the company Theora Design.
The duo began making objects for companies to give away, including an ice cream stick that also served as a toy toy. This brought in enough money to allow them to focus on game design.
The first pop-it had a tragic inspiration, when Ora’s sister, an artist, died of breast cancer in 1974. Ora said she had the idea in a dream.
“She said to my father: ‘Imagine a big field of breasts, lady’s breasts, in which you can push the nipple.’ She was very open, said what was on her mind, to anyone,” says Boaz Coster, son of Theo and Ora who now runs the company with his brother Gideon.
“She went up to him and said, make a nipple mat for you to squeeze from side to side. And he did just that.”
The duo produced a few prototypes, but the idea came to nothing, in part because the type of silicone that today’s pop-its are made from wasn’t widely available.
A few years ago, the brothers retrieved their parents’ idea, which had been shelved in the 1970s, and struck a deal with Foxmind, a Montreal gaming company.
The toy has been reworked as a game where players take turns pushing bubbles and trying to avoid pushing the last bubble.
Launched in 2014, the toy ended up being purchased by the American store Target in 2019.
“They started to sell a little more, but still nothing out of the ordinary, until someone created some videos on TikTok and Youtube”, says Boaz.
“There was a specific clip with a little monkey that presses on one side and then rotates and presses on the other side. It was the essence of the idea that our parents came up with. The video had 500 million views”, says Boaz.
The influencing monkey’s name was Gaitlyn Rae – a female, actually.
She lives in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, USA, with her tutors, Jessica Lacher, who owns a farm, and Paul Lacher, who runs an irrigation company.
“Someone got her a pop-it for her birthday,” Jessica said. “It was the first time we saw the toy. I don’t know if it was original. But then they started making all these other brands, and her fans kept sending and sending. We have box after box of pop-its.”
And so the craze was born.
You can now buy pop-its shaped like pineapples, dinosaurs, unicorns, pistols, Apple logos and even Peppa Pig logos – none of which are licensed by Foxmind or Theora Design.
“The sales estimate is 500 million to one billion copies,” says Boaz.
“But 99.99% are fake copies,” adds Gideon.
On Brazilian Amazon, top selling items are unlicensed, and official versions are hard to find, even if you type in your company name or official brands – Last One Lost and Go Pop!.
Amazon says it is working with Foxmind to protect its intellectual property rights, and the official products are listed more prominently on Amazon in the United States.
The BBC contacted some of the companies that sell unlicensed pop-its, but none wanted to talk about it.
Foxmind, in turn, is planning to regain part of this market with more innovative own designs. And they do what they can to stand up to the imitations.
While they made more money for the pirate manufacturers than they did for themselves, the brothers are marveling at how the family idea has been used with great creativity.
Pop-its have been used for a variety of purposes – from cake tins to helping people with autism.
“We’re not complaining,” says Boaz.
Now he died a few months ago, over 90 years old, happy that his invention has become a worldwide success after all these years.
She was buried in a cemetery in Tel Aviv, alongside her husband Theo, who had died two years earlier.
Their headstones are designed to mimic one of the couple’s most famous creations for gamers around the world – the Face to Face cards.
“To our great sadness, our father never saw pop-it become a fever,” says Boaz. “But I know, as a designer, that he would be very grateful.”
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