In the News

There's a Fan Club for Everyone and Everything

June 03, 2004


The number 47 has a fan club. So does the spray lubricant WD-40. And rats.

Fan clubs aren't just for sports teams and entertainers. They're also for things like Marshmallow Peeps.

These quirky fan clubs for just about anything "are about people wanting to mark out an idiosyncratic identity," said fan culture researcher Matt Hills. It's a way to establish their identities as unusual but in a positive sense, he says.

Eric Levine of Portland heads the 47 Society. About 260 members worldwide provide sightings of their favorite number on the Web site www.47.net/47society. "All taken in with a grin," Levine says.

The 47 mania began at Levine's alma mater, Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. According to legend, two 1964 summer grad students doing research on random numbers heard an advertisement for a medication that claimed to absorb "up to 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid." That same summer, a statistics professor showed students a parody of a mathematical "proof" demonstrating that all numbers are equal. The grad students decided that was their sign: All numbers equaled 47.

When Levine heard that story years later as a student, he was intrigued. He began noticing the number in publications, addresses, telephone numbers. "When I graduated, I thought, 'That's it, goodbye college, goodbye 47,' " he said.

However, "I realized fairly quickly that it kept following me around." The number 47, that is. For example: Levine met a young woman whose license plate contained the number 47; they're now married.

Levine is an English teacher at Cleveland High School, where students bring him 47s to post on a 47 board in his classroom. One of the contributions is a photo of a scoreboard tied at 47-47, Levine says.

This all makes sense to researcher Hills, author of "Fan Cultures" and a lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University in Wales. "It's an intensification of how we want to belong but remain an individual," he said.

Take the Rat Fan Club. Founded in 1992, it has about 450 dues-paying members worldwide who share a love of and admiration for the generally very unpopular rat.

"Rats need their fans, they need help, they need somebody to promote them and educate about them," said founder Debbie Ducommun of Chico, Calif., aka the Rat Lady.

As Ducommun pointed out, "Dogs look up to us, cats look down on us, rats are our equals."

She has 22 domesticated rats; each comes when called by name. They live in eight cages in her living room.

The fan club helps its sister organization, the Rat Assistance & Teaching Society, with fund-raising for rat education of pet care professionals. Right now fans are also waging a letter-writing campaign to the television show "Fear Factor," which uses rats to frighten contestants.

Other fan clubs admire products.

The colorful, spongy Marshmallow Peeps candy drew 16,000 members to a fan club begun in 1999, said Lauren Easterly, Peeps brand specialist for the Just Born candy company in Bethlehem, Pa.

At http://marshmallowpeeps.com there's a special area for fan club members.

"Our consumer relations department gets thousands of letters from fans professing their love for Peeps," Easterly said.

The Internet has permitted legions of fans to find one another easily -- groups such as the Donald Rumsfeld Fan Club at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rumsfeldfan. There, 293 members dedicated to the secretary of defense keep in touch daily by exchanging messages.

At http://fanclub.wd40.com, fans of the canned spray lubricant may leave their "Slick Stories," sign up for a weekly newsletter or even play "The WD-40 Spray Game!"

Bill Trumpfheller in San Diego keeps tabs on the company-run WD-40Fan Club and its 71,700 members. The club began in 2000, when the company asked customers to help compile a list of 2,000 uses for WD-40. About 350,000 entries poured in.

"The stories people told were fanatical," Trumpfheller said. "It's almost like the can itself is a rock star. People put it up on a pedestal."