Today in Tedium: Perhaps it was inevitable that the man behind the Trapper Keeper would die, just as it is inevitable that we will all die, our mortal coil will leave us, with our innovations left behind, carrying us forward. But I wanted to dive into something I realized as I first learned about the news of E. Bryant Crutchfield’s passing last week—the fact that Mead appears to have brought the iconic Trapper Keeper back, at least for a moment, however short and insubstantial it may be. When I talked to it manufacturer ACCO Brands in 2018, it seemed like they had left the product for dead. Discontinuing things has been a hot topic of late, thanks to HBO Max removing things from its service seemingly without care or compassion for what has been left behind. Things go out of print all the time—if we just continued printing things forever, there wouldn’t be room for anything else. But I guess I wonder—should something like the Trapper Keeper always be there, on demand, just because I want it? Today’s Tedium talks about the nature of discontinuation and whether we need to get past that approach. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“When I first went to work, all school products were drab and boring. [Trapper Keepers were] more functional and more attractive, with oodles of choices—therefore fun to have. And I had a lot of fun making them fun!”
— E. Bryant Crutchfield, speaking to Mental Floss about the Trapper Keeper, a device that he developed. As we wrote in 2018, the Trapper Keeper has gone on and off the market over the years. At the time I wrote it, it was an “off market” period. Now we’re back “on market.”
The Trapper Keeper shows how some objects face a constant McRib effect
There was once a time when the Trapper Keeper was one of the most important products in the stationary aisle, a mashup of cardboard and polyvinyl that made for a tough container for school materials, even if its quirks proved more distracting to school teachers and administrators than Mead might have anticipated.
The Trapper Keeper reflects a certain era of product that is purely physical and well appreciated, but not truly timeless. Its design ties it to a very specific cultural era.
And add computers into the mix, and people just aren’t buying binders like they used to, even visually attractive ones with really cool images on the front. So it goes off the market, as I found in 2018.
But, on the other hand, people have fond memories of the object, which reminds a generation of people of going to school, even if it isn’t of a current era. And that leads it to be placed in specific settings, like Stranger Things, where the binders are prominently featured. That drives up interest, and suddenly demand swings the other way, so then Mead brings it back into play.
This push and pull of cultural nostalgia mixed with business reality reminds me of a lot of things—say, Nintendo’s tendency to repackage its games, or the music industry’s constant reissuing of albums on CD or vinyl—but it reminds me the most of the McRib, specifically the arbitrage at play when the sandwich appears on the market.
Yes, the arbitrage of the McRib, a theory first posited in 2011 in the legendary digital pages of The Awl, implied that whenever pork prices hit a certain low point, that was the time when McDonald’s put the sandwich back on the menu once again.
“With McDonald’s buying millions of pounds of the stuff, a 20 cent dip in the per pound price could make all the difference in the world,” author Willy Staley wrote. “McDonald’s has to keep the price of the McRib somewhat constant because it is a product, not a sandwich, and McDonald’s is a supply chain, not a chain of restaurants.”
While the Trapper Keeper likely has some external factors that lead it to recede and resurface every few years—after all, cardboard and plastic likely create some raw-material costs—the real point of arbitrage for an object like the Trapper is, perhaps, nostalgia itself.
Nostalgia is a resource that fades in and out along with broader trends, and if you continue to sell something and put it in stores at all times, we’re not in a position where we can really miss it. So, in many ways, just like the pigs in the McRib theory have to reach a financial low before the McRib is primed to maximize its return to the market, people need to forget about the Trapper Keeper for just long enough so they remember it again, particularly casual consumers who might not do something like look for one on eBay.
Those consumers will see the Trapper Keeper in stores or on the Mead website and realize, “Oh, I really missed this!”
This is a loop that we’re likely to see more often in the coming years as more objects gain a degree of nostalgia. The miniaturized console trend is a good example of this. With technology, the decision to reboot the Motorola Razr a few years back speaks to this tendency.
To me, that’s the real story of the Trapper Keeper in the 21st century—because it’s a nostalgic product, Mead (and its parent company, ACCO Brands) has to keep finding new ways to generate the appeal once again, or it will struggle to sell anything.
By only selling the well-remembered binders at specific times, Mead is trying to extract maximum value out of scarcity—even if that value is somewhat invented.
But that’s not the only reason a company might have to revive a dead product.
“Our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that positive customer feedback is always a signal of future success.”
— The authors of a 2015 study, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, regarding “harbingers of failure,” or people who have a tendency to buy products that are destined to fail. Fans of Pepsi AM who lament its loss every year, this is basically your wheelhouse.
The natural motivation the trademark system creates for periodically reviving dormant brands
This push-pull situation of supply and demand that defines our modern relationship with the Trapper Keeper raises deeper questions about the roles that corporations play with the things we like.
When something is gone and missed, how are we supposed to feel when it goes away, seemingly to never come back?
Very rarely, someone takes matters into their own hands. One of my favorite examples of businessmen being inventive is the guy whose company sells Hydrox cookies in the modern day, Ellia Kassoff. His innovation isn’t necessarily that he designs new things. It’s that he keeps them alive, turning misfit toys into objects that still have room for an audience.
Kassoff found a loophole in the way we think of products; basically, with the mergers and the acquisitions that happen over time, companies stop selling products as the value of those original brands are extinguished or no longer fit corporate strategies. Sometimes, those brands get trademarked and they lay dormant. Kassoff hated that, so he did the homework to revive them—something he did with his holding company Leaf Brands, itself a former brand that laid dormant after a merger. (Kassoff, a distant descendant of Sol S. Leaf, had a familial claim to the brand, as a 2014 Consumerist piece noted, though Hershey’s had left the brand for dead in the U.S.)
Legally, he can. If a trademark goes dormant—say if a firm like Mead decides not to bring back the Trapper Keeper at all, ever again—under U.S. law, anyone can do the work to cancel the trademark of a dormant, abandoned brand as long as the owner of that brand plans to do nothing with it, and (more importantly) you can figure out how to make it.
Which likely means that if Mead didn’t revive the Trapper Keeper brand every few years, it would potentially fall into the hands of someone who saw a trademark-cancellation opportunity.
An impassioned debate over guitar pedals shows just how messy trademark cancellation efforts can get.
Not all attempts to revive a trademark, Leaf Brands-style, work particularly well—a few years back, Origin Effects, the maker of a number of guitar effects pedals, found itself in a messy legal battle after it attempted to cancel the trademark of a rival firm, Revival Electric, claiming the firm had gone dormant. It had not—and that meant the battle had blown up on social media in a big way. Eventually, the two firms came to an agreement, but it was not without a bunch of drama.
On the other hand, it’s not like large corporations can’t get the advantages of these trademark cancellation attempts, either. Just recently, the shoe company Vans won a trademark-cancellation case against the holding firm Branded, LLC. What was up for debate? The literal term “old school,” which Vans convinced the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board had been abandoned.
If Leaf, for whatever reason, decides to stop selling Hydrox tomorrow, it could find itself facing a similar situation in a few years.
The number of shows in the DuMont Network library that were produced before the network went off the air in 1956. The network’s work was essentially discarded in the years after the network went off the air, destroying mastic amounts of creative work that might have had significant value in the modern day. Actress Edie Adams—whose husband and frequent screen partner, Ernie Kovacs, was one of DuMont’s biggest stars—told the Library of Congress in 1996 that a lawyer resolved a debate over who was going to manage the DuMont library by hiring a crew to take the old film reels and disposing of them in the water near the Statue of Liberty.
Why the discussion of reviving physical goods is different from that of creative works
So, we’ve talked a lot about the idea of nostalgia revival from the perspective of physical goods.
But what about creative works in which there may be no physical equivalent, like at TV show or video game? In recent weeks, this discussion of nostalgia and revival has opened up a brand new front, thanks to HBO Max and the decision by Warner Bros. Discovery to basically kill off or end production on a number of films and TV shows in various stages of completion.
If you wanted to, could you just go to trademark court tomorrow and say, ”I want to finish making Batgirl”? Probably not, unfortunately, because WBD still has ownerships of copyrights and other intellectual property, putting things in another realm entirely.
This is also the case for, say, content in books, which is why, if you want to look up information in a book that’s out of print, even if everyone involved in making that book is dead, it may still be under some dormant copyright, leading it to appear in “snippet view” within Google Books.
And with an overly stringent copyright law that lasts well beyond the point of practical use for all but the most successful of popular culture franchises, the likely realistic option for keeping creative works alive after a certain period will be piracy … at least until it falls out of copyright, Winnie the Pooh-style.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room for trademark in the copyright debate. If Leaf Brands somehow gained a hold of the Trapper Keeper trademark tomorrow and started selling the object, odds are, it would be able to sell the actual object, but it would not have ownership over the product’s famous artistic designs, which would fall under the realm of copyright. It would have to come up with new designs, while ensuring that its work doesn’t violate any copyrights elsewhere in the process.
Suffice it to say, a company still has a lot of control over the products they develop, even if they decide to take them off the market, or not to do anything with them in the end.
No invention or innovation, no matter how great, is guaranteed an audience. In fact, they might be guaranteed just the opposite—a spot in a dark closet, never to see the light of day, after the commercial value of a product has been spent.
Just as easily, Mead could keep the Trapper Keeper in its archive, despite its popular legacy, with no concern as to how the public will access the object, as it’s no longer a part of their current strategy.
E. Bryant Crutchfield developed an important part of the company’s historic legacy, but legacy means nothing in the modern day to come companies—after all, when was the last time you heard Apple talk about the Apple II, despite it being an essential building block for Apple as a company?
Sometimes companies aren’t wired to celebrate their nostalgia, especially when it seems like that value doesn’t match where they are now. Sometimes they are.
Sometimes they need a nudge to start selling the Trapper Keeper once again.
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